How veterans’ needs have evolved in the 50 years since Vietnam

Academic and Army veteran Rodger Shanahan explores how the transition process and the needs of veterans have changed since Vietnam.

Interviewed by Chris Sheedy

At a glance:

  • Rodger Shanahan is an academic who spent 26 years in full-time service and now serves in the Army Reserve.
  • He says the label of ‘veteran’ encompasses a whole range of experiences, and so the needs of those veterans will also vary.
  • Shanahan says Defence is better equipped to support transitioning veterans than it once was.
  • Contrary to some assumptions, a veteran “is not automatically damaged”.

Rodger Shanahan is an academic and a 26-year Army veteran whose record includes operational service in Afghanistan, Beirut, South Lebanon, Syria, and East Timor.

We spoke about his experience in Defence and transitioning out, how the transition process has changed over the past 50 years, and why he’s returned to Reserve service.

You’ve said before that the label of ‘veteran’ means very little. What do you mean by that?

You’re a veteran if you’ve served one day in the Reserves and you’re a veteran if you’ve served 35 years in the regular Army and done multiple tours. In my opinion, the definition is so broad that it loses clarity, in my opinion.

A veteran who is in the Air Force as a ground technician maintaining aircraft, for example, doesn’t have much in common with an infantry soldier who’s been in battalions and out in the field for long parts of their military career. They’re completely different experiences of the military. So to ask what veterans need depends on what kind of veteran they are.

It’s such a broad definition that it is very difficult to make any judgement about what a veteran thinks, because you’re a product of your experience. It’s like saying, ‘What are an Australian’s needs?’. It varies greatly.

What assistance was available to you during your transition?

I know there were lectures you could attend about transitioning. But that was about it. I think the military is better placed these days to aid the transition.

I think, if you’ve been in for a long time, the period of transition can be quite difficult for people. It depends how easily you transition, I suppose. Lots of people prepare themselves and transition easily. Other people don’t.

The majority of my cohort transitioned relatively easily. They just found their own feet, by and large. But we were all regular military officers who’d been around for a long time and had qualifications. And so our needs and expectations were different from other people’s.

Speaking of the needs of soldiers and officers – how about those of conscripts? Have we learnt much from the Vietnam experience about assisting the transition process?

For a conscript in Vietnam, at the end of your tenure you were simply told to go back into civilian life. That’s a completely unacceptable way to treat people. It’s different for full-time military people. They have a social contract with the government about their role which is implicit when they join, just like when people join other types of organisations.

It’s very difficult to take people off the street who wouldn’t normally join, and then train them up, deploy them and then release them back into society 12 or 15 months later. That is difficult and should only be used in extremis. Vietnam was not in extremis. It’s one of the strong arguments against conscript armies.

I think if you speak to the vast majority of regular Army people, they’d say conscription is the last thing you want. It sucks up a large amount of resources without providing much to an increasingly technologically advanced military, so the amount of return you get on investment is pretty limited.

You transitioned out in 2008 then spent four or five years in the Army Reserve. You’ve recently gone back into the Reserves, which seems to be a contemporary alternative to conscription that trains those actually willing to serve. Did that have anything to do with seeking a sense of belonging?

Not really. For some veterans, military service is their defining life experience. And so that’s how they forge their identity. RSL NSW provides a way of maintaining that connection, and that’s good. Some of my cohort are still connected with RSL NSW and still want to play a part in assisting other people.

Veterans are put on a bit of a pedestal in many ways. But ‘veterans’ covers a broad church. A large proportion of the veteran population doesn’t require assistance. Everybody’s military service is different.

Every paramedic sees much worse trauma on a much more regular basis than a veteran, for instance. Police officers are the same. So I think we have to be very careful about how we look at veterans and assumptions we make about how many veterans actually have issues.

A veteran is not automatically damaged.

RSL NSW welcomes veterans of any age to join the organisation. Access support services and become part of a like-minded community of peers – become a member of RSL NSW.

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