NEWLY retired RSLWA Vice-President Donna Prytulak, OAM, PHF, has dedicated her entire life to the service of others. After 15 years on the Board – and with a new Order of Australia Medal honouring her achievements – she has moved on. But not before sitting down for this interview.
Thank you for your service, Donna. Can you please give us a rundown of your military experience?
I joined 10th Light Horse “A” Squadron in Northam as a reservist. I was the first woman accepted into the unit. I left after 10 years’ service – as a Corporal and as a more confident woman. I also did a few years with the Northam Army Cadets.
What memories do you take from your time in service that fill you with pride and/or joy?
Being the first female to be accepted into a unit where only men were members.
And what was the toughest?
The first ever range shoot I attended at Lancelin. I had never fired a firearm of any sort. I can remember being on the mound and Sergeant Barlow started to coach me – and I started to cry. I thought to myself, what do you think you are doing? I hadn’t fired a gun before and here I was, ready to pull the trigger. He told me to suck it up and stop crying like a baby.
Well, once I fired off the first round there was no stopping me. By the weekend, I had fired all sorts of weapons, but firing the .50 Cal was the best with the last 500 rounds for the day.
What did you take away from your time in the military that saw you want to serve the Veteran community?
The discipline, the organisation, the friendships. It wasn’t an overnight thing that saw me want to help Veterans, it has been a gradual thing. It took some time after leaving the ADF that I realised that Veterans needed help. I didn’t know how to help or what I could do for them.
In what year did you first join the RSL? And how has the organisation evolved in that time?
I joined in 2005. It has grown in leaps and bounds. The stigma of it being a group of old drunken men has gone.
We have come full circle from when the RSL was founded over 100 years ago. It was a group of men getting together to talk among themselves to help with their day-to-day demons. Today, our members are still encountering the same demons – some worse than others.
But the modern-day RSL has changed for the better. There’s more help for the Diggers, they just need to put their hands up and ask. With the new ANZAC House Veteran Central opening soon and with all sorts of groups wanting to be part of it, it will be a welcome help to all Veterans, regardless if they are members of RSLWA or not.
You are seen as a bit of a pioneer when it comes to breaking through the professional glass ceiling, what would you say to women today who are experiencing/considering something similar?
Oh dear, I’m flattered by being called a pioneer. I’m very proud that I may have had a little part in helping ex-servicewomen. There will be people out there saying, ‘what a lot of hot air about nothing, she hasn’t done a thing’. I would argue that.
I have tried my best to speak up for the ex-servicewomen in the RSL and Veteran community. We have 12 ex-servicewomen at Northam SB and am very proud on them.
We don’t have to go out and burn our bra, girls. But show men that we can be responsible and take on positions that men hold and do the job. If, in some cases, we do the better job, so be it. Be proud of yourselves.
Life in the ADF and in the RSL is better now for females. We are treated as equals.
When and why did you join the Board of RSLWA?
I had only been a member of Northam SB for a few months. I really can’t remember what came first …. being the first female President of the SB, or being on the Board for RSLWA. I joined the Board because the Eastern Regional Board member had stepped down. I was asked if I would be interested. As I’m always up for a challenge, I thought, why not.
I’m a very shy person. I know it’s hard to believe. I can remember the first time I walked in and I thought, what are you doing here? You’re out of your league here. But Don Blair, Wayne Tarr and John Cox made me more than welcome, and more recently, Phil Orchard. Olga Greig OAM was a sitting Board member at the time. There have been a few female members, but I do encourage more women to put their hand up.
Can we please take a look at some of your personal achievements/accomplishments?
In my personal life I have been happily married to my husband Mick for 44 years and we have one daughter, Jodie, and her husband Luke. I do thank them from the bottom of my heart for putting up with me. At times, I have put the RSL first before my family.
I have been honoured to receive an OAM this past Australia Day; was made a Paul Harris Fellow, which is Rotary’s highest recognition; and a Life Member of the RSL. These are all achievements I will cherish all for the rest of my life. They don’t come from a rubber stamp, it is all hard work.
How did you find your time on the Board of RSLWA?
We have been through the good, bad and ugly. I’m leaving at a good time – with the future of RSLWA well-planted for the next 50 years at least.
