Volunteering Australia calls it “time willingly given for the common good and without financial gain”. By its very definition, volunteering is a generous act. It’s curious, then, to hear volunteer Narelle Rusk describe what she does for Soldier On as the opposite. “It gives me a feeling of being part of something that means something,” she says. “I appreciate being able to do it, and it means a lot to me. It helps me so much that I’m probably selfish doing it!”
You only need to speak to Narelle for a moment to realise she is the furthest thing from selfish. Her connection to Soldier On began several years ago when her brother Stuart was going through a difficult time following his Army service in East Timor and Afghanistan. Born only 13 months apart, Narelle and Stuart were always very close. In 2015, Narelle says, Stuart faced the start of a bad bout of PTSD. In the years that followed, she spent endless hours on the phone with him, offering what support she could.
“It got to the point where I thought, ‘Well, I can listen to him on the phone, but there’s got be more we can do for him’,” Narelle says. “I started looking at some of these charities that were there to help people like him, and when I found Soldier On, I thought it was perfect. Being set up to help contemporary veterans, particularly those who had done tours in Afghanistan, I felt they’d know what he was going through.”
Narelle got involved with Soldier On herself, doing a couple of fundraisers off her own bat. She says Stuart loved that she was helping people that were facing the same challenges as him, and she enjoyed the sense that she was doing something to make a difference. When she took the opportunity to volunteer for a Soldier On Pathways Networking Event (PNE) in Melbourne, Narelle had a chance to see firsthand the very real difference that Soldier On was making in the lives of veterans.
PNEs give Soldier On participants the opportunity to meet and connect with representatives from a range of veteran-supportive employers. In the uncertain period during and after transition out of the ADF, these events can be a lifeline for veterans and family members looking to navigate their next career move. Narelle came along with the task of greeting participants coming in and pointing them where they needed to go. Then she got to talking to one of the employer representatives about his experience with Soldier On. “I’ll never forget it,” she says. “Twelve months earlier, he had been on the other side of the desk, looking for a job. Now he had so much confidence, was so happy and his life had changed so much in 12 months.” Narelle saw a stark contrast between him and some of the participants at the event, many of whom she noted seemed uncertain and hesitant as they arrived. “I looked back at this guy and thought, ‘Wow, this is just 12 months – and this is what Soldier On does for people.’”
The experience stuck with Narelle, and it spurred her to take up every opportunity she could to volunteer for the charity. Stuart had also decided to attend a Soldier On coffee catch up in his local area when, tragically, he suffered a heart attack and passed away in January 2021, at the age of just 44. Narelle says the grief is still very present, but that her association with Soldier On helps her to feel closer to Stuart.
“It’s like still having a part of him when I go to those [Soldier On] events, because the people there know what he went through, and I can talk to them like I’m still talking to him,” she says.
“Soldier On was the only organisation that really accepted me, because I’m not immediate family – I’m a sister. Some ESOs can only provide support to spouses or children of veterans, but Soldier On recognised that as his sister, I was on the phone to him every night when he was going through his battles. I get so much out of it. I get that closeness, that tiny little bit of my brother back that I don’t get from anywhere else.”
One way Narelle and her family honour Stuart’s memory is by taking part in Soldier On’s annual March On Challenge, where participants raise funds by walking or running the equivalent distance of the Kokoda Track during the month of March. The first year they participated was 2021, when Narelle’s younger brother, Michael, signed them up.
“For us, that first year was very healing,” says Narelle. “To be able to talk about Stuart only two months on from his death, and doing something together as a family even though we were in different states – it was something that brought us together, because we had daily chats about how much we’d raised, where we’d gone walking that day… You don’t realise just how much it can connect you.”
Those connections forged during March On reach even wider for Narelle as the moderator of the March On Challenge Facebook group, which sees a huge increase in traffic each March. It’s a complementary role to her current volunteer position with Soldier On as a volunteer moderator of the charity’s social media channels.
“That March On group is just amazing,” Narelle says. “People make friends there and keep in touch throughout the year and look forward to the next March, then they join [March On] in their groups again.”
The connections are what drive Narelle to continue to volunteer for Soldier On. Earlier this year, she lost another brother, and recently Stuart’s wife also passed away. “Life is so short,” she says. “And for me it comes down to a question: how do you want to be remembered? Through volunteering with Soldier On, I’ve made so many new friends I’d never have met otherwise. That’s how I want to be remembered – as having these friends who I have a true connection with. Yes, you can feel good at night because you’ve done something good, but for me it’s about the connections you make.”
Narelle hopes more people will try volunteering, not only to help others, but to see what they themselves might get out of it. “I want to share my experience of getting involved and helping because it made me feel closer and connected,” she says. “It’s made such a huge difference in my life. I want other people to know that volunteering can help you out of the doldrums and back into life.”
Soldier On gratefully welcomes volunteers across a range of activities. Around the country there are varied opportunities to get involved, from leading or helping with social events to producing content for our journal. If you have a skill you’d like to put to use in support of Soldier On, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know!