In 2012, two Canberra-based military colleagues with no not-for-profit experience founded a charity to support wounded soldiers returning from Afghanistan. CEO and co-founder John Bale explains how Soldier On grew from grassroots charity to national heavyweight.
John Bale joined the Australian Army in 2002 with a schoolmate, Michael Fussell, who was later killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2008.
“His death hit me pretty hard. It was like losing a brother. I began to wonder what his life would have been like had he somehow survived his horrific injuries,” Bale says.
At the time, there was no Australian organisation dedicated to supporting wounded soldiers from recent conflicts, and so with partner Danielle and colleague Cavin Wilson, he founded Soldier On in 2012.
“We had been to war, and no one had really appreciated the long term effects on the community. A new narrative emerged. We wanted to make people aware and ensure we didn’t treat wounded soldiers the way we did after Vietnam.”
Soldier On has now helped over 500 people and opened three reintegration centres in Canberra, Sydney and Adelaide, with centres to open in Victoria and Western Australia in coming months. Its patron in chief is Corporal Mark Donaldson VC, and the organisation counts Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tina Arena among its ambassadors.
Bale says a decade of military experience provided transferrable skills for building a not-for-profit.
“In the military, your ability to complete a mission relies on recognising that you’re not always the expert. You need to know your limitations,” he says.
For Soldier On, this involved developing corporate relationships and encouraging businesses to provide in kind support.
“Corporate relationships helped us to transition from an amateur volunteer organisation into a professional charity. We’ve received generous support from companies including Minter Ellison, KPMG and Beames and Associates, and this has been crucial to our success.”
Canberra headquarters have also benefitted the organisation.
“If we were based in Sydney we might get more public awareness, but in Canberra you can connect to the whole nation very quickly,” he says.
Bale says state and territory governments have a responsibility to support all service personnel affected by trauma. With this in mind, Soldier On will soon launch a pilot program targeted at ACT emergency services workers – the first of its kind in Australia.
“The trauma that emergency services workers experience is different to what you might experience at war, but the end state is the same,” he says.
“If the ACT Government were to provide a plot of land so that we can build a new centre to support emergency services workers, we wouldn’t say no.”
Amy Birchall is a Canberra-based marketer, business writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Management Today magazine, ABC Online, The West Australian and a range of Australian regional news outlets.