Professor Kylie Russell explains how the ARVL program began: A knock on the door
For families that have a member serving in the Australian Defence Force, there's always the dread of receiving that knock on the door.
Sadly, for Sergeant Andrew Russell's family, this day came far too early. Serving in the Perth-based regiment, Sergeant Russell was the first Australian to be killed in battle since the Vietnam War. He tragically lost his life in battle on 16 February 2002.
Ahead of ARVL Awareness Week (9-16 February) we sat down with Andrew's widow, Professor Kylie Russell, to remember this life-changing moment and the actions they took to remember his legacy.
"Being the wife of a soldier, you always know that there's a risk that at some point in time you might get that knock on the door. And then I did and that just changed everything," said Kylie.
"Something that really stuck with me when I tried to figure out what to do after Drew's passing. I remember him talking to me after the Black Hawk tragedy and saying that if anything was to ever happen to him, it would be just me and I'd have to learn to look after myself."
"After Drew's passing, I had an amazing network of people around me who had offered to support me if I wanted to pursue opportunities and make a difference for our veterans. And so that was what I did. I started reaching out to people and making connections and talking about how we could make a difference.
"When our veterans started to return from Afghanistan, the injuries were horrific. The stories that I was hearing, I just couldn't breathe. I was going to sleep each night in my home, in my comfortable place, knowing my daughter was safe and it troubled me that Drew's mates were coming home and didn't have that same sense of safety or security. And so it was time to make a change.
"I journeyed on and joined a number of various committees to support veterans and eventually found my way into the Veterans Living program space. It was there I was introduced to RAAFA and realised that together we could make such a difference to the life of our veterans."
Together with RAAFA, Kylie developed the Western Australian Andrew Russell Veteran Living (ARVL) program in memory of her late husband, Sergeant Andrew Russell. Working in union, RAAFA and Kylie have dedicated extensive time and resources to address the most pressing issues our veterans face when returning from service.
Kylie confirmed that while there's a lot of talk in the media about the defence force and veterans being at a higher risk of experiencing homelessness — no one understands why.
"I don't think Australians always understand why veteran homelessness or suicide occurs. But what we've learned from our research and input is that when our veterans leave the military, that's a huge time of adjustment. They're leaving the very people who are there to support and understand their lived experience. They don't even need to speak the words, just by being together they know how they're feeling and they look after each other," said Kylie.
"When they leave service, a defence force member becomes very vulnerable as they begin the journey of a veteran. They often in Australia move to the other side of the country. They may go to live with family who haven't lived nearby for decades. They now find themselves in a place that may not be that familiar and they're with people who simply don't understand what they've experienced and what they're feeling and how that's impacting on them.
"That's the life of being in the military. I'll always remember a veteran telling me that on leaving the defence force and taking that time to find a new job, it left too much time to think, to relive the memories. And in reliving the memories came the sorrow, the fear. Then came the drinking. Then came the arguments with family and loved ones. Then came the divorce, followed by the homelessness.
"This was a space that this veteran had never thought that they would ever find themselves in, and no veteran ever does. But no one knows until they leave what their life may be and that is why the ARVL program was developed," said Kylie.
In honour of his service, ARVL Awareness Week will begin on Sergeant Andrew Russell's birthday, 9 February 2024, and continue through to the day of his passing, 16 February 2024. Show your support for veterans in need and donate to the ARVL Appeal today.