John Bale GAICD and Michael Fussell met at school, joined the army together and, in 2005, graduated from the Royal Military College. Six years later, Fussell was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.

As well as grieving for his friend, Bale was concerned for the future of the two Australian soldiers injured in the same blast. The seeds of Soldier On were sown the following year when he heard about Help for Heroes, a British charity which works to galvanise the community behind the defence force as it helps injured veterans to rebuild their lives.

“At the time I was working at the headquarters of Australian operations with a view of what our defence forces were doing all over the world,” he says. “For instance, I could see that in Afghanistan, our troops were fighting what was very much a shooting war, but because of security, there was very little publicity about the casualties. All of these men and women would, one day, need to be re-integrated into the community with various levels of support – but how could they expect support from a community that knew so little about them?”

A respected supporter

Bale was still serving as a captain when, in 2012, he founded Soldier On with his psychologist wife Dr Danielle Clout and close friend Cavin Wilson, a flight lieutenant in the Royal Australian Air Force. From the outset, they recognised the need for support from someone who was respected by both the military and the civilian communities.

“We couldn’t think of anyone better than Peter,” says Bale. Retired Lieutenant General Peter Leahy AC GAICD had a 37-year career with the Australian Defence Force (ADF) crowned by a six-year appointment as chief of army. He is now a professor and the foundation director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra.

“I agreed to a meeting and realised very quickly that I would love to be involved with Soldier On,” he says. “I was impressed by their ideas, their energy and their passion – and they were also doing a very good job of tackling the regulatory, financial and legal issues associated with setting up a charity. We had met a few more times to discuss various issues when John broached the subject of my chairing the board. I told him I would have throttled him if he hadn’t asked.”

A shared experience

Leahy was the first in his family to join the army. “I had a sense of adventure and also a sense of public service,” he says. “My family couldn’t afford for me to go to university so there was also the appeal of a free degree. Then, when I saw a recruiting pamphlet showing a cadet in uniform with a sports car and a pretty girl, I was hooked.”

By contrast, Bale’s family has a long tradition of military service. “My great grandfather fought in World War I, my grandfather in World War II and my father in Vietnam,” he says. “Joining the army felt a bit pre-ordained – though I was genuinely drawn to the military ethos and values.”

As veterans, Bale and Leahy share a common language, a common sense of purpose and an understanding of how their clients might think and feel. But, at first, Bale struggled to overcome the deference to a senior officer that had been inculcated throughout his career.

“When we first met it was very much “yes sir, no sir” but I knew I had to get past that if we were going to have a productive and professional relationship,” he says.

The relationship has come a long way. “John rings frequently to talk things through and test ideas, which I consider to be something of a privilege,” says Leahy. “I also think it’s good for the organisation to see that we have such a strong relationship but are still able to talk openly and challenge each other. It has been a joy to watch John grow from an army captain into a very competent and confident chief executive officer (CEO).”

In the early stages, all of the directors of Soldier On had some exposure to the military. “What matters now is that the board is well-balanced and able to advise and support the CEO across our broad range of activities,” says Leahy. “Our directors do need an understanding of the military environment but it’s more important that they are able to work together, have governance skills and can provide strategic guidance to the organisation. For example, the level of legal and regulatory experience you need when you’re working in the charity space would not be readily available within the military.”

Important rehabilitation

Soldier On has already helped thousands of veterans to deal with physical and psychological wounds.

“Throughout history we have failed to acknowledge the psychological impact of warfare,” says Leahy. “It’s only in the last 15 or 20 years that we have started to see post-traumatic stress disorder as a real problem and to develop good methods for helping to alleviate the pain. As a community, we are also starting to speak more openly about the high rate of suicide in the military community. Reducing this is a priority.”

However, persuading veterans to admit they have a psychological problem is still a major hurdle. “If you see yourself as a warrior who joined an organisation that prides itself on individual resilience and strength, it can be hard to come to terms with needing help,” says Bale. “We’re doing our best to smash down this attitude because even the toughest and bravest need care now and then. Asking for help doesn’t make you weak, it makes you smart.”

Leaving the defence force can cause veterans to feel vulnerable. “You might go from a very tight military family to a community consisting only of your own immediate family, who have been dealing with pressures of their own,” says Bale. “If that unit should break down you can feel very lonely very quickly. We provide support for the family and also put veterans in touch with others who can identify with their issues. It’s also important to get veterans back into the community as quickly as possible – the last thing we want to do is create a secondary institution that is Soldier On.”

Reintegration and recovery centres throughout Australia provide a non-threatening environment where veterans can catch up over coffee, access employment advice, therapeutic activities and opportunities to volunteer.

“Volunteering is one way of finding a sense of purpose after service,” says Bale. “Another is worthwhile employment, and part of our job is educating potential employers about what veterans can offer. It’s easy to forget that the defence force is a complete ecosystem which includes every conceivable job, from pilots and transport logistics specialists to cooks. Not everyone has been an infantry soldier – and those who were often have a much broader range of skills than they’re given credit for. This isn’t just an opportunity to tick the corporate social responsibility box but a chance to tap into a cohort of very skilled and able employees.”

Soldier On has grown organically and undergone a number of changes since it was launched. “I admire John’s openness to change and the confidence he has to follow it through,” says Leahy. “For example, our early strategies were based around inspiring people to do deeds of derring-do, like walking to the South Pole with Prince Harry. Now we focus more on empowering veterans to get off the couch, off the booze, off the meds and into a productive civilian life,” he says.