IT WAS reasonable to assume the situation in NSW with devastating drought and fires that it could not get any worse, then along came COVID-19.
The whole country has been through so much in recent years but nowhere has been harder than our rural areas. Here in NSW, it has been particularly hard for those regions west of the Great Divide where farms and towns had been on the brink for so long already.
Although some rain has fallen in recent months, the Water NSW April 2020 Drought Report tells us that much of the rain has not fallen in catchment areas and several more months of above-average rainfall will be required before we see real recovery.
The plight of farmers and their communities has been weighing so heavily on the mind of one Mid North Coast veteran, and he has been 'thinking outside the box' to mobilise veterans to help their fellow Aussies in The Bush.
Retired Army Major Keith Wilkinson is the force behind a project known simply has 'Veterans Supporting Farmers'. Keith has served in both the Australian Regular Army and the Australian Army Reserve as an officer and digger and during his service he has deployed on two tours of duty in Iraq and also served in East Timor.
Keith points out that, "due to the horrific effects of the droughts and bushfires, farmers and their families are at their breaking point, physically, financially and psychologically".
Keith's attention was drawn to the plight of farmers when he noticed that farmer suicide rates were similar to veteran suicide rates. Keith considers that veterans may be well placed to help farmers doing it tough as they too have faced their own significant challenges and some have gone through and are still going through their own 'living hell'.
Veterans, because of their experiences, may be in a position to possibly understand the stress, trauma and psychological pressure (although different circumstances) that farmers and their families are facing.
Earlier this year, with support from the office of the Member for Cowper, Pat Conaghan, and the Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA), Keith launched this national project.
The intent was to motivate veterans to head to the rural districts for the commemoration of ANZAC Day rather than in the big centres and cities. Through this "act of compassion", as Keith calls it, veterans and their families would be able to inject much needed capital into the local economy and show farmers and their families that that they are not alone.
Unfortunately COVID-19 restrictions put an end to the ANZAC Day 2020 aspirations of the project however with restrictions lifting, Keith urges veterans and their families to plan their next holiday to a destination that has been affected by drought and in some cases, fire.
Keith estimates that many millions of dollars could be spent in the struggling rural economies if even a portion of the veterans' community headed inland on holidays.
He suggests that when planning your next trip you should contact the RSL, Vietnam Veterans, Peacekeepers and Peacemakers Association, local tourist association or the local council in the area you want to visit. Keith is optimistic that COVID-19 restrictions will ease and we will see many veterans and their families heading to rural areas to commemorate ANZAC Day 2021.
If you are unable to get to The Bush for ANZAC Day or for a holiday but want to help, you can make a donation by visiting the VETERANS SUPPORTING FARMERS website at www.veteranssupportingfarmers.com.au then go to the 'make a donation' portal that has a direct link to the Country Women's Association (CWA) Disaster Relief Fund. The CWA will administer and distribute the funds directly to the farmers.
Keith has been assured the recipients of donations will know it came from veterans and that every cent received will be distributed to those farmers in need.
Perhaps RSL Sub Branches and other ex-service organisations could take a page out of Keith's book and organise group trips west of the divide to show our inland mates that we have not forgotten them. I will stay in touch with Keith and report back on this wonderful project in the months ahead.