Malta cares for veterans. So does the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL) whose mandate is to provide a meal a day to the thousands of elderly veterans who go hungry across the commonwealth.
The Mediterranean island is also unwavering in her bravery. So much so that she is the only country to have ever been awarded the George Cross—the highest civil decoration of the United Kingdom. Imagine, for two years the inhabitants of this tough little island stayed resolute while 30,000 bombs pulverized her buildings, and enemy submarines surrounded her shores and watched as people starved and died from warfare and disease. Between Jan. 1 and July 24, 1942, there was only one 24-hour period when bombs did not fall on the island.
Fortunately, Malta has survived, and so has the caring nature of the RCEL which held its international conference there in May. Many of those attending the five-day gathering have risked their lives helping disadvantaged veterans around the world—from the jungles and cities of Myanmar (Burma) to the squalid refugee camps in Lebanon, or in other trouble spots that don’t welcome outside help.
Just as the Maltese have remained loyal to the ideals of service and care, the RCEL has moved forward with exactly the same principles.
But there is a third player, a founding member of the RCEL that continues to give generously and faithfully. This year, at the 44th dominion convention in Halifax, Legionnaires donated almost $200,000. Once again The Royal Canadian Legion (RCL) has contributed the highest amount on record to the RCEL, an organization that rose from the ashes of war with the solid belief that no serviceman or woman be in need.
Commonwealth countries contributed greatly during both world wars, providing armed forces personnel and essential materiel. Millions of men and women became casualties, and those fortunate enough to survive returned home to face new realities. Many moved on with their lives, but others continued to suffer from wounds, deteriorating health and abject poverty. The need for assistance was enormous partly because some of their countries considered the care of commonwealth veterans the responsibility of the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking left thousands destitute. But the league responded, and continues to do so today. It was created in 1921 as the British Empire Services League, but in the late 1950s the charity changed its name to the British Commonwealth Ex-Services League and in 2003, by royal assent, to the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League. It has 56 member organizations in 48 commonwealth countries where today 65,000 eligible veterans are identified.
With so many countries in the league, this is the first time delegates have met in Malta. Flying in low over the sea, the ancient city of Valletta suddenly appears like a now-arid Atlantis risen from the deep. Building after building is piled up from the water’s edge with not an inch of green anywhere. Other than the narrow streets laid out by the Knights of St. John 600 years ago, there is no break in the mass of stone.
The strategic importance of the islands makes for a colourful history. Prehistoric settlements date from the Stone Age and temples more than 1,000 years older than Stonehenge still stand. Legend has it that St. Paul was shipwrecked here and, while building a fire, was bitten by a viper. He shook the deadly snake off with no ill effect after which the people of Malta believed him a God. He lived in a cave, preached and healed until he succeeded in converting both the island of Malta and the island of Gozo to Christianity. All that in three months.
It seemed everyone wanted a piece of Malta: the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Aragonese, the Knights of St. John, Germans, Italians and British. In the 16th century, the Maltese islands were given to the Knights of St. John. They built forts, hospitals, churches and palaces and their impressive architecture still graces the cities today.
A little over 30 years later, 48,000 Turks attacked. There were only 8,000 Maltese to defend the island, but those 8,000 fought like savages. They shot the heads of the Turks out of cannons, while the Turks cut the bodies of the Maltese in half and floated them on crosses to the island’s edge—gruesome water lilies. Reinforcements arrived from Sicily and the Turks were repulsed.
Then, in the First World War, Malta was nicknamed the Nurse of the Mediterranean, and served as a base to hospitalize the wounded. During the Second World War, from 1940 until 1942, Malta lay under siege. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany did their best to starve the Maltese into submission, but eventually Allied troops got through to feed the starving people and reinforce the islands. By then thousands were killed and injured and piles of rubble were everywhere. On April 15, 1942, King George VI awarded the George Cross to the Maltese people for their courage. In granting the honour he said, “…to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.”
Today, the rubble is gone and the ancient city is clean and orderly. The RCEL conference was in Portomaso, next to Valletta, from May 5 to 10, where delegates gathered for the first time in four years to reacquaint.
Sunday morning the group boarded minivans for a service of thanksgiving and Remembrance at St. Paul’s Pro-Cathedral, Valletta. There, delegates placed wreaths to honour those who gave up their lives with a special note to remember those who have died in recent years in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 31st RCEL conference was officially opened with a welcome address from the prime minister of Malta, Dr. Lawrence Gonzi, who spoke proudly of his country. “You can travel from 40 to 60 minutes from one end of Malta to the other and in that time travel over 7,000 years of history… One of the smallest nation states…it is the fifth densest in population.” The prime minister continued, “We share the values that inspire your work—charity, assistance and care… Malta through its long history has proved its worth. We have been charged with turning nice words into action…” But he also reminded delegates that, sadly, there will always be veterans in need, “witness what was happening originally in Tunisia, then in Egypt, then in Libya… Look what is happening in Syria…we need to keep our eyes open and our ears open to what’s happening around because that is a lesson for us to continue to do our utmost to safeguard what we enjoy today.”
