HERMES EDITOR PROSPER KEATING CHATS WITH NATIONAL SECRETARY PAUL RAISON
Those of you who use social media and follow the Forces UK Instagram account will probably have seen London Garrison Sergeant-Major Vern Stokes’ warning about supporting veterans’ associations before they vanish. “Use them or lose them” was the GSM’s message. We agree with GSM Stokes but the Parachute Regimental Association — set up late in 1945 to run The Parachute Regiment Old Comrades Association and The Parachute Regiment Officers Club — has been tackling the need for modernisation for some time now, as our reorg on social media, the revamp of the website and the launch of both the newsletter and our new online journal show. One of the things that separates the Parachute Regimental Association from the average other unit associations is that it is as much for serving soldiers as for old gits like, um, me but the PRA needs the participation of more younger veterans and serving soldiers. HERMES chatted recently with Paul Raison about changing times.
Prosper Keating: Is the Parachute Regimental Association or PRA amongst the veterans’ associations facing extinction as Garrison Sergeant Major Vern Stokes warned in his interview with Forces UK on Instagram?
Paul Raison: I wouldn’t go that far in our case. Some PRA branches are having trouble keeping the numbers up but, conversely, we have other branches that have formed and others that have grown in recent years. We have also seen a small number of amalgamations, with two nearby branches joining together as opposed to one closing completely. This way, they retain their own identity within the branch and the membership is strong enough to hold group events.
The number of PRA branches around the country currently stands at 80. This may not seem a lot compared to the 145 Branches the PRA used to have but compared to other regimental associations, we are in a very good place. Look at the number of Royal British Legion branches that have closed down. It’s a universal problem but we are meeting the challenge.
A number of people have been very active in setting up new PRA branches and invigorating old ones. They have done this with the support of younger veterans and serving soldiers using modern methods or communication. They and others are doing a great job and we cannot thank them enough for their time and effort.
PK: How did the PRA recruit in the past?
PR: In the past, PRA membership was available immediately after the jumps course but today, all platoons that pass out are now signed up to the PRA after they have passed P Company before they leave ITC Catterick.
PK: The PRA is not just for Parachute Regiment soldiers and veterans, is it?
PR: The Association was formed in 1945 and made up initially of members of The Parachute Regiment. We later accepted veterans from all of the units that were part of the 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions. We used to see Second World War veterans wearing a variety of regimental and corps badges on their maroon berets and this tradition, which lives on today, is reflected on the PRA website’s new home page.
The funds that started the Airborne Forces Security Fund and The Parachute Regiment Charity came from these additional units, from British Airborne Forces as a whole. The funds came from those men who had earned and worn the maroon beret serving with all of the units that made up the Airborne Divisions. These two charities have now merged into The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces Charity (PRAFC) who trade under ‘Support Our Paras’.
This is why the Parachute Regimental Association is open to all of those who have served with Airborne Forces. This was not the case for some time as the rules for membership did not allow anyone who had not jumped out of a plane to join. This was when parachute training came under Phase 3, ‘in unit’, so to speak.
I changed this in 2017 and it is working very well. I visit Catterick at least three times a year to meet new paratroopers and their families.
PK: Like, for instance, our French colleagues of the Union Nationale des Parachutistes, the PRA also welcomes associate members, doesn’t it?
PR: Yes, absolutely. Most associate members are part of the Airborne Family. They include wives, sons, daughters and so on but we also welcome ‘friends of the Regiment’, who might include historians, writers, sympathetic journalists, people who raise money for our charity…
PK: Some younger veterans complain of feeling unwelcome when they have turned up to check out their local PRA branch. They say that they are snubbed by the old and bold and some speak of being criticised or even refused entry because they weren’t wearing suits or blazers and ties.
PR: There is a time and place for wearing your suit or blazer and medals and there are times when you should be allowed to enjoy a drink with friends in a relaxed atmosphere. A mixture of this should be totally acceptable and if you wish to dress up, so be it.
I have attended branch meetings in in a jacket and trousers where the bloke next to me, with brick dust in his hair, has pulled a Para Reg T-shirt over his work clothes.
I don’t think any of the branches and their members would set out to ‘snub’ new members or make them feel unwelcome. The membership of most branches is made up of older veterans and you will be lucky if they have served while you were in and know who you are.
We have to remember that these meetings or gatherings were the only form of interaction and communication that they knew for many years and that you are dealing with groups of long-standing friends who don’t know you. The best thing is to just start introducing yourself to people and start talking. Give them a chance to get to know you.
I have experienced the cold shoulder treatment a few times. At a regional event in 2016, I was chest-poked by two individuals who I was trying to talk to and accused of being a Walt. It takes time and you have to count to ten a lot but you get there in the end and it is worth the effort.
It is up to new arrivals to introduce themselves rather than waiting around to be looked after. It’s like arriving in your new battalion, or your new company, your new platoon or even your new section. The guys there need to get to know you and you need to make it as easy as possible for them. You are never going to get everything you want from one visit to a branch and that is why I always recommend attending with a friend or two. Stick it out and give it a chance is all I ask.
PK: As with other organisations like the British Legion, some of those running PRA branches were exposed as Walter Mitty types or Walts but the PRA has tackled this problem, hasn’t it?
PR: I deal with this on a regular basis because some of those before me allowed unqualified people to join the PRA, people who then rose to power in their branches. You have to feel sorry for those that continue to do this and I suspect that there is an element of mental illness involved. Thankfully, social media has made it very hard for people to continue these lies.
The PRA has become more insistent about proof of service. Those who ask why or who object to this need look no further than PRA branches who have had members for twenty years or more who are later found to have lied. This has proved to be particularly hurtful to that person’s family when they pass away or need support through illness and we have to check for eligibility.
If you have served in The Parachute Regiment or any other Airborne unit, you should have no qualms about providing minimal evidence of your service.
PK: Some PRA branches complain of the difficulty of recruiting new members. How does the PRA reach out to potential new members?
PR: Some branches ask the PRA head shed — me, in other words — for help in getting people to come to their meetings but then insist on having their meetings during the day on weekdays.
This makes it very hard for younger veterans with jobs and family to support their local PRA branch. Some branches have changed the way they do business and choose to conduct their meeting less formally and at a time that allows working members to attend. Informal meetings and reunions are a great way round this and I would encourage anyone to get involved and attend at least one a year.
Those branches using more modern means of communication are coping very well. They run regular and varied activities to satisfy all age groups and keep their members well informed.
I have been in this job for seven years now and I am constantly looking for ways to improve and make the PRA the organisation it deserves to be. Compared to others, we are faring very well. We have a great brand and people want to be associated with us. With the support of our veterans we will go on for many years to come.
Major Paul Raison was speaking to HERMES Editor Prosper Keating