League of comrades
RSL PROVIDES INVALUABLE HELP FOR RETURNED SOLDIERS
MATESHIP and camaraderie are the biggest things the Returned and Services League (RSL) can offer veterans with their transition to civilian life, according to Digger Cleak.
He knows because he sought out the service himself for help with his own struggles after his time in the Royal Australian Navy.
The current Cockburn RSL president, one of 170,000 RSL members in Australia on the eve of its 100th anniversary, admits he did not realise how much war had changed him during his service because he was surrounded by his “army brothers” who were always there to support.
But it is unsurprising when you consider exactly what he and other veterans have experienced on the battlefield.
One of those moments happened in the early hours of June 17, 1968, and although it was close to five decades ago, Mr Cleak has little trouble recounting what happened.
It was just after 3am and HMAS Hobart was holding surveillance missions around Tiger Island after reports of North Vietnamese helicopter activity.
On that hot night, Mr Cleak could not see anything and did his best to keep cool.
In an instant that all changed and the Hobart was “lit up like a Christmas tree” after a plane fired a missile at the ship.
Mr Cleak’s crewmate, an 18year-old named Raymond John Butterworth, was killed.
The plane doubled back for a second pass, firing more missiles.
That time West Australian Raymond Henry Hunt was killed and more were injured. Mr Cleak fired from the mounted gun he was manning. He missed but did enough to ensure the plane was warned off.
He survived but it would not be the last time missiles and bullets were directed his way.
“There are lots of other incidents like this,” Mr Cleak told the Gazette last week.
“You brush these things off; you laugh. It’s not until after, when the adrenaline is gone, that you realise what has happened.”
Mr Cleak spent 20 years in the Royal Australian Navy – nine years in the fleet in the gunnery section, beginning in 1961, and a further 11 years with the Naval Police.
When he set sail for Vietnam he was married with a young family, including a daughter barely a month old.
When he returned, he had changed.
“I would get angry at the drop of a hat,” he said.
“It would be an outburst of anger without really knowing where it came from.
“Even today if someone drops something large behind me I jump.”
He admitted his behaviour cost him his first marriage.
Mr Cleak sought professional help and re-married his “rock” Kay.
He also found support in the Returned and Services League and is now president of the Cockburn RSL.
Mr Cleak said he was attracted to the RSL “because it’s all about mates”.
He encouraged others to take up the companionship.
“Some people need help; they need support,” he said.
“What we do is listen. Veterans are very good at listening.
“Many want to tell their story. We wait until they’re comfortable enough to do that. We’re not suggesting we do the work of professionals, but we’re there to help where we can.”
This year marks 100 years since the RSL was founded.
RSLWA president Graham Edwards said hundreds of returned soldiers received welfare and advocacy support every year from the RSL and its 1200 sub-branches throughout Australia.
“There is no doubt that welfare and advocacy services are of paramount importance and dozens of volunteers in WA provide this service,” he said.
“But we should not ignore the importance of commemorating those who have served and fallen, and this year the RSL in WA will hold more than 110 services on Anzac Day.”
Mr Cleak and his team will again host Cockburn’s Anzac Day services at the Memorial Hall in Hamilton Hill.
“Veterans, who are the heart and soul of the RSL, appreciate and applaud the local communities who show their gratitude by attending the Anzac Day services in ever-increasing numbers,” he said.
Mates for life: Digger and Kay Cleak with Tiny Small, Arthur Stanton and Ray See in the background.
Tiny Small, Arthur Stanton and Kay Cleak with Digger Cleak and Ray See.