RSL – A proud history, becoming even more relevant today

By Major General (Retd) Greg Melick AO RFD FANZCN SC
National President
Returned & Services League of Australia

The Returned & Services League of Australia (RSL) is more than a century old, but the organisation continues to look to the future. It is seeking to assist new generations of veterans and their families and introducing contemporary programs and assistance in areas such as employment and mental health training.

Portrait photo of a middle aged man smiling

With the modern-day pressures on veterans and service personnel, the RSL is perhaps even more relevant today than when it was established.

The RSL was founded in 1916 to address the lack of organised repatriation facilities and medical services available to those returning from service in the First World War. Many of these veterans returned to Australia with serious mental and physical disabilities and the RSL performed a vital role in securing ongoing support services and official recognition.

Today, these important aims remain a motivating force, but while honouring and respecting the past, the RSL continues to look forward. We are working hard to modernise our organisation to ensure that it is well-resourced and available to assist all veterans and their families. Our core mission has never changed but has continued to evolve to meet the needs of each generation of servicemen and women and their families, as well as the promotion of a secure, stable, and progressive Australia.

Current issues like the pending Royal Commission into and Defence and Veteran Suicide, the alleged war crimes in Afghanistan and the withdrawal from Afghanistan are being addressed and every possible assistance being provided.

The RSL is acutely aware that the situation in Afghanistan is having a major impact on veterans of that country’s conflict. They need to be assured that their effort and sacrifice is appreciated by Australia and was not in vain. The commitment, courage and contribution of those who served our nation in the conflict is well recognised by the RSL and its members.

The RSL’s traditional roles of veteran welfare, advocacy and commemoration continue to be at the forefront, and new roles have been implemented and evolved in the areas of mental health and veteran employment. RSL Australia will be working with Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling over the next year to deliver Mental Health Literacy workshops across the country to the veteran community. 

The RSL Veterans Employment Program is another new key initiative, to provide veterans and their families with services including resume development, counselling and employment placement assistance.

With a membership of about 150,000, supported by 3,700 Women’s Auxiliary members, all managed through state branches and some 1,154 sub-branches, the RSL is the oldest, largest and most representative ex-service organisation in Australia. 

Since its origins, the League has had a particular concern for the welfare of veterans, widows, and their dependants. This includes practical support to those in need, the management of aged-care facilities, and programs and the promotion of commemorative activities.

The RSL plays an increasingly important role in providing the Australian Government, through the departments of Veterans Affairs and Defence, with a direct line of consultation with the veteran and serving communities in both the establishment and review of policies and practices impacting on our community. 

In recent years, we have provided submissions to important reviews and inquiries on military superannuation, injury compensation and rehabilitation, disability pensions and recognition of families and members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) injured, wounded, or killed while serving.

Currently, we are preparing input to the review by the independent Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal of unit recognition for ADF personnel who served in the Somalia conflict.

Our deep concern at the incidence of suicide, attempted suicide and the broader mental health issues confronting veterans is long-standing and well known. This is a very real and present problem that must be resolved.

For this reason, the RSL has been prominent in its representations to Government in the development of terms of reference for the forthcoming Royal Commission and will be presenting a detailed submission to hearings when they get underway. Our submission will represent the voices of all RSL members, veterans and their families and we are ready to provide all possible assistance during the operation of the Royal Commission.

We are also encouraging and will assist veterans to make individual submissions and representation to the Royal Commission, as well as providing access to mental health support, counselling, and further assistance both during and after the hearings.

The Royal Commission provides the opportunity to determine all the factors contributing to the poor mental health experience of veterans and the alarming incidence of suicide and attempted suicide. It provides a clear pathway for better outcomes for our veteran community in the future.

Importantly, through all our representations and activities, the RSL is apolitical, but we do work to ensure that governments – state, territory and federal – meet their obligations, to veterans, Defence personnel and the broader Australian community.

Our state branches and National Office engage with governments at all levels to enhance support and remove inequities for all veterans. Recognising there will always be limits on what is possible, we seek fairness and greater support for those in need. 

We actively promote our policies on national issues, particularly the defence of Australia, conditions of service of serving members of the ADF and the development of a national defence infrastructure and defence industry.

The RSL has a strong and committed membership spread throughout the length and breadth of Australia. As an organisation, we work hard to ensure that our members’ needs, and expectations are met and that we all share a strong sense of belonging and pride in our service and involvement in the RSL.

Over the last 100 years, the needs may have changed, our role and responsibilities grown and evolved, and our approach modernised and expanded, but our commitment to the veteran community is unbroken and our resolve to serve is now stronger than ever.

At its heart, the RSL is a service organisation. Our future remains in the hands of our committed members and the effective contribution we all make.

Lest we forget.