Lisa Owen: Thousands of New Zealanders, young and old, will rise early on Monday to take part in dawn parades up and down the country. However, there's disquiet amongst younger veterans – those who've served since Vietnam – that their deeds and their needs are often misunderstood, even ignored. Aaron Wood served in East Timor, Somalia and Afghanistan. He joins us now from Palmerston North. Good morning.
Aaron Wood: Morning, Lisa. How are you?
I'm well, thank you. It is Anzac weekend, so how would you say that we treat our younger veterans?
I'd say with apathy and indifference, for the most part.
And why do you think that is?
A lack of education, a lack of exposure to what they experience and what they've achieved. The focus, unfortunately, for too many years, has been solely on WWI, WWII and up to Vietnam. Post-1974, there's been very little effort put into explaining what New Zealand does overseas as a defence force and what its soldiers, sailors and airmen achieve.
So what do you think the impression is that people have about what these younger soldiers have been doing?
Well, the term that gets bandied around the most, of course, is 'peacekeeping', and that suggests that all soldiers do is walk around digging wells, etc, doing medical-type missions, throwing lollies to kids and doing the odd haka here and there, but nothing could be further from the truth, actually.
Do you think that older soldiers think that of some of the younger soldiers?
That is most certainly the case. It's very unfortunate in many ways. It's almost like the boarding school mentality where the first-year kids get strife from the second and third-year kids, etc. Same thing seems to happen at a lot of RSAs around the country. So we've heard anecdotally about a number of soldiers, sailors and airmen who've turned up to RSAs, even wearing their medals, and been told by older veterans or older members – not really sure if they're veterans, exactly – that they don't deserve to be wearing those medals, just treated with disdain, denigrated, etc.
I see you're wearing your medals this morning. Have you ever experienced anything like that?
Yes, I have, ironically, even when I was wearing my uniform. I was a guard commander at a Wairarapa RSA about 12 years ago for Anzac Day, so I commanded the guard around the cenotaph. And I had a bit of an altercation with the RSA parade commander, who basically looked down at my medals and said, 'Oh, they're just peacekeeping,' in a very sneery manner.
So what kind of impact does that have on you and other younger veterans when they experience that kind of attitude towards their service?
Well, you know, it's interesting that we have this issue at the moment – and it's always been an issue, it's not just suddenly arisen – with post-traumatic stress injury throughout the Defence Force. It's not necessarily prevalent – it doesn't just affect younger veterans, and it certainly doesn't affect all veterans. However, soldiers, sailors and airmen who are suffering from a variety of issues who have their service denigrated with 'all you did was peacekeeping,' for instance, and when, in actual fact, they've done and experienced far more and far worse things than could be imagined by someone who's ignorantly talking about peacekeeping, they don't feel worthy of being called a veteran or calling themselves a veteran, and they also don't feel worthy of seeking help and seeking assistance and support for whatever issues they might be suffering. So it has a very real impact.
So our groups that are meant to be looking after soldiers – the RSA, Veterans' Affairs, the Defence Force, even the Minister – are they doing right by these people?
Yes and no. It's quite a complicated answer to that question. There's certainly a number of well-meaning people in all those organisations, but there's also a number of people who are either incompetent or just plain dysfunctional. Veterans' Affairs, for instance, for many years, had a very bad reputation in the veterans community. But in the last two years, with the change in management, you have Jacki Couchman as the head, you have Meipara Poata as her principal advisor, and Pat Povey, who's been there for a few years as the case manager. Those three women have done an amazing job turning VANZ around – Veterans' Affairs – and really getting it to work for the support and welfare of veterans. The RSA—
So they're trying?
Oh, they're trying very hard, and they're making huge, huge gains. But having said that, VANZ had fallen quite far down the ladder, so they've got a wee way to make up from where they were to where they need to be.
You were going to mention the RSA? How are they doing?
Sorry, yeah. I mean, the RSA is an interesting organisation. From the outside, it looks like one homogenous group, but in actual fact, it's a number of semi-independent, almost semi-autonomous, clubs around the country with the national executive over the top. And whereas you might think the national executive, the chief executive and the president were able to dictate, almost, what they organisation does and which direction it goes in, you'll find it differs in action from RSA to RSA around the country. Some RSAs are very very good and proactive – Papanui RSA, Timbleton, Blenheim. Whakatane is excellent in engaging with younger veterans. Whanganui, Papakura. But there's a number that just aren't interested with engaging with the veterans. They're not really trying, and I've seen that first-hand.
So poppy money – people make donations – is the poppy money being fairly spread around?
Again, that's an interesting answer to that question, because each— basically you've got the national fund, for want of a better term, of the poppy fund, then each RSA, each individual RSA – 181 throughout the country – runs its own poppy fund as well. And how they run that poppy fund is entirely up to them. I've had some discussions with a number of RSAs in Auckland, for instance, who are very good at dispensing their poppy fund. They believe it's for the welfare of veterans and other members of the RSA. And I've heard anecdotally some other RSA are less interested in doing so. Lower Hutt, a very good RSA that we've worked with in dealing with an issue only a couple of weeks ago, are more than happy to support us and apply poppy fund money, which is basically public money, to issues of veterans' welfare. But other RSAs not far from Lower Hutt are not so interested.
All right, thank you so much for joining me this morning, Aaron. We appreciate your time.
Thanks very much, Lisa.
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