Photography: RSL Victoria

RAAF veteran Michael Apap lifts his bow and arrow to take aim at the target ahead, and in between shots, he mingles with others, while his son Lachlan and stepdaughter Harriette are in sight also socialising and learning a new skill.

They’re regulars at RSL Active events following Michael’s challenging medical discharge after almost 20 years of service. RSL Active provides a range of activities and events for the younger veteran community to connect with each other and improve physical and mental health. “RSL Active has been an introduction back into the real world, back into socialising and it’s really nice because of the incorporation with family as well.”

Michael craved a fulfilling career, which he didn’t get from his various jobs after finishing school. The RAAF piqued his interest and after chatting with a relative in the Air Force, who jokingly told him not to join the army, Michael enlisted in 1998. “It was just something I thought I’d be able to really kind of get that sort of job satisfaction and it didn’t fail.”

With an all-round rewarding career in the RAAF, Michael’s pinnacle was his three month deployment to Iraq. “You basically did 12 on, 12 off. It wasn’t like you had a recreational place to go chill on weekends. It was just your work. You worked flat out and we were working with the US Air Force and we were doing all their aircraft. I don’t even know the amount of cargo we loaded and unloaded. It was just monumental.”

His homecoming was an emotional one. “I remember how happy I was to come home. I think I had a tear in my eye when I was on the plane and I knew we were coming into Western Australia and just sort of go, thank God.”

As his final few years with the RAAF came around, Michael’s mental health started to suffer, and a series of “quick fixes” to get him back on the job were not long-term solutions. The next challenge came when he was medically discharged. “I wouldn’t call it an easy transition, probably a loss of identity and I wasn’t very well either and didn’t know how I could fit in and how it would work.”

Over the last three years, Michael has spent time investing in his mental health and wellbeing. “I feel blessed in a way to be given the opportunity to be able to focus on myself, without having a time frame to heal, to heal from my discharge, as in that grief associated with not really being ready to go, but I think it happened for a reason.”

A big part of Michael’s transition has been his involvement with RSL Active – to socialise with people he has an often unspoken but shared bond. “It’s stress free, and you know, nobody is talking shop…we all just know that everyone here has served in some way or another.”

By all accounts, the Michael at discharge is a shadow of the man he is now. “It came to a point where I felt like I’d nearly lost everything, to having everything I need – my family, my health.”