After the prime minister left, the conference got down to business with the unanimous election of His Royal Highness, Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh, as Grand President. That same morning the Honorary Treasurer, Michael Winarick, updated delegates on the RCEL financial picture and paused to thank the RCL. “It is appropriate to remind conference of our continuing debt to the RCL for their significant financial commitment and support to the Caribbean countries. They have provided the equivalent of over 725,000 pounds sterling [$1.2 million] over the past four years. This last year alone they have contributed over 194,000 pounds [$309,000], the highest figure on record… This is the league as it was intended to have run and we are indebted to you all around this table for the support you have given.”
The league’s goal to provide a meal a day for every veteran in need translates to an average of $96 (£60) per year, per veteran identified. In contrast, the RCL, which has taken over the care of veterans in the Caribbean, is able to provide an average of $1,080 per veteran per year and $540 for widows over 60. It is important to note that the Legion has the care of hundreds while the RCEL cares for thousands. Over the last four years the RCEL has supplied almost $2.4 million (£1.5 million) in welfare annually. This is the core function of the league, the welfare of pre-independence veterans, but as those veterans diminish, agency work may very well become the direction which sustains the RCEL into the future. Since the RCEL has networks in place to get funding to veterans in remote locations, regiments and units trying to help veterans from modern conflicts can use those logistics to find and help their own. This is the RCEL’s future.
That afternoon, delegates broke into four groups for regional discussions. The first group was comprised of delegates from Australia and New Zealand, the second Canada, next South Africa and finally England and Scotland. Delegates were encouraged to bring their concerns and ideas forward. The countries in Canada’s group are from the Caribbean and, like all other groups, were tasked to consider the future of the league, inflation, poppy sales, RCEL/RCL tours, relationships with the World Veterans Federation, remembering the serving alongside the fallen, making the two-minute silence on Remembrance Day more meaningful and recommendations on the location of upcoming conferences.
Dominion President Pat Varga chaired Canada’s group and there was unanimous agreement that the league must continue and that rising costs are putting more and more pressure on fundraising. In order to help, the RCL provides poppy materials free of charge to Caribbean nations—a practical way for those countries to encourage donations and foster remembrance at the same time.
Varga also mentioned the RCL’s annual visit to the Caribbean. “We are accountable to our members to the funds that we distribute to the Caribbean and so…we have to be comfortable that these funds are being utilized properly and going to where they are needed most… Every dollar comes from the members, from their hearts and from their generosity and so it is really for our members a real labour of love.”
Four veterans of the Second World War are RCEL delegates and two of them are in Canada’s group. Haynes Cyril, the delegate for St. Lucia, stands strong and straight and looks decades younger than his 91 years. In fact, not much different from the photograph he carries in his wallet, in uniform, shortly after the war. His colleagues marvelled over his youthful looks and carriage, so Cyril leaned back in his chair to demonstrate his secret—sit-ups, leg lifts and stretches. This energetic man is passionate about helping fellow veterans. “We are trying to assist those veterans, their children and their families and, this year, the ex-servicemen who joined with me during the war but were not fortunate to be recruited overseas but they served on the island.” Cyril explained there are still six or seven from that time. “We are trying our best.”
The second morning of business was filled with reports from the regional sessions. From this, the various nations got a sense of the challenges faced by delegates in different parts of the world. They learned that in Lebanon some veterans have been living in the squalid conditions of refugee camps for decades and that Rosie Ghazal, that country’s delegate, meets with them monthly at the embassy for the chance to talk and give them what aid she can. There are so many examples. Secretary General, Colonel Paul Davis explained just a few. “We use members of Zimbabwe a National Emergency (ZANE) to carry out casework and then deliver welfare grants to our veterans and widows throughout the country. We have helped 1,600 in recent years. This provides a very bright ray of sunshine in this dark period in Zimbabwe’s history… In Uganda, our delegate, Herbert Kamyuka, looks after over 1,000 veterans and widows. This has included ensuring welfare grants get to those in need in the wartorn area in the north of the country. He has even managed to replace cattle that had been stolen from an elderly and frail veteran living in the north of the country.”
Varga also briefed the conference. “Many of the Caribbean nations now have people once again in the British service and of course Canada has many returning servicemen and women from Afghanistan. We support them however we can, we advocate for them…and…as we move this organization into the future, that is what agency work will be about, the currently serving. So we asked everyone to remember them as well.”
There were also a few issues raised. Visitors to the Caribbean donate with small change, and like most countries, their banks will not exchange coins, only bills. Both the RCL and the RCEL promised to find a solution. Another concern was the absence of delegates from Jamaica and Dominica.
During the previous day’s meetings, Lieutenant-Colonel Florence Gittens of Barbados pointed out that four years between sessions was too long. She suggested the regions meet once in the interim, in 2014, and offered Barbados as the host country. Canada and the remaining Caribbean countries agreed.
These delegates personify the ideals of Malta and the prime minister was genuinely honoured to be amongst them. “You keep alive the stories of war, but more importantly, the story of peace. Freedom cannot be taken for granted…your work makes us proud…your work is as much about the present as the past… Malta is proud to host you.”
And, in a nutshell, that was the message from the conference: the RCEL will help today and the RCEL will adapt and change to meet the needs of tomorrow, even after the last Second World War veteran has gone. Sadly, there will always be more veterans and, sadly, there will always be need.
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