Next generation brings hope
At a time when World War II veterans are less able to take an active part in the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association, or RSA, the baton is being taken up by younger returned and service members, as well as a rapidly growing number of the new associate members. Neil Ratley hits the road to discover how the southern RSAs stand today.
In the shadows of Southland's Takitimu Mountains, in a paddock on the outskirts of Ohai, one of the smallest RSAs meets on a Sunday.
Members raise a glass to the young men who left the district for distant lands to do their duty. Most are long gone, their photographs hanging on the walls a tangible link to the past for the RSA members sitting in the club today.
Ohai-Nightcaps RSA president Raymond Hunt and vice-president John Irvine admit there is concern about the long-term future of the small club and its 25 or so members.
The lack of young members is an issue, they agree.
The sun is shining in Bluff. Inside the Bluff Memorial RSA, vice- president Lindsay Key and RSA member Charlie Sargeant pour themselves a beer from a frosty jug.
"We had a funeral in here yesterday for a Vietnam veteran," Key tells me.
"It is a hard row to hoe for the RSAs today. There are not many returned veterans left from World War II and we are starting to lose the guys from Korea, Malay, Borneo and Vietnam."
On a drizzly evening in Riverton, eight RSA members sit around a table and share a beer and a laugh.
Beneath the varnished honour rolls and the watchful eyes of those sepia soldiers -synonymous with RSAs throughout the country - the group agrees on two things.
The old guard is dwindling but the RSA must find reinforcements to march into its next century.
Riverton RSA president Grant Ussher, a member who has not served in combat but whose family has a proud military history right back to the shores of Gallipoli, represents the kind of fresh troops needed to bolster the ranks.
"I don't have a military background but it's best summed up by the words we know so well, 'Lest we forget'," he says.
"The old boys are passing on and the RSA organisation is grappling with where to go from here on a local and national basis. But there is no doubt in my mind the RSA needs to be part of New Zealand's communities."
Ussher believes if every community had an RSA, the country would be a better place.
"With the values of courage, compassion, camaraderie and commitment at the heart of people's lives, it would be a bloody great place."
It is not only natural attrition of the returned servicemen and woman from the RSA's traditional member base posing a challenge to the organisation.
Tough economic times and increasing legislation surrounding clubs and licensed establishments are foes the RSA organisation faces.
During the past financial year the RSA experienced a decline in membership for the first time in three years, by 4000 members.
Several RSA clubs have had to move out of their longtime premises or amalgamate with other clubs to ensure survival.
At national headquarters, the RSA has acknowledged the organisation may have an image problem.
In the words of the national executive, the task of the RSA is to transform the perceptions some people may have of the organisation - from a place old blokes disappear into, to an organisation that stands for something that can play a more valuable role in today's society.
RSA chief executive Dr Stephen Clarke says it is about bringing RSAs to life in the wider community.
In the Gore RSA, a children's playroom has the latest video- game consoles and other activities, a section of the club houses memorabilia from past and ongoing conflicts, a bar services the needs of those with a thirst, and a restaurant restrained from displaying too much war-related material feeds diners.
Gore RSA secretary manager Steve Brinsdon says the premises has been set up to cater for the whole community. "The history and values of the RSA are here, but we are not just a place for returned servicemen and women. It's a hub where the whole family feels welcome," he says.
In Queenstown, the RSA is falling in line with the organisation's vision of the future and enjoying a revival.
Queenstown RSA president Dave Geddes says that, after an extended recess, a group of about 10 people met six years ago and restarted the organisation as a branch of the Dunedin RSA.
After striking out as an independent branch during the past year, Geddes says the RSA in Queenstown is growing.
"We want to make the Queenstown RSA the community's organisation of choice."
He says the RSA has to have a presence in New Zealand.
"The sacrifices made and those that continue to be made are too great for the RSA to disappear."
With 113,000 members, the RSA remains one of the largest member organisations in the country. It also continues to be an important welfare provider for returned servicemen and women and their families.
While the increasing popularity of Anzac Day, reported from the smallest RSA to the biggest in the region, is heartening.
Longtime Ohai-Nightcaps RSA member and official flag-raiser on April 25, Neville Carson says the Anzac Day service, in the shadows of the mountains, has grown in numbers - especially with the younger generation.
"It has reached the point I even had to get some lessons on how to raise the flag properly," he says, laughing.
RSA veterans say it is this growing attendance at memorial services such as Anzac Day and renewed interest in honouring and remembering the deeds of New Zealand's armed forces and, increasingly, emergency service members that bring hope for the future.
The Southland Times