79th year RSA sends taste of Kiwi Christmas to troops overseas
It was more than 30 Christmases ago, but BJ Clark still vividly remembers being far from home and family, opening the treat-laden Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association gift parcel.
The now-National President of the RSA, who took a New Zealand Army team down to Antarctica in 1986 to undertake a major construction project, says he quickly homed in on one particular delicacy: a can of hearty tuatua soup.
“That soup was delicious, warm and, it didn’t last very long at all in that temperature. Having said that, we didn’t let a white Christmas stop us rugging up and tucking into a few Kiwi barbecues.”
Mr Clark joined the RNZRSA Board, Chief Executive Karen Rolleston and staff for one of the most important days on the organisation’s calendar – packing gift parcels for the New Zealand Defence Force personnel serving overseas this Christmas.
And, the RSA team weren’t short on helpers. Defence Minister Ron Mark, Chief of Defence Force Air Marshal Kevin Short, NZDF staff, returned servicepeople and school children were among those rolling up their sleeves to pack more than 300 parcels.
Ms Rolleston says RNZRSA staff love being involved in a tradition that started 79 years ago.
“We’re very grateful to Headquarters Joint Forces NZ which does a phenomenal job helping with organisation, and also ensuring the packages are delivered everywhere from the Israel-Lebanon border region and the Sinai Peninsula, the North and South Korea border, Afghanistan and Iraq to Antarctica.
“It’s so important for us that everyone who receives a Christmas parcel feels with it the immense gratitude, care and support from not just all of us in the RSA movement, but the many others who make this happen.”
RNZRSA Support Services Manager Mark Compain deployed on five operational tours overseas with the New Zealand Army. Today, he works as a champion for the well-being and rights of the serving and the tens of thousands of younger veterans like him.
Two of his tours – Bosnia 1995 and Timor in 2001 – saw him away from loved ones at Christmas, and a very grateful recipient of an RNZRSA gift pack.
“What went down a particular treat one year was a can of beer that was included – a bit of trade quickly ensued among those wanting a little more ale and a bit less Christmas pudding.”
The packs offered some precious Christmas cheer in what was a particularly challenging environment.
“In Bosnia especially, where we were surrounded by so much pain and suffering in a volatile conflict zone, receiving something special from home meant more to us than I could probably explain,” Mr Compain says.
“Today’s modern conflicts and other operations are conducted by mainly professional service people, so it’s easy for the wider public to forget just how much the New Zealand Armed Forces are doing to help protect those who can’t protect themselves.”
It was also a small, but heartfelt, gesture to the troops’ families that their loved ones’ overseas service at Christmas time is appreciated and valued.
“It’s really important we show those left behind that their loved ones have not been forgotten, as they also serve and make considerable sacrifices, which often goes unnoticed.”
Nearly 25 years on, one especially treasured item in Mr Compain’s gift parcel takes pride of place in his box of mementos from Bosnia – the Christmas card that had been tucked inside, a tradition that continues today.
Ms Rolleston says this year’s handmade cards, complete with handwritten message, from children at Wellington’s Mt Cook School and Silverstream School are a treat on their own.
“So much care and thought has gone into these cards – I have no doubt they will, as in past years, become treasured keepsakes of our service people who are overseas this Christmas.”
One young pupil acknowledged how hard it must be to be away from family and friends at Christmas time: “Thank you so much for what you do for our country. I wish you a Merry Christmas”, before giving his card’s recipient some banter for Christmas dinner: “Why did the elves ask the chicken to join the band? … Because he had drumsticks”.
Another hopes whoever receives their card is well and enjoying themselves: “Of course nowhere is as good as NZ. But we can try,” he says.
While one boy sums it up in a few simple words: “Thank you peacekeepers for bringing peace to this world”.
Ms Rolleston paid tribute to sponsors Packaging Products, which supplied boxes, labels and cards, and says Foodstuffs-owned food brand Pams went over and above, spending many hours and giving much thought selecting just the right treats to include.
Pams General Manager Lisa Oldershaw says the team sees their commitment as an honour.
“As a 100 percent owned-and-operated New Zealand company, we’re all about Kiwis supporting Kiwis. Our servicemen and women make such huge sacrifices, being away from their loved ones over Christmas, so being able to bring a little bit of joy to them at this time is really important to us.”
Ms Oldershaw didn’t want to give away too much about the range of goodies overseas troops would be enjoying.
“The surprise is half the treat. What I can say is that there are some classic Christmas favourites, and we’ve included a few new surprises – one being Pams Finest cookies, which come in three delectable flavours: apple pie, hazelnut crème and soft blueberry and white chocolate. Yum.”