One veteran I worked with, I stayed with at his bedside for three nights, because I didn’t want him to die alone.
Support Officer Gavin Nicol: providing Holistic Support for all Veterans, and overcoming critics
Using Whakatane Returned and Services’ Association (RSA) as a base of operations, Eastern Bay RSA Support Adviser Gavin Nicol has been working tirelessly in the interests of veterans for decades – and has no plans to stop.
“I will do this welfare work until I die. And I’ll do everything I can to teach my daughter how to do this too. It’s the veterans we are here for – the veterans and their families,” he says.
Gavin works with his daughter, passing on the knowledge and connections necessary to work effectively within the veteran and ex-service support sector. He is particularly focused on engaging with younger veterans, to let them know the RSA is there for them as well.
“One veteran I worked with, I stayed with at his bedside for three nights, because I didn’t want him to die alone. On the third night, his sister made it there, too. We made sure he died with company.”
A veteran himself, Gavin served in the Victor 5 deployment to Vietnam in 1970, then requalified as an electrician. Now 70 years old, he works at the local polytechnic, and teaches at a local high school.
He also does three days per week support work, looking after members of the service community and their families. The life-long, life-changing work Gavin has offered has been recently recognised by the Lions Club, which made him a Melvin Jones Fellow for his humanitarian work.
This drive to help others comes from his own struggles – including overcoming psychological wounding incurred during the Vietnam War, which he traces back to a after seeing a man beaten to death in front of him.
The seriously disruptive and adverse effects of this began to show a decade after witnessing the brutal event, and he eventually was diagnosed with Anxiety Neurosis – a group of conditions and symptoms now termed Post Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI).
On some of his extended support trips around the East Coast, he and his colleagues will visit up to 60 veterans, checking in, seeing if they need anything, talking. It can be tiring and difficult, but makes a difference, he says.
Another of Gavin’s major achievements has been in campaigning for New Zealanders affected by exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
He has achieved recognition from the medical and legislative authorities – and access to Veterans’ Affairs funds to manage the debilitating effects on them and their children. Gavin and four of his comrades worked together as a team, spraying it by hand during the War in July, 1970. They were issued special overalls for the job, because the chemical mixture would quickly disintegrate their boots and uniforms. Gavin is the last man of his group left alive.
“What I know comes from experience, from what has happened to me.”
Changing times make experience even more valuable
The service community needs to overcome historic disagreements, pull together, and focus on delivering meaningful support where it is needed most, Gavin says.