You may have heard that this year was the first time that Australian servicewomen led the ANZAC Day march. But another first you probably didn’t hear about is that members of the NSW branch of the War Widows Guild of Australia were also formally invited to join the march.
The history of the Guild can be traced back to 1945 when it was first established after WWII with a mission to promote and protects the interests of war widows. It has since fought to improve the financial and social circumstances of the members through constant advocacy with government.
Nationally, the Guild’s membership peaked in 1985 when it had 65,000 members. Currently though it has 24,000 members across the country and is looking to modernise its outlook and services for a new century.
Who are they?
Most women in the Guild lost their husbands during World War II. But an increasing number were widowed in contemporary wars such as Vietnam and Afghanistan. Some have seen their husband come back from the field safely, but then take their life later on as a consequence of mental or physical health issues.
These shifts in experience have been reflected by changes in the Guild’s service to members.
“When we first started” said Elissa Thompson, NSW Guild communication officer, “it was a lot about getting the rights and recognition and financial support for them in many areas.”
“More recently, our members have become quite elderly and so we are now trying to meet the changing needs of them and their families.”
Elissa Thompson is in charge of the quarterly magazine Guild Digest. It provides information about services and upcoming events as well as insights into the idea of commemoration.
The Digest has been redesigned, with a new font and layout, to cater for older members with vision impairment and is available in an audio version as well.
“Our role with the members has changed over the years.”
Sorrow and strength, for the women behind the heroes
For Sharon Polonese, soldiers and wars are never far from mind, since she was born into a military family. Her father is a WWII veteran and she married a soldier. Her first husband went to the Vietnam war as an engineer in 1970 and was one of the lucky few that came back from the field safely, both physically and mentally.
They had a happy marriage for the next 16 years until her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumour, a secondary cancer that stemmed from his lungs. “It only took 11 months after we found out about the tumour before he died.” Sharon said. “It was hard.”
The Army medical services treating her husband concluded that Agent Orange, a mixture of two dangerous herbicides called 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, was a likely culprit. It is a chemical weapon that was widely used in Vietnam War to defoliate the forests so that U.S. troops could see the enemies who were hidden behind leaves.
Agent Orange’s terrible influence on human bodies is fatal and enduring,causing chronic illnesses that have affected millions of Vietnamese people and thousands of soldiers who came into contact with it.
In this video Sharon talks about her memories of her husbands’ illness, and the Army’s support of her family during that period.
Agent Orange is one of the legacies of war that makes the work of the War Widows guild critical, not only in the immediate aftermath of war but for the lifetimes of its members and their families.
Support and care from the Guild
The Guild provides various benefits to its members including housing. Sharon Polonese is now living in a house in Drummoyne provided by the Guild. The rent is highly subsidized and she can also talk to other war widows who are her neighbours.
Sharon did not join the Guild as a member until 2015, when she got divorced from her second husband, who was also a soldier. But she became an active volunteer as soon as she joined.
“I enjoy the role I am doing because I have been the one who is helped by others. I know how this is important to us.”
She is now helping out the Guild with some administrative work and taking part in a program called “Friendship Line”, which was initiated by the Guild in 2000.
“It is a program that involves calling our members on a regular basis so that they can feel the Guild never forgets them. Even if some are not members financially, they will still be included in the call list.”
According to the roster, Sharon will be in the office to call up the members for a chat on Tuesdays and Fridays from 10 am to 3 pm. The conversations remain strictly confidential, but Sharon is able to share some basic details about the sort of information the Guild collects.
“I called a lady today who is new to the Guild, and it is her first time receiving a call from us. So I collected information about her such as her hobbies, family situation, how many children she has, any pets she owns, things like that. So next time whoever calls her can chat with her according to her recorded information.”
Members over 90 will be called twice a month and also every member will receive a birthday call. “We make 4-8 birthday calls every day in general,” she said.
“They feel they are really being cared for. Some ladies even send me thanks cards, that’s really sweet,” Sharon said, smiling.
Challenges never end
With over 4100 members within NSW alone, and an average membership age of 87 years old, the Guild is facing different challenges in the future.
One of the most obvious is addressing different members needs due to the large age gap between some members. The youngest member is 35, and lost her husband in the Iraq war, while the oldest is 103 years.
As Elissa Thompson noted, “The needs of some older members are higher. So when they call up or we speak with them, we need to provide support to them or help them managing things like housing and medical issues, or something as simple as transport.”
The younger ones, she said, have a lot of online networks but need help negotiating the maze of laws surrounding entitlements and health care. “We can help them to navigate through lots of bureaucratic red tape. There are lots of different regulations and it is very complex,” Elissa added.
Another crucial issue for the Guild is the nature of having an aging membership. “We have to stay relevant and sustainable,” Elissa said. “That is something that the organization at the board level is navigating at the moment.”
How can you give your hands to these wonderful women?
Become a member of the organization, or an event volunteer, by contacting 02 9267 6577.
Donate to the guild by visiting http://www.warwidowsnsw.com.au/About_the_Guild/Make_a_Donation.htm.
Also, if you want to share this story, please hashtag #warwidowsguildnsw to tell us more about stories of these wonderful women.