I have enjoyed the past three years more, I think, with ANZAC House Veteran Central started and exciting things happening. Plus, we’ve been achieving a lot more objectives than in the past. It was like a lightbulb moment when the Board realised if it didn’t happen now, it might never.
We had the 100-year Commemoration and celebrations.
But there’s been a lot of “fake news” regarding the Board over the past few months, which has left a sour taste in my mouth. I can only speak for myself, all the hard work that I have put in over the years felt like it was for nothing. Well boys, you have it wrong! Come to me face-to-face and say something, instead of putting it into print.
Why was sitting on the Board so important to you?
Being the voice for the country members that sometimes aren’t heard was important to me.
Who has been your greatest supporter?
My Mum (dec), my wonderful husband, Mick, and my daughter, Jodie, and her husband, Luke. Without their support, I would not been able to do any of this. Then there’s the Board members, whose support and encouragement has meant a lot. And the Northam RSL SB.
Would you encourage other women to follow in your footsteps?
Yes. I can only hope that they do and that I have paved the way for others to put their hands up. I have seen female members come and go. Sometimes you need to be patient, watch and learn. Then, while they are thinking about it, voice your concerns or opinions, otherwise you will not be heard.
And what would you say to women who haven’t previously joined the RSL because they believed it to be a boys’ club?
In some Sub-Branches, it is still a boys’ club. I know people will not like hearing the truth, but it is. I know of ex-servicewomen after an ANZAC Day March, wearing their medals and being invited to go into a SB for a drink … and a member asking that woman to take her grandfather’s or father’s medals off. I have heard of young servicemen going through the same.
Start making SBs more family friendly and you’ll help women Veterans want to join. Organise projects so they can get involved. Don’t pounce on them once they have joined to take on the Secretary or Treasurer’s job. Let them get the lay of the land first. Make them feel more welcome.
What do you believe to be the biggest issues facing the Veteran community today?
The Government needs to come on board with a lot more help for Veterans’ heath, mental issues, advocacy and welfare. It has changed over the years, but a lot more has to be done. Business and communities need to get more involved, too.
What would you love to see take place for RSLWA in the future?
That RSLWA works out a way to promote itself more and recruit more members. To encourage the Veteran and their family to get involved. The community, in most cases, only knows the RSL for its commemorative services. Show them there is more to the RSL than ANZAC and Remembrance Day services.
I would love to see some type of auxiliary for members’ partners or children to join. RSLWA have to try again and see if SBs will come on board to promote it. It was a big mistake years ago when the Women’s Auxiliary was disbanded. They should have been encouraged to keep going. The Women’s Forum went for a few years, which then fell into a hole.
When running courses, try to have more on the weekends, or come out to the regions. Members who could become Welfare officers or Advocates usually work through the week, and would have to take holidays to do the courses.
Bigger SBs should help out the smaller ones, not financially, but with general support. My own SB helped Tammin while they were going through a rough patch. For a short time, Rockingham supported Northam SB. It can be done, it just needs to be promoted more.
What are your thoughts on Veteran Central?
I think it is a great idea. It will bring the Veteran community together; with the Veterans and their families able to go to one place for all their needs. This is the first of its kind in Australia and I can proudly say that I was part of this project from the beginning. I’m hoping that I will be there for the official opening.
What are your plans for the future?
My main aim is to have a Veterans’ Hub coming out of Northam for all the SBs and Veterans in the Avon Region, so they can utilise the facilities that will be available to them before needing to drive to Perth. It will make life a little easier for Veterans and their families. To have the Hub in Northam makes sense.
To the SBs in the Avon Region, this doesn’t mean that you will have to close your SBs down. If anything, it may help you encourage Veterans in your towns to join the RSL and boost your own memberships. Hopefully it will be up and running at the start of 2021.
Other plans are to boost Northam SBs membership numbers; travel; and hopefully become a grandmother.
And finally, is there anything you would like to explore/say that has not been covered here?
I would like to thank everyone I have met over the years while on the RSLWA Board. I believe it has made me a better person and I thank you all for that.
But I can’t go without saying a BIG THANKYOU to the staff at RSLWA. I made lifelong friends over the years and a few have had my back on more than one occasion. I will miss the banter, laughs and everyday chats.
So in leaving, may I say RSLWA, travel safe and may you carry on with the good work that you have done this past 100 years.