Walking around the home of Keith McNeil, it’s hard to find a patch of wall that is not decorated with a certificate or award.
Sporting achievements, community contributions, family photos, they’re all there, but perhaps the most impressive are those commemorating the work Keith has done for the National Servicemen's Association.
Conscripted at the age of 18 in 1955, Keith joined the Royal Australian Artillery.
“I was doing a trade as a tool maker at the time, so I asked for a deferment to finish up at technical college,” Keith explained.
“They gave me one year then I was drafted back in.”
Keith served from 1956-1960, and while he was acknowledged as part of the group involved with the Malayan Emergency, his unit did not end up serving overseas; a twist that turned out to be much more significant than it seemed at the time.
“They were getting us ready to go over, all of my unit had our shots, completed the training and were ready to go, then they called it off,” he said.
“I was discharged, and I was keen on staying in touch with other ex-servicemen, so I went to join the Fairfield branch of the Returned Services League (RSL).”
But, when Keith arrived, discharge papers in hand, he received a rude shock.
“I arrived at the club and said, ‘I’d like to join the RSL.’, and they told me ‘No, the RSL is only for people who served overseas.’, because I hadn’t physically gone overseas I couldn’t join, even though I’d been acknowledged as part of the group.”
For the next few years, Keith continued to keep in touch with his ex-servicemen pals, attending the Anzac Day march in Sydney to watch them march.
“They would say, ‘come on, get up and march with us.’, but I didn’t, I didn’t have any badges,” he said.
“Then in 1990 the RSL was losing its numbers, everyone was dying off, so they decided to let all us other ex-servicemen in to boost their numbers.
“They changed the name to Return and Services League to include us, so I joined at Fairfield, then moved over to Smithfield RSL and was a member there for a number of years.”
In 1994 Keith learned of a National Servicemen group in from QLD who were holding a meeting in Sydney. He attended, along with a number of other NSW ex-servicemen.
That, Keith said, was where the idea was formed to start a NSW branch.
“It grew so quickly from 16 fellows to just hundreds and hundreds of blokes turning up.
“The man who was the president at the start said he was only planning to get it on its feet, then he asked me to take over, so I became the NSW State president, a role I kept for 12 months before we moved to Forster.”
Keith and wife, Gloria relocated in 1997, and it wasn’t long until he was approached by a number of local ex-servicemen to start a sub-branch in Forster.
“It is a place to meet, to give support, and we look after welfare, because we weren’t covered by Department of Veteran Affairs as we didn’t go overseas.”
More than 20 years after the group was formed, Keith is still the president, and has overseen the construction of the Little Street memorial and another in Tuncurry.
“We have had to put in a lot of work to get recognition,” Keith explained.
“We weren’t accepted before, now we are. There were never any medals commemorating our service, but our association lodged a lot of applications, and in 2002 they relented and acknowledged what we did, then gave us a medal.
“I lost hearing in one ear being on the big guns, they never gave us any earmuffs, the things we used to do to train for the army- armed combat, live ammunition, unarmed combat too. So that was a legacy I got from my service. But also, I got a great camaraderie with the others.”
The Forster branch of the National Servicemen's Association holds monthly meetings and currently has 120 members, with more always welcome to join.
“We support charities, help with civic matters and support national servicemen and their widows, we have a lot of widows now,” Keith said.
“It’s important for the community to know we are here, I welcome any ex-servicemen out there to give me a call on 0459161955 to find out more and join us.”
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