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Nation’s first face-to-face program for veterans in isolation launched in Brisbane

Healthy bodies: Eating healthy meals is part of the training for veteran pastoral carers.

COVID-19 travel restrictions have forced Brisbane archdiocese’s Veteran Care Association to put on hold its successful rehabilitation program, Timor Awakening, in the former conflict zone of East Timor.

But rather than drop a program helping to improve the health and wellbeing of hundreds of veteran and their families from across Australia, the association’s leaders have set out on a new mission to train more pastoral carers and develop a rehab program to be delivered locally.

“As they say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” VCA’s founder Deacon Gary Stone said, stressing the extra pressures that COVID-19 was placing on veterans and their families.

“Veterans are experiencing severe loneliness and isolation, with programs shut down across the wider community – and with no certainty of when they will recommence.

“Most services and activities for veterans have been reduced to Zoom meetings, at best.

“As far as I know this is now the only program offering face-to-face engagement for veterans.”

It took the small VCA team, including Deacon Stone and his son, Major Michael Stone six weeks to design a competency course to train pastoral carers – developing knowledge, skills and attitudes to help rehabilitate fellow veterans who are wounded, ill and injured.

“Always part of our vision has been to get veterans to help others,” Deacon Stone said.

“We’ve had a small team of staff and volunteers running the program, but we realised that pastoral care is quite a challenging and complicated role, and needed specific training.”

The first group of carers – 21 veterans and two partners – recently completed six-days of training at Saint Georges Defence Retreat at Rainbow Bay on the Gold Coast.

One of the activities was a visit to an organic fruit farm owned by 32-year veteran David Freeman, who served in Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq and is now trying to revive a 150-year-old family property growing avocados, custard apples and bananas.

Leading the way: VCA leaders Deacon Gary Stone (left) and his son, Major Michael Stone are working towards better pastoral care for Australian veterans.

“David developed post traumatic stress and he was medically discharged, and he came home to assist his aging parents get their farm back into operation,” Deacon Stone said.

“David explained how dying plants and trees can be revived by pruning, companion planting and organic nourishment.

“The veterans enjoyed getting their hands dirty and in the midst of that became more aware of how our God is alive and active in nature.”

Deacon Stone said the aim of the VCA program was to enable veterans to nurture their body, mind, soul and relationships, through regular physical exercise, mindfulness spiritual exercises, fellowship and committing to a mission of caring for their neighbour veterans.

He said training pastoral carers would become a regular activity each year.

“A pastoral carer will look after two or three people on the Timor Awakening program and be their companion before, during and after the actual experience,” Deacon Stone said.

He said the availability of more pastoral carers would allow VCA to reach out to more veterans across Queensland and northern New South Wales.

Graduate pastoral carers will assist other veterans in future 8-day awakening experiences to be conducted on the Gold Coast in September 2020, and February and May 2021.

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