The quips come quick and fast at 8am on Tuesdays when members of the Veterans Support Group arrive at the Launceston RSL club headquarters.
“Ah, hurry up, the snails will beat you,” one calls out to another.
“You better watch those navy blokes,” one offers as advice.
But the comments are all in jest, there’s a camaraderie here as the 15 men finish their coffees and pack gardening gear into their vehicles.
They break into three groups – each nicknamed with the areas they visit – and head out to tend to the gardens of elderly veterans and war widows.
It’s a mixed crew, veterans from the army, air force and navy are included, as well as a civilian helper, in what is Australia’s longest running veterans support group.
The group is led by James “Jimbo” Jones, who in January was selected as a recipient of a Medal of the Order of Australia for service to veterans and their families.
“It started in 1995 down at Legacy House when we found out some of the war widows were being ripped off,” Mr Jones said.
“So we decided to form a group to support the war widows and our veterans, but also to support ourselves.
“A lot of the blokes found it difficult to fit into the society after years of service and this group helps that, it gets them out into society and working together.”
Mr Jones said the mental health component of the group was very important.
In March the National Mental Health Commission presented its final report into a review of suicide and self-harm prevention services available to serving and ex-serving members of the Australian Defence Forces and their families.
It estimated the total population of Australians who are serving or have previously served in the ADF is about 710,000.
“The ADF population is specifically recruited and trained to be strong, tough, resilient and perseverant in the face of adversity,” the report said.
“In the context of active service, these are traits that are desirable and indeed essential.
“However, these same traits can present challenges in a civilian context, including in the management and prevention of mental illness, self-harm and suicidal ideation.”
Data in the report showed that suicide rates are lower among current serving ADF members than in the general population, but higher for former serving ADF members, particularly those under 30 years of age.
“The review heard that some aspects of the ADF – while potentially protective during service – can contribute to increased risk of suicide and mental ill-health post-service,” the report said.
“This appears to be particularly the case for people who are discharged unexpectedly or on the grounds of health problems.”
Mr Jones has previously told The Examiner that part of the satisfaction he gets from the veterans support group is knowing it has probably saved a life.
He said the format of the weekly get together is usually the same: meet for a cup of tea or coffee before heading out to do their work and then back to the RSL club rooms for lunch, “a bit of a chatter” and a couple of beers.
“It was a connection that was formed in the military, it is a completely different world,” Mr Jones said.
“Once you make friends in the military they are friends for life and it’s the same when you are out.
“You meet a stranger you don’t know and if he’s military you basically click together.”
Dennis Camplin joined the group when he finished working, once his disabilities after service were recognised.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do, so ... I decide to join it and have been here ever since,” he said.
“Basically we are all brothers and that’s formed out of the camaraderie.”
The friendship does not just stay in the group, it’s extended to the war widows and veterans who are helped with home maintenance.
“For some of these older people we might be the only people that they might see and they really enjoy our company, sometimes it’s difficult to get away from them when you've got to get onto the next lawn and they enjoy talking away,” Mr Camplin said.
“I worry sometimes with the old ladies, some of them are 92, they are on a frame and sometimes they will get up and be so excited they'll jump up and give you a hug.”
Allan “Strop” Cunningham said there was a bond of trust between the support group and the people they help.
“The back door is open, we can often walk in and make a cup of tea if we want to,” he said.
“It’s the same group basically so the widows gets to know our faces.
“They are not real worried about the lawn, one of the ladies can’t see anyway, she's nearly blind, it’s all about the company, she wouldn’t know what we have done.”
One of their regular clients is Beryl Sok, who had nothing but praise for the group of “young men”.
“I think they are wonderful, my husband was an army man too, so that's how I've come to get the boys to mow the lawns,” she said.
“They come about every three weeks and they are all lovely lads. I used to invite them inside and have a cuppa inside but now I can't manage it but I’ve made them a cake and some date scones.”
The group admits some of them are starting to “get on in age” and they are hoping to encourage some younger people to join them.
“We've got a few younger ones but we are looking for new people, men or women,” Mr Camplin said.
“We know how we have helped each other and we would like that to be passed onto younger members and particularly members of the defence forces.”
Mr Cunningham said a good feeling came from knowing you were helping others in the community.
“It’s more like a social group isn’t it, we do go out sometimes for a meal or go to a winery or brewery,” he said.
The group is supported by the Launceston RSL club, which offers storage for their gear, as well as $500 from the City of Launceston, which goes towards tip fees.
The tip fees are the “real killer” the group says, the same load of green waste can cost $14 in summer but more than $40 in winter because it is wet and weighs more.
If you would like to get involved or help the group out call Mr Jones on 0408 508 255 or Mr Cunningham on 0438 045 174.
- Lifeline 13 11 14