By Eamon Hale
Most Australians have a fixed idea of what a “veteran” is. With images of Anzac Day marches and dawn services in mind they see veterans as elderly and male. But the veterans of 2021 are more likely to be in their 30s or 40s and aren’t necessarily male.
Today’s veterans – many of whom are uncomfortable with the term “veteran” – are quiet professionals, volunteering to serve in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) with careers spanning from four to 40 years.
They are the most deployed generation since the Second World War and there are far more of them in the Australian community than people seem to realise.
Our oldest veterans are now over 100 years old and served in the 1940s and 1950s. They’re the “diggers” who readily come to mind for the majority of the Australian public when they think of veterans.
But since the Vietnam War, the face of Australian veterans has changed significantly, as has the definition of what constitutes a veteran. Historically the term “veteran” was limited to those who had served in the Army, Navy or Air Force overseas in wartime, but the definition has more recently been broadened to anyone who is serving or has served in the ADF.
This, alongside an unprecedented number of deployments, has led to a significant increase and change to the face of Australian veterans.
The past 30 years have been an extraordinarily busy time for the ADF, with more new veterans than at any time since the Second World. Of the more recent deployments since the 1990s, 1500 Australians served in Somalia, 3500 in Bougainville, more than 40,000 in East Timor, 17,000 in Iraq and 7000 in the Solomon Islands (including a significant number of Reservists), while the 20-year ongoing war in Afghanistan has seen some 30,000 of the younger generation of veterans conduct operations in that country.
The ADF as a professional military force
These deployments have often been hard, challenging and pushed our men and women to their limits. While casualties have not been on the scale of previous conflicts, they have been significant due to the smaller scale of the groups involved in combat.
By comparison, approximately 50,000 Australians served in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. The youngest of those who served in Vietnam are now 70 years old. While many who served during the Vietnam era were volunteers, they served alongside National Servicemen: around 280,000 Australian men did two years of compulsory service as “Nashos”.
Since 1972 all Australians who have served in the ADF have been volunteers. Those who have deployed to more recent conflicts have reflected this professional military force, with servicemen and women signing up for a minimum of four years.
While historically Australian veterans were almost exclusively male, the younger and contemporary generation under the age of 50 is made of a comparatively large number of women who volunteered to serve and have seen significant operational deployments. This is at odds with the leaders of the veteran community, who are overwhelmingly male and over the age of 70. This leadership appears unable, and at times unwilling, to relate to the younger generation.
Australian veterans are a proud group, but there is a lack of unity in their leadership and direction.
Younger and contemporary veterans, volunteers who chose to serve as professional soldiers, sailors and airmen, have often deployed multiple times, are led by the Vietnam-era generation, with the majority of those leaders being men who were conscripted under National Service, serving two years in the 1960s and 1970s.
Their priorities are different and there is a disconnect between what matters to those who are at very different stages of life.
Younger and contemporary veterans are concerned with the suicide epidemic among their veteran peers, transition services (education, employment and medical support) for those leaving defence, and the pay and conditions of those who continue to serve. With seemingly little in common, the poor performance of the federal Department of Veterans’ Affairs is one issue that unites all veterans.
While it is right for the Australian public and media to be concerned for the welfare of elderly veterans, there must be an acknowledgement that the majority of Australian veterans in 2021 are no longer older men.
The Australian veteran has changed significantly in the past 30 years and the men and women who now make up the majority of the veteran community deserve a voice and representation. These quiet professionals have fought hard for Australia and it is important that we acknowledge their service.
Eamon Hale is the Vice President of the Hawthorn RSL Sub-branch in Victoria,
having served in the Australian Army as a cavalryman for 16 years.
Eamon is a regular contributor to Australian Veteran News. Connect with him on twitter: @eamhale
Hawthorn RSL is the largest traditional Sub Branch in Victoria, with 230 members,
the majority of whom are post-Vietnam veterans.
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