Mufti VOL. 62 No. 1. April 2022

It has now been more than two years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused a tragic loss of human life worldwide, and presented an unprecedented challenge to public health, food systems, and the world of work — it has changed the way each of us relates to and navigates the world. The pandemic has necessarily inspired a new wave of innovations in every sector. How have Victoria’s RSL Sub-Branches coped over the past two years, and what are they doing now as we start to live with ‘COVID normal?’

Nhill RSL Sub-Branch

Situated within a rich wheat growing and sheep grazing district 373 km northwest of Melbourne is the town of Nhill. It is home to the Nhill RSL Sub-Branch, a fixture in the local community since 1919.

This vibrant regional Sub-Branch boasts 56 members, three of whom are WWII veterans, and has a deep and growing connection to the local community.

Thirty-six-year-old Luke Keiler and his wife Jennifer moved to Nhill in 2020. Originally from Queensland, they’d never been to Victoria, and chose this charming country town to make their home.

Nhill is such a strong community. I joined the CFA and the RSL and made loads of friends; we were absolutely welcomed into the community. We ended up buying a house, and now we have a daughter, Grace, aged one.”

"Moving here is the best thing we’ve ever done"

Luke Keiler

A veteran himself, Luke got a tap on the shoulder asking him to step up and become the Sub-Branch President in late 2021. The then Sub-Branch president and Vietnam veteran Henry Berry was retiring from the position at Nhill’s annual Remembrance Day Service after serving in the Sub-Branch for 21 years.

(Left) Nhill RSL Sub-Branch President, Luke Keiler. (Right) Former Nhill RSL Sub-Branch President, Henry Berry outside the Nhill RSL Sub-Branch building. (Centre) Photo of the Nhill main street by Lynton Brown, Provided by Hindmarsh Shire Council.

Henry had suffered a stroke 2021, and Luke Keiler, who served with the Royal Australian Engineers for 11 years, told Henry to yell out if he needed any help.

“I yelled out alright,” Henry said. “I asked Luke if he would be interested in being president of our Sub-Branch, and he said it would be an honour”.

For Luke the decision was easy: “I’m the only veteran from recent times in our community, so through my involvement with the RSL, children can learn there are still people serving in the armed forces.”

Despite a perceived decline in the size of regional RSL Victoria’s Sub-Branches, many in the Wimmera region have managed to retain, and even grow their membership.

"More people are joining our Sub-Branch. They may have had a father, grandmother or other relative who served, and they see the important role the RSL plays in the community."

Luke Keiler

In 2022, Luke plans to get schools and young people more involved in the Sub-Branch.

Mallacoota RSL Sub-Branch

Mallacoota at sunrise
Mallacoota at sunrise

On New Year’s Eve 2020, 4,000 people huddled under blood-red skies on the foreshore at Mallacoota, as apocalyptic images of the town, surrounded by raging bushfires and choked with dense smoke, were broadcast around the world.

Large sections of the town were lost during the fires, with 126 homes destroyed and many more damaged.

"RSL Sub-Branches across Victoria helped out during the bushfires; we were contacted with so many offers of help."

Mallacoota RSL Sub-Branch President Mark Tregellas

Navy LCM-8 and a LARC from HMAS Choules
A Royal Australian Navy LCM-8 and a LARC from HMAS Choules land on the beach to deliver supplies and equipment at Mallacoota, Victoria. Image courtesy of the Defence Force image library.

“This great support through the RSL network enabled us to provide desperately needed essentials such as firewood, fuel and groceries.”

Later that month, on 25 January, the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in Victoria.

A combination of bushfires and coronavirus has left Mallacoota RSL Sub-Branch “hanging on by a thread,” said Mark, who served four years in the First Commando Regiment, Second Company, in the 1980s.

"There has been a quintessential change in Mallacoota as a result of both calamities, including a decline in population."

Mark Tregellas

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of Australians have fled cities for regional postcodes, resulting in big increases in property values for many sea and tree-changer hotspots including Mallacoota.

“Regional migration has meant skyrocketing property prices in Mallacoota, with houses now in excess $600,000,” Mark said.

