When Katie Reaper visited the Torquay RSL in January last year to make a financial contribution, she had no idea handing over a small sum of $35 to a group of retirees would leave her feeling inspired to drive change in the community.
The ex-serving Royal Australian Air Force veteran moved to Torquay three years ago after a successful career in the defence force and later, a senior role at Netball Victoria.
Katie was 20 when she was flown to Iraq shortly after the horrifying September 11 terror attacks that left the people of the United States in a state of shock and grief.
“It was just a matter of time before Australia was called up,” the 36-year-old Torquay mum recalls.
“I got the call up, went and did the training. You’re sitting around with your clothes and your trunk ready to go and you get a call up and you know, you’re going on Saturday – this is the Thursday night.
“My dad came over to say goodbye, my mum couldn’t do it, she was too upset. I went over to the Middle East for four months.”
Working as a communications and IT specialist in Iraq during a dangerous period of invasion, Katie remembers feeling “very comfortable”.
The determined and confident woman from Port Lincoln (South Australia) says she was most concerned about leaving the comforts of familiarity and entering the unknown.
“You’re in the hype of the moment.
“I was young and I was excited. I think it’s when you get a bit older and you reflect on the situation, and you go, you know at the eight-week mark I had to ring my parents and tell them ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to ring you again’,” she says.
Returning home without any signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – a common mental health condition seen in veterans – Katie believes it was her age and complete trust in skillset that saw her cope with the perilous conditions.
“I’m very fortunate in that I didn’t see the awful things that the people saw in the army and some people in the air force as well. Being in communications, we were quite sheltered from it all, and away from all of the action, but I also served with people who had PTSD,” she says.
Katie made the decision to leave the defence force in 2007 after nearly seven years of service.
With youth on her side, she went on to undertake a university degree in sport recreation and event management while volunteering at Netball South Australia.
Katie says the transition from the fields of war to civilisation is an unpreventable catalyst for depression and anxiety in some people.
“It’s like going into a completely different world, from the only world you’ve known since you were 18. It’s such a hard transition,” she says.
Despite building a sustainable life for herself in sport, Katie couldn’t let go of her ties to the RAAF.
Katie’s grandfather – who served in the British Army in World War II and was an active member of an RSL in Adelaide – prompted her to consider the benefits of becoming a member.
Upon meeting with Torquay RSL treasurer Phil Pickering and forming an unlikely friendship, the youngest woman in the room couldn’t resist listening to fears that the RSL is on the way out because of its aging membership.
It wasn’t long before Phil suggested the idea of kickstarting a “Young Veterans initiative” to encourage veterans aged 18-60 from the area and its surrounds to access the RSL and its support services, many of which fly under the radar.
“I felt like I was at home,” smiles Katie.
“I hadn’t had that for 10 years since I discharged. This little group of people who are wanting to get more young people involved, they understand that the RSL has to change their benefits and what it offers and how it does things for this particular age group.
“They’re quite worried it will die off.” Motivated to help, Katie became a member of the committee and began working alongside Stewart Pritchard in the hope of spreading the word.
On the days she isn’t working or with her two-year-old daughter Harriet, Katie is on the phone with the Young Veterans Network (YVN) to gather ideas on how to
keep the Torquay RSL alive. In speaking with Mathew Keene from the YVN, Katie learned the Warrnambool RSL kickstarted a young veterans group, which saw growth from one participant to 100 young people.
The good news galvanised the Torquay RSL to organise a barbecue on Sunday May 19 to invite current and ex-serving men and women to consider the benefits of the RSL community without the pressure of becoming a member.
“We have to do things in a very respectful, quiet, informative, collaborative manner, but that’s the way any committee should work,” says Katie.
“If this has one person rock up to it, that’s great. If it has 20 people, even better. If it has more, then ‘wow’, but we aren’t expecting anything. We’re just putting it out there as an offering.”
The Young Veterans initiative is designed to help veterans meet new people with similar experiences, share ideas, build support circles and improve physical and mental health in an inclusive and safe environment.
The free barbecue is being held at the Torquay RSL, 47 The Esplanade, Torquay, on Sunday May 19 from 12pm-2pm.
Families are highly encouraged to attend.