Leith Bache was going through a pretty dark patch when the tiny seaside community of Robe stepped in.
Years as a combat engineer in the Australian Army — serving in Malaysia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and Afghanistan — had finally taken its toll on his body, and he was medically discharged with a back and neck injury in 2012.
The decision sent his world into a spin.
“Initially it was all a bit chaotic, just solely because when you’re in [the army], you do feel a bit of a family unit, and once you’re out, you’re out,” he told ABC TV’s Back Roads program.
After joining the army straight from school, Mr Bache found himself having to start again, with a wife and young son in tow.
“It was a pretty dark time in my life — after doing [some] studies, I spent a good year of solely looking for employment and getting nowhere,” he said.
“I was applying for probably 10 or 15 jobs a day and not even getting feedback at all, whatsoever, so I was really struggling with confidence, self-esteem, motivation.
“Obviously we were struggling financially at the same time, so it was pretty tense at home for that period.”
And then out of the blue, the family received an invitation to spend a few days on the South Australian coast, at Robe.
Beach house provides a break
Unbeknown to Mr Bache, local Jacqui Bateman had heard about the struggle many veterans face readapting to civilian life after a chance meeting with another returned veteran, Justin Brown, at a sporting event.
On hearing Mr Brown’s story, she wanted to help others.
And Robe — a tourist town over summer when it swells by thousands — was perfectly placed to do so, she thought.
“I’ve been thinking for a little while that I had a little beach house and why not share it with someone who needed a break,” said Ms Bateman, a sheep and cattle farmer.
So she enlisted the veteran Mr Brown and then signed up the local tourism association and businesses in town.
Soon most of the town had volunteered help.
“I’m so proud of the Robe community for all the help they’ve given us and all their support — it’s been wonderful,” Ms Bateman said.
Relief found in Robe
Ms Bateman said the program, Robe to Recovery, helped about a dozen veterans each off-season, when the town was quiet and the holiday homes empty.
Local restaurants and businesses donate vouchers for food or activities, and each provides a personalised note, thanking the veteran for their service.
“This is our way of helping someone directly rather than just, you know, putting your hand in your pocket and pulling out $50 to donate to someone, and not knowing where it’s going,” Ms Bateman said.
“We know this is going to help someone who really needs a break.
“Some of them are finding it hard transitioning from the army back into civilian life, and they’re a bit lost.
“But you know, coming down here, having a weekend away and knowing that people appreciate what they’ve done and what they’ve been through, I think makes all the difference.”
Chance to ‘freshen up’ says veteran
Veterans organisations estimate that one in 10 Australian Defence Force personnel suffer physical or psychological injuries from active service.
For Mr Bache and his family, the trip to Robe was a reinvigorating experience.
They’ve returned for a second break since then, and Mr Bache now has a job.
“It gave us a chance to sort of freshen up a bit,” he said.
“We were overcome by the generosity. Even the little messages from people you don’t know, thanking you for your service. It makes you feel pretty good.
“Obviously at the end of the day, we had to go back to the reality of what our life was, but it just gave us that period where we could pretend we weren’t in that position and we just got to come here.
“It’s a temporary relief, that’s what it is, but sometimes that’s all you sort of need.”
Heather Ewart returns to the Back Roads of Australia, to discover more resilient country towns and the inspiring people who live in them. She meets communities whose good humour and inventiveness will inspire and uplift.