DIGGER CLEAK can’t see it coming.
It’s 3am and pitch black on the South China Sea.
But he knows it’s there; his headset crackles into life with coordinates and an order to fire.
He lets off three rounds from the forward turret. They miss the mark.
The plane drops a missile and HMAS Hobart is hit. One dead, two injured.
The plane circles and drops two more missiles.
Fire rages aboard. More dead. More wounded.
Terrified screams and shouted orders ring in gunner Cleak’s ear. Training kicks in and he fires five more rounds, scaring off the jet. Lives are saved.
It is Vietnam, June 17, 1968.
A long time ago.
“Most Vietnam vets if they get more than four hours of continuous sleep a night, they’re incredibly lucky,” Mr Cleak tells the Herald, describing how the scene plays over and over in his head, a symptom of his post-traumatic stress disorder. To keep the thoughts at bay during the day he makes sure idle moments are few and far between.
That’s how he ended up president of Cockburn RSL.
Recently the sub-branch has undergone a transformation. In a concerted effort it’s ditched the failed “tough it out” approach to mental health and is tackling it head on. It has a counsellor and support workers who help veterans deal with the bureaucracy that can surround pensions.
Even more importantly, it’s reaching out to younger veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor: they’ve been in the national media with concerns their trauma is too often going untreated—which is exactly what happened to veterans from past conflicts.
“We open our arms to all veterans, particularly down here at Cockburn,” Mr Cleak says.
He says, in response to our noting the RSL isn’t particularly known as a strong mental health advocate, that the progress being made in WA isn’t generally matched by the organisation’s eastern states counterparts.
“If you go into a local sub-branch over there, some older veterans would say ‘you reckon that’s a war, let me tell you about a real war’. You’re never made to feel welcome. It’s about protecting your turf,” he says.
He also sent a broadside at the pokies culture that’s overtaken the eastern states clubs.
“Over there the RSL is more interested in the dollar. They tried to change the name to ‘The League’—that could be soccer, rugby, anything.
“The RSL name is a brand that is important to our military history,” Mr Cleak says.
At Cockburn, no-one asks about people’s service until they’re ready to open up: it’s simply there to provide camraderie, a sympathetic ear and perhaps a little nudge to not be embarrassed about seeking help.
Mr Cleak concedes he’s had limited success so far, with just two younger veterans signing up. One of them, Michael Osenbaugh, says it’s transformed his life.
For a year he couldn’t leave his house. He’d been medically discharged in 2010 after serving in Iraq and East Timor with the sixth battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment.
“I got into work and had a good job, well paid, and things were going fine for a few months,” he says. “But then I was working and my mind would suddenly go empty and clear of my duties and I’d start thinking about the army.”
The young man had first dreamed of joining up while in short pants at Atwell primary, driven by a desire to serve his country. His medical discharge shattered his confidence: “I had no pride and I was full of anxiety and rage. I had to leave for the safety of others.”
He says he hit rock bottom when two close mates died in Iraq. He knows he probably couldn’t have done anything—but there’s always the question. “I’ve got a lot of survival skills,” he says.
“I was being a slob on the couch, but one day I said to myself ‘you can’t live like this, you need help’.
Since joining the RSL he hasn’t looked back. He now volunteers at the local SES, fire brigade, the WA Army Museum in Fremantle, sits on the RSL committee and every year returns to Atwell primary to tell students about his experiences. He doesn’t go into gruesome detail, but says he definitely lets kids know there’s a downside to military service.
The Cockburn sub-branch has put out the call for younger veterans (apparently there’s a big contingent of serving and discharged Navy personnel living in the area) to join in this year’s Anzac parade, where they’ll march just behind the old-timers.
The day starts with a 5.45am dawn service at the memorial hall on the corner of Carrington Street and Rockingham Road in Hamilton Hill
Then the troops will muster for the parade in the sub-branch’s carpark on Frederick Road at 9.45am.
by STEVE GRANT