**Sensitive topics: death, mental health, substance abuse**
*Although willing to be photographed, RSL Victoria, has decided to omit some surnames to protect the identities of some of those involved.
Photography: Robert Blackburn
The family of a veteran has come forward to thank the RSL for giving their relative dignity in his dying days.
Dale is the first cousin of veteran Nathan, who passed away in April this year aged 41.
"Without the RSL, I’d hate to think what the end of his time would have looked like."
Ongoing family troubles meant the cousins had lost contact for over ten years.
“The RSL tended to him when his own family couldn’t.”
When Nathan’s passing came to Dale’s attention, he put feelers out to a connection he had at the Warragul RSL Sub-Branch, hopeful it would lead him to some much-needed answers.
In mid-2022, the social worker who supported Nathan identified he was a veteran and contacted the Warragal RSL Sub-Branch, where the case got the attention of the Sub-Branch President, Ben Vahland.
Ben remembered how Nathan, who briefly served with the Royal Australian Air Force, had tried to diminish his own service.
"The first conversation I had with him I said, ‘Mate, you are a veteran. It doesn’t matter how long you served, or if it was overseas, on the front line or whether you sat at a desk during your service."
Nathan had significant physical and mental health issues, including cancer and alcoholism.
Ben, who served with the Royal Australian Navy and is a current serving police officer, said Nathan's living conditions were probably the worst he had ever seen.
“His caravan was leaking, so there was rising damp, black mould throughout, his bed was wet. I remember Nathan telling me it was like water torture because of the constant drips onto him.”
A fall while getting from his caravan to the toilet block landed Nathan in hospital with a leg and head injury.
“When I first laid eyes on him in the hospital, he was looking really rough, he was in a rough state.”
Ben made him a promise.
"I said, 'Mate, you’re not going back to that caravan. No matter what happens, I’m not sending you back there. We will look after you.'"
He said he could see an immediate sense of relief wash over Nathan.
With Nathan’s discharge from hospital looming, Ben swung into action. He and his team of Sub-Branch staff and volunteers had just a week or two to organise accommodation.
“This was almost unchartered territory for us down here at the Warragul RSL, we haven’t come across homelessness to a great degree. We’ve supported some veterans with various needs, but nothing as complex as this.”
"As a small RSL, we pride ourselves on looking after our members. We’re very focused on welfare, support, camaraderie, all those sorts of things, but we didn’t have all the answers."
Collaboration was critical in progressing Nathan’s care. Ben reached out to RSL Victoria’s veteran support services, who provided financial assistance and connected Ben with ex-service organisation Open Arms to provide Nathan with mental health support.
Nathan was initially moved into short-stay accommodation, and his team of carers made sure he was looked after, had regular checks and provided all his food requirements.
The tight rental market made it challenging to find somewhere long-term for him, a problem compounded by Nathan’s own financial challenges and circumstances.
As a result, Warragul RSL took responsibility and rented a unit for him in their name.
“We were rapt RSL Victoria were able to fund some whitegoods for Nathan because he had absolutely nothing or what he did have was water damaged.”
Warragul RSL also supplied cooking utensils and fresh clothes.
Nathan’s new home was a short walk to the Sub-Branch, a game changer for what was once a life lived in isolation.
"When he settled in, he ended up coming down to the RSL on several occasions. We’d go and pick him up and bring him to our social nights, and he got to know a few people, he felt a part of it, he really looked forward to it. It was something he hadn’t had for a very long time."
It took a team of people to care for and support Nathan, including Ben’s father.
“Because of my workload, I got my dad who is a member of our RSL to visit him multiple times a week. He would take him shopping, or to appointments. Over the six months they built up an amazing bond, they became good mates - kind of like a father-son thing.”
Even for the most toughened and experienced in this line of work, like Ben, there’s no denying that Nathan had an impact on those who surrounded him, so when he passed, there was a natural grief.
"There was a level of devastation. It was sad, especially as it was somebody that you became so close to. The closer you get to people, the more it hurts, the more it impacts you and as an empathetic person, it tugs at my heartstrings even more. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t impact me."
Not only did a team of people pull together over months and months to ensure Nathan’s health and wellbeing, but they continued help however they could even after he died.
Ben said he never had to ask his dedicated RSL team twice.
“I would love to acknowledge the help and support of Kylie, Ash, Mark, John, Bob, Lynn, Dave and my dad Bill. They were all instrumental in providing the help and support that Nathan needed at that time. Their dedication to helping Veterans in need is exemplary and makes me very proud to be the leader of our team.”
"We had to do some things that you don’t necessarily think you’re ever going to have to do as a volunteer. There were quite a few of us that were hands on the ground that went to clean and all sorts of other things in the aftermath."
Grappling with his own guilt and embarrassment, Nathan’s cousin Dale is undoubtedly grateful for the RSL and what it did for his family member.
He said knowing Nathan was surrounded by love and care is of solace.
"People that barely knew him were going above and beyond to help him. All the stories I’ve heard…so that’s why even though we were disconnected from him, I feel it’s appropriate to say thank you. Without the RSL, I hate to think what the end of his time would have looked like."
While immensely saddened by the tragic end, Ben has reflected on the positivity that came about from a man who touched lives in the most unusual way.
“I’m so proud of what we achieved and what we did for him. I guess that we were able to give him the end of his life that was comfortable and dignified.”
With Dale coming forward, a gathering was organised to thank those who cared for Nathan until the very end.
Dale shared photos and videos of his cousin in his healthier and happier days, in the hope of bringing some catharsis to those who were closely involved in his care.
As part of his gratitude, Dale has also donated to the RSL – a valuable way of helping the RSL continue its chartable work.
As the Poppy Appeal rolls around, Ben hopes Nathan’s story strikes a chord.
"When you are sitting there in the cold or in the rain fundraising for the ANZAC or Poppy Appeal, selling badges, selling poppies, taking donations, or making a donation, this is what it’s for – supporting veterans in times of need."
Support is Available
If this article has raised any concerns for you, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you are a current or ex-service member of the ADF or a family member of a veteran, you can access free and confidential 24/7 support from Open Arms — Veterans & Families Counselling on 1800 011 046.
If you have other support needs, you can reach out to your closest RSL Sub-Branch or contact RSL Victoria’s Veteran Central service on 1300 MILVET (1300 645 838).