“This has displaced many locals: there are no rental properties available; currently 44 locals are on the waiting list. So, they have no choice but to move away. Consequently, the population has declined.

“These changes have also affected our Sub-Branch, which now has just 20 members.” There was no Dawn Service when Mark moved to Mallacoota in 2002.

Mark Tregellas conducting a Dawn Service at  Captain Stevenson’s Point Mallacoota.
Mark Tregellas conducting a Dawn Service at Captain Stevenson’s Point Mallacoota.

"We now have one of the best in Gippsland — pre COVID-19 our Dawn Service at beautiful Captain Stevenson’s Point attracted more and more people each year."

Mark Tregellas

In 2020, Mark livestreamed the ANZAC Day service on Facebook, and last year on a local radio station.

“This year I’m worried because I’m booked in for a knee replacement, so the ANZAC Day service may not happen,” he said.*

He intends to advertise within the local community for help so an important event can take place in this small, lovely town, which has been so ravaged over recent year.

ANZAC Day 2022 in Mallacoota

*Editor's note:

We are pleased to report that the appropriate commemoration of ANZAC Day in Mallacotta did go ahead this year.

In 2019-2020, HMAS Choules L100 assisted with the evacuation of residents under direct bushfire threat in the Gippsland town of Mallacoota. It was the biggest domestic sea evacuation in Australian history, formalised last year with the town being named the ship's ceremonial home port.

Pictures taken at the 2022 ANZAC Day Dawn Service in Mallacoota.

On ANZAC Day morning, 22 of the crew members who were involved with the evacuation returned for the Mallacoota RSL Sub-Branch Dawn Service, among them was Thomas Shearman from HMAS Choules, who told us; "The last time I looked out over this water it was on fire".

Thomas Shearman
Thomas Shearman

Coburg RSL Sub-Branch

Members of the Coburg RSL Sub-Branch,  including Michael Pianta (third from the left),  enjoying a drink together.
Members of the Coburg RSL Sub-Branch, including Michael Pianta (third from the left), enjoying a drink together.

The Coburg RSL Sub-Branch, situated in Sydney Road, is a popular live music venue. Before the pandemic, local bands playing acoustic, pop rock, country and western — and everything in-between — attracted up to 150 music lovers to the family-friendly venue

“Music and dancing have taken the biggest hit during the coronavirus pandemic,” Coburg Sub-Branch President Michael Pianta said.

Michael joined the Army in 2001, served in East Timor and Afghanistan, and was medically discharged in 2017. Now a solicitor, Michael joined the RSL soon after he left the Army, and has been President for the past five years.

A younger veteran, Michael, 40, brings a contemporary approach to his work at Coburg RSL Sub-Branch, which was first formed in 1918 and is Melbourne’s oldest continually operating Sub-Branch.

Throughout almost two years of COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, the committee was busy in their community, he said.

“We continually monitored the COVID-19 situation, and kept up to date with rules and requirements as they changed.”

"Since the start of the pandemic we’ve become more flexible, so that when COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns changed we were able to act quickly, and adapt to different welfare methods such as online food parcels that included delivery, as well as games, puzzles and books delivered to members during lockdowns."

Michael Pianta

“There was plenty of inter Sub-Branch support and using the RSL network for the likes of phone trees,” added Michael.

"Many RSL volunteers have helped out during the pandemic, staying in touch with members, teaching older people to use mobile phones for QR codes, and how to connect with Zoom meetings, online dance classes and yoga, and so on."

Michael Pianta

"We have a fairly large venue, and during the pandemic also offered outdoor spaces to the community for funerals, wakes and outdoor meetings."

Michael Pianta

Live music was cancelled for 18 months. But music once again fills the Coburg RSL Sub-Branch each weekend, and the venue is now booked by local musicians until at least June.

Local musicians The Jammers playing  at the Coburg RSL Sub-Branch.
Local musicians The Jammers playing at the Coburg RSL Sub-Branch.

“Coburg RSL is vibrant and energised, and membership is growing,” Michael said.

"There have been changes in the needs of veterans and the community in the 104 years since the Coburg Sub-Branch was founded, but our purpose stays true. We are here to support veterans and the community, and that legacy carries on."

Michael Pianta