Looking to the future

'We can't let the RSA die just because we are gone'

Last updated 08:53 25/04/2013
NEIL RATLEY/Fairfax NZ

Afghanistan veteran Aaron Horrell, World War II veteran Fred Cooper and Otago-Southland RSA president John Longman look to the future.

Aaron Horrell
NEIL RATLEY/Fairfax NZ
JOIN UP: Afghanistan veteran Aaron Horrell is encouraging more recently returned soldiers to join the ranks of the RSA.
John Longman and Lex Noble
NEIL RATLEY/Fairfax NZ
FUTURE SAFE: Otago-Southland RSA president John Longman talks with Invercargill RSA president Lex Noble.

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The RSA is three years shy of its 100th birthday. It has a long history, but does it have a future? The organisation wants to remain relevant and carry the Anzac spirit forward in contemporary New Zealand. Neil Ratley looks into the crystal ball with some southern RSA members.

The RSAs will always survive, RSA Otago and Southland president John Longman believes.

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The RSAs were built on the sacrifices and experiences of wars from almost a century ago but the New Zealand men and women who have recently served, continue to serve and will have to serve in the future, means the RSA will not die, he says.

Belief the RSA is still relevant and has a future is widespread and firmly held by a cross-section of RSA members ranging from the remaining WWII veterans, modern service personnel and those members who have not served.

World War II veterans Fred Cooper and Wattie Thomas, long- serving RSA men, are buoyed by the swelling of numbers at Anzac Day services and the growing interest being shown by the younger generation for the past deeds of returned and service Kiwi men and women.

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"Our numbers [WWII] are not so great. If you look around the RSA, if you are lucky, you may see three or four WWII blokes," Cooper says.

"We can't let the RSA die just because we are gone."

In the face of dwindling numbers of WWII veterans and the decreasing numbers of veterans from Korea, Malay and Borneo and Vietnam, the RSA has opened its doors to associate members.

Longman says most RSAs are top-heavy with associate members and many of these associate members are in charge.

"The associate members are looking at the organisation from a different perspective," he says.

"Entrenched and outdated ideas are being modernised and the RSA no longer wants to only be a pub for the old guard, but a hub for families," he says.

Along with inviting members without military service to lead the RSA into the future, RSA leaders are ensuring all Kiwi men and women returning home from military and peacekeeping duties are welcomed home and invited into the organisation.

Longman says this is a move to make sure what happened in the past at RSAs, when many returning and service personnel were given a hard time by those who went before them, did not happen again.

"The RSA is now on the tarmac and at the docks when New Zealand men and women return from overseas," he says.

"We may not see all the modern soldiers rush in and join the RSA immediately because they may be starting families, setting up homes and be short on time.

"But when they do have a little more time they know the RSA will be a place they and their families are welcome."

Longman believes the returned men and women from East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan will come to the fore in 10 to 15 years time.

In the Gore RSA, East Timor and Afghanistan returned soldier Aaron Horrell hands his young child to his partner.

He says it is up to service men and women of his generation to step up and take the RSA forward.

Younger generations of soldiers need to start joining the RSA to combat the growing trend of amalgamations with other organisations and, in some cases, closures, Horrell says.

"With today's military primarily focussed on peacekeeping there may be a perception that younger generations haven't served their country in the way their grandfathers did," he says.

"But this is not true. Anyone who puts on a uniform is showing they are prepared to pay the ultimate sacrifice."

He is confident there are enough young returned service men and women to help keep the RSAs going with the help of associate members coupled with a willingness for the organisation to adapt.

Queenstown RSA president Dave Geddes says RSAs have to adapt to the times to survive and thrive.

Those that don't, won't have a future, he says.

Modernising and upgrading facilities, adopting a commercial business plan and catering for families are some of the goals for his RSA.

"In a competitive tourist market, we want the Queenstown RSA to be the place the community heads to," he says.

The Riversdale-Waikaia RSA, which is a sub-branch of the Gore RSA, has been singled out as an example of a club growing in membership.

Treasurer Don Mackay says the RSA's success is down to a number of reasons.

"We have attracted associate members from the community and we have an increasing presence in the community through several projects."

He says to march into the future, RSAs need to modernise, become relevant and instead of relying solely on iconic memorial items of the past, incorporate the stories of today and tomorrow's servicemen and women.

There is a place in the RSA for honouring the past, present and future, Mackay says.

Sitting beneath an exhibition of striking coloured images from Aaron Horrell's tour of duty in Afghanistan, it is perhaps fitting that Fred Cooper, who returned from his war 67 years ago, sees a great future for the RSA.

That future must lie with associate members and modern returned and service members who will carry on the ideals and spirit of the organisation, he says.

"It is through these members that the aims and objectives of the RSA will continue and I envisage in another 100 years the RSA organisation will still be going," he says.

- The Southland Times

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