ANZAC Day 2015 was the first on which Sergeant Kym Whalley wore her service medals. In the past, Kym attended the dawn services as a civilian because she felt “it was easier to hide”. The loss of her father, just weeks before a planned trip to Gallipoli for the ANZAC commemorations, made her look at things differently.
When she did wear her medals, Kym was confronted with people who told her she was wearing them ‘on the wrong side’. Others remarked ‘but you don’t look like a veteran’. Moments like this encouraged Kym to join the Gallipoli Poppies campaign led by the Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation (GMRF) to tell stories of female strength from the past 100 years.
Kym says, “I used to feel - as soon as you show any colours towards being military - you’re condemned for it. As a female, it’s twice as bad. A male can be considered a great leader for the same thing that they say makes a woman pushy!” Kym has even had potential employers tell her the military has a ‘dictatorship style’ that would not fit in an office environment.
For Kym, it is difficult to understand this limited view of what it means to be a veteran. She comes from a family with a military history dating back to the Boer War. As a child, she always felt like she had two families: her own immediate family and her larger military family. She loved the camaraderie and mateship, the BBQs and family days. Following her father’s death, she reflected on what it means to be a veteran and an RSL member today.
It was Kym’s father who had encouraged her to get in touch with the RSL when she faced a service-related cancer battle in 2013. He knew that some of his mates, other Vietnam veterans, had received help in the past.
Kym (pictured here with Corporal Michelle Lata) thinks it’s important that women support each other. “If you’re going through a rough patch, you need to reach out. There’s counselling, friends, your RSL – don’t bottle it up".
Image Source: Kym Whalley
When Kym rang Sherwood-Indooroopilly RSL Sub-Branch, she had already started her chemotherapy treatment: “I wasn’t able to move much at that point so they came to the house. They were just amazing! There’s an old saying ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. It’s very true. The RSL tells you what you don’t know.”
One of the things that Kym didn’t know was the important role of Statements of Principles (SOPs) in any claim. SOPs are the factors which must (as a minimum) exist to cause a particular kind of disease, injury or death; the SOPs determine if a claim is accepted or not. Her RSL Advocacy Officers, Glenn and Mick, addressed Kym’s request in relation to the SOPs. She says, “A lot of us veterans aren’t practiced in that kind of paperwork.
Things aren’t always written in plain English. It’s good to have guidance. There are probably so many cases out there that never get approved because they don’t know how to address it properly.”
This help formed the beginning of Kym’s relationship with her RSL. When her claim went through to a Veterans Review Board, Glenn and Mick attended the review with her – as Advocacy Officers and as mates.
Again, when Kym’s father passed away this year, she went to her RSL. Her parents did not own their home and her mother had a lot of fear about financial stability. The RSL helped Kym’s mother through the process of securing her entitlements – a War Widows pension and a medical gold card.
Despite all this help which the RSL has brought to her life, Kym understands why some women are reluctant to join. “A lot of females have not always had a great experience in a male-dominated environment”, she says. Kym herself left the military following a case of sexual harassment upon her return from active duty in East Timor, “I was struggling to get back into that family environment and then - to have that at work - it was too much. I had to walk away”.
She believes that recent initiatives, such as the Women Veterans Symposium, play a vital role in addressing the unique challenges facing female veterans. She hopes this might encourage more women to join their local RSL.
“Talking to a lot of the guys in my RSL brings back the memories, happy times, things I really enjoyed.”
Image Source: Kym Whalley
“I can only speak about the RSL I go to. The boys don’t want it to be a boy’s club. They want to have all veterans there, all serving members - RAAF, Navy, Army – everyone that’s been involved.”
Kym also thinks it is vital that we open the discussion about the mental health challenges which face all veterans, male and female. “When I was deployed, a lot of people really didn’t cope. I saw one person who really shocked me. He was very edgy, nervous all the time. People just walking past him could trigger him. I would never have expected it. The stress of that environment just sent him into that place. There’s a lot of expectation, especially when you start having a bit of rank and you become the person to look after everybody else. You put it on yourself too, ‘I must cope. I have all these people to look after’. Some of those that have the strongest faces, need the most help.”
Kym speaks openly about her own challenges in the hope she can encourage others to come forward for that help. “My daughters copped a lot from me. I was angry, emotional. There were times when I was withdrawn; I just didn’t want to talk to them. Other times, they would ask simple teenage questions and I would literally go off my head. I put holes in walls. I’m so ashamed of it. I went to counselling outside the military. Talking through it all got me to a point where there were not as many problems in my life. I put my girls through a lot of pain and I really regret it. I just didn’t know at the time. It breaks my heart to think what they went through”. Fortunately, Kym’s daughters have been able to use these experiences in a positive way. Simone is now studying psychology and Sharlene is working on a short film about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Kym hopes her own role as a Gallipoli Poppy will inspire more women to feel proud of their military background and comfortable to ask for help when needed. Brisbane-based company, Issada Cosmetics, have partnered in the campaign by designing a limited edition Issada Poppy lipstick. 10% of all sales will support GMRF’s research into veteran mental health.
Kym loves the campaign inspiration of the WWII slogan ‘keep your beauty on duty’. For her, “It’s about embracing your femininity. Before this, I had never worn a strong coloured lipstick, ever. I loved it! Just putting that on gave me another lift. Look how beautiful the photo-shoot turned out! The next day, some of those ladies would have been putting on a military uniform. We’re allowed to be women, to be feminine, petite, and to have long hair.”
Kym says that no support program will ever be able to let veterans “un-see what you have seen”. But she knows first-hand that the RSL can help with being there, so that no veteran is alone.
Kym loves the campaign inspiration of the WWII slogan ‘keep your beauty on duty’. For her, “It’s about embracing your femininity".
Image Source: Kym Whalley
“I am not proud of my past behaviours”, she says. “I wish I had known what the RSL has to offer 13 years ago when I discharged. It could have made a big difference for myself and my family.”
Nonetheless, Kym has come a long way. This ANZAC Day, if anyone tries to correct her on where she is wearing her medals, she says she will proudly tell them: “no, these are my medals. If you want to see what a veteran looks like, here I am!”
The Gallipoli Poppies from the left: Joan Baker-Finch (WWII Signal Operator, GMRF supporter), Liz Jackman (Wife of veteran and treasurer of Whiskey's Wish), Ida Cullen (WWII widow (twice), GMRF supporter), Samantha Freebairn (Squadron Leader, Royal Australian Air Force), Madeline Romaniuk (Psychologist, PTSD Initiative), Kym Whalley (Veteran, army wife and mother), Jayde de Bondt (Research advocate), Cathy Sadler (Wife of veteran, veteran research advocate), Jean Pockett (WW1 widow, GMRF Board member), Ann Bramwell (Retired nurse and member of Defence Nurses RSL Sub Branch).