102-year-old Bert Le Merton has not let his age stop him from raising more than $111,000 for a cause that is close to his heart.
The Lake Macquarie-based World War II veteran has been walking seven kilometres each day to raise the extraordinary sum for Soldier On, a support system for Australia’s defence personnel and their families.
Since 1 March the spritely centenarian has trodden paths totalling 142 kilometres, in and around his Anglican Care home.
He does this as part of a campaign entitled March On in which participants are asked to walk 96 kilometres during the third month of the year – a distance equivalent to the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea.
“They do this because of their [Soldier On] connection to the Kokoda Track,” Bert said.
“I suppose they asked me to get involved because they needed an old bloke who was still capable of walking.
“I’ve been walking around the block at home for ages.”
Bert’s daily walking ritual began on the 75th anniversary of Victory in the Pacific Day (VP Day), Saturday 15 August 2020 – the date marking the conclusion of World War II.
He does this, he says, because he is passionate about the mental health of returned servicemen and women.
“I really got into it because I had a concern that present day service personnel were retiring from the service and many of them were incapable of returning to civilian life,” he said.
“It’s a problem I never had when I retired after my five-and-a-half year service, I simply got a job and got on with life and most of the personnel in my time were doing just that.
“I think because in our battalions we’d largely become brothers and we maintained those friendships over the years.
“We maintained a sensible existence between our service time and our civilian time and that’s probably what saved many of our people from having mental [health] problems.
“But the contemporary service people of today don’t seem to have that relationship when they leave the service.
“They lose the personnel that they served with and they don’t retain that part of their being.”
Bert’s role as an ambassador with Soldier On began this year.
“I found that Soldier On was an organisation which had been formed by much younger ex-service personnel than me, and they were dealing with the retraining of service personnel who were having difficulty and re-educating them in the way of civilian work and also supporting their families,” he said.
“The families needed assistance too.”
From his time as a youngster Bert was always “on the go”.
“I was a kid that walked everywhere,” he said.
“When I went to Glebe Technical College we had a class at Newtown Junior Technical College.
“We were supposed to catch a tram there from my home on City Road but my mates and I scooted across the University Park to Newtown. We saved the fare and spent it on the pictures, I got a fair bit of running there.
“By the time I was 16 I left school and got a job in the city. I bought my first bike, paid for it out of the tram fares I’d saved.”
Bert would continue to ride his push bike as far afield as Gosford for weekend adventures.
“I’m just going fast all the time,” he said.
“Doing training rides up to Penrith or Gosford.
“Those were the days.
“I was still doing bike rides up until I started in the army.”
Bert enlisted in national service on 27 May 1940 in the 2/13th Battalion, 20th Brigade, 9th Division Australian Infantry Forces (AIF).
Less than 12 months later he became a member of the first Australian Regiment to engage in battle with the German Army in WWII.
Bert would later become a member of the 3 Section Mortar Platoon, Australia’s legendary ‘Rats of Tobruk’.
In 1942 he spent time in Palestine and Syria, as well as in the Pacific, New Guinea and Borneo.
During his service Bert began regularly corresponding with Joan Dickson, the “kid sister” of his mate “Johnno”, the woman he would propose to just two days after returning home to Australia in 1946.
Bert and Joan were married for 47 years until she passed away in 1996.
“The basic problem now is they [service personnel] leave the service and they leave their friends behind,” he said.
“Then the families have to deal with the mental [health] problems.
“It was different with us, we maintained relationships after it was over.”
March On 2021 has had 6,227 participants who have walked a combined total of 332,000km and raised $1.6 million.
His favourite saying is “If you don’t move it you lose it”.
Bert has since enlisted the support of his Anglican Care crew who have formed ‘Team Bert’ and walk daily with the man they say is “a hero”.