Digger's Rest: A Soldier's Retreat

Author:
Kylie Hatfield
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“We’ve got to look after our younger guys,” states Nick Forster-Jones, who, along with his wife Karen, have been doing just that for the last 18 months on their private property in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland, which they’ve adapted and opened up to veterans in need of a break.
 
‘Diggers Rest – A Soldier’s Retreat’ is a 22-acre property over rolling hills and bordering state forest, providing a place of respite for former and currently serving members of the Defence force and their families, who feel the need to reset their minds and reconnect.

A converted shed houses Nick’s family, while two, soon to be three, cabins and ample camping ground provide basic accommodation for veterans and their families. It is simple in its design and function, but provides just the right balance between creature comforts and roughing it that appeals to veterans.
View toward the Sunshine Coast hinterland from the driveway at Digger's RestImage source: Rhys Martin
 
Hailing from Rhodesia in Africa, Nick moved to Western Australia in 1982 and joined the Australian Army in 1985. Based out of Sydney with 3rd Battalion, Nick served for just under seven years before moving back to Africa.

“We were the rear echelon, so we were the guys with no wars to go to, which, I think I was blessed,” said Nick.

“But my so called ‘Afghanistan’ so to speak would have been South Africa. With the police in Johannesburg; that’s where my war was.”

Back in Africa, Nick spent the next 13 years working in anti-poaching with the Black Rhino and as a police officer with the South African Police in Johannesburg. During this time Nick met Karen and they started their family, before the lure of the Aussie lifestyle drew them back to Queensland eight years ago.

“You can’t beat Australia for lifestyle. It’s more beach-oriented, which is nice, because we were land-locked,” said Nick.

“Plus it’s effectively a Christian-based, God-fearing country. That’s what drew us here as immigrants back in the day, and the values; it’s on the British system, same as South Africa. South Africa and Rhodesia are part of the Commonwealth, so things here are similar.”
 
Buying their land three years ago as a farm, Nick and Karen moved onto the vacant block with their caravan, tent and container full of furniture. They built a small open kitchen and shower to get by while plans were made to build their house. But it wasn’t long before the idea to set up a veteran respite came to Nick, and their plans changed.

Nick attended an Army vs Navy rugby union game out of interest as he used to play, and saw a presentation
by veteran Tyson Murray, which really resonated with him.
Tractor shed at Digger's RestImage source: Rhys Martin
 
“There wasn’t a dry eye, everyone was just flattened. I came back that night and said to Karen ‘there is a massive need for this’,” said Nick.

Starting with closing in the outdoor kitchen and shower to make a small cabin, a second cabin followed and a third, larger cabin is in construction. These cabins provide basic accommodation and facilities popular with couples or families, however it is the open space suitable for camping that has been popular with veterans visiting on their own, who are happy to roll out their swag.

“The camping side has grown, we didn’t anticipate that, but that has grown. Vets can camp all over, and we actually find it is the Vietnam veterans that like the camping,” said Nick.

While Diggers Rest is not targeted at Vietnam veterans, with the concept designed to assist more the younger or contemporary veterans, Nick and Karen would never turn a veteran away.

“We get a few Vietnam vets coming up, because they’ve got the time, they are retirees. It can actually be a good blend; it can be very productive when we have a Vietnam vet here,” said Nick.

“We have a guy who comes here, turns out he is ex-2RAR. One weekend we had two young 2RAR guys here, and these guys were thick as thieves. It was just that bond, 25 years apart. But it worked for them, so it is good in that regard.”
 
While current and former service men and women are welcome to visit on their own, often connecting with other veterans staying at the same time, Diggers Rest also provides a space for families to reconnect.

“Our philosophy here is it’s not just about the veteran, but also about the family. Without the support of the family, you don’t have the support base (you need). And without that support base you are going to keep collapsing,” said Nick.

“We are all about bringing the family back in. Out here, it clears their head, puts them in a
The Digger's Rest chooksImage source: Rhys Martin
 
different sphere and shows them there are things they can do, because they have served.”

It is through the harmonious environment created at the farm that Diggers Rest has received ongoing support from the veteran community in their drive to expand – slowly – and build further cabins on the property. These cabins are being built by veterans for veterans, and for some, it is their way of giving back.

“We are always looking for things to offer the visitors to do around the farm, if they feel like it, because a lot of them want to do something so they feel like they have given back,” said Nick.

“Like the cabin – we have had offers from guys to come in and finish the cabin, but it’s what has been achieved to get the cabin finished that’s making a huge difference. We had a young guy who regularly visits us find windows online and he paid for them, which was his contribution.”

And the need for growth is evident. Attracting veterans from all over the country, including repeat visitors from Townsville in the north, Victoria in the south, and as far as Western Australia, Diggers Rest accommodated around 40 veterans in the six weeks from the start of July, with demand growing steadily.
 
“We notice that the guys who come have a burst of about five or six visits regularly, and then slowly the gaps get bigger and they are transitioning away,” said Nick, who is happy to support veterans through this process where he can.

“We don’t touch medical, we don’t touch the psychological stuff, or the finance of the veterans; that’s not our department, that’s the RSL’s department. Ours is purely respite, trying to re-set their heads, that’s what we try to do.”
The fire pit at Digger's RestImage source: Rhys Martin
 
A central fire pit also provides an opportunity for veterans to get to know each other in a casual, relaxed environment, often bonding over shared or similar experiences. Having 22 acres of open space, and a variety of farm animals, including horses and chickens, veterans have plenty of opportunity to connect with nature, other veterans or their own thoughts.
 
“We do a lot of walking, cycling and running. A couple of guys came up with packs on and marched, because they reckon it helped lose weight,” said Nick.

“It’s like an escape for the veterans. They honestly feel like they have a safe place here, they feel it is their safe haven, which is good.”
RSL (Queensland Branch) is proud to be the major supporter of Diggers Rest as they support veterans through challenging times.

Find out more about Diggers Rest on their website: www.diggersrest.org.au.