On the ground: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans Commemoration Service 2023

We spoke with attendees, organisers, participants and speakers at the recent Commemoration Service, held at the ANZAC Memorial on Sorry Day 26 May.

Not sure what the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans Commemoration Service is? Start here.

“Working with RSL NSW and the committee has gone back a long way. [It’s important] to share our story of where we’ve come from and to be given the  equality of our time of serving, and particularly to pass on to the younger generation. And the participation of the schools is always a big thing and the presentation. And to take that through to the next generation is very important.”

– Uncle Harry Allie AM BEM

“Last year, I gave the commemorative address, and so they very kindly invited me back. I think recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans is long overdue. Aboriginal servicemen and women have made a huge contribution, which until recently hasn’t really been understood or recognised.

“These guys fought for their country, came back, and didn’t even have the vote. They weren’t counted in the census until the 1967 referendum […] I think things have come a long way. And that’s a good thing.

“Army, Navy and Air Force now all have programs to encourage Indigenous enlistment, and even the APS has an Indigenous program. Things have still got a way to go, but when you think of what it was like 30 years ago, the change is huge”.

– Jim Sinclair, Helensburgh RSL sub-Branch

“I actually had a look at the list of speakers that have spoken before, and to follow on from the rest of those speakers, that was a privilege – to be asked to do this and to be able to tell some stories of Indigenous soldiers and their significance. I think that message still hasn’t gotten out there as well as it could. And it’s quite important to me to share some of that.”

Sheppard’s Commemorative Address had been inspired by a fundraiser the night before, at the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence:

“It was about the Kinchela Boys Home. They had a short movie and in that movie, there was a sentence that mentioned an Aboriginal soldier from WWII.

 “So I went home and I looked him up: Private Cecil Robert Clayton, service number NX36259. Private, Australian Army, 2/13th Australian Infantry Battalion. Conflict operations: Second World War 1939 to 1945. That’s part of the record from the Australian War Memorial.

 “The 2/13th AIF were also the famous Rats of Tobruk, and their story of bravery and toughness is amazing.

 “Private Clayton deployed, fought and returned as a member of that group. When he returned, however, unlike the other members of his unit, he was not granted soldier settlement or any of the other entitlements that someone who fought for this country was granted.

 “On top of this, many of his children were kidnapped – the boys taken to the Kinchela Boys Home and the girls to the Cootamundra Girls’ Home. This was the thanks his country gave him for service.”

 – Lieutenant Commander Sam Sheppard, Commemorative Address, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans Commemoration Service

“The Uncles shared their stories, and the fact that helping to heal from the trauma was that truth telling and that sharing of their stories – it was quite important for me to help to share that message as well”.

“A lot of Aboriginal [soldiers] never identified […] it’s horrible what this country has done to them. [The Service was] designed for the kids and their education. That’s what this is about. Those kids that were here for that speech today – that is up there with the best.”

– David Williams, President, NSW Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Veterans & Services Association

“We [The Nggayi Group, Catholic Schools Broken Bay] were asked to come today to perform the welcome dance. Being a part of the event is really special because the more we go on in time, we’re reflecting more on the past […] People went and fought for our country but they weren’t acknowledged in the past.

– Michelle Moylan, Learning Partner for Aboriginal Education, Catholic Schools Broken Bay

“It’s important to pay our respects to our Indigenous brothers and sisters that have served – they might not necessarily have received recognition like that in the past. The Lieutenant Commander’s speech highlighted that fact and particularly the benefits that weren’t afforded to the returned Indigenous soldiers when they came back home.”

– Tristan Gibbs, RSL NSW member

“It’s important to deal with Indigenous soldiers and recognise their service previously, and moving forward from there.”

– Michael Ali, Helensburgh RSL sub-Branch

“[This service] means a lot – the Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people who served our country getting the recognition they deserve for their service. As Sam Sheppard said [in his Commemorative Address], they came home and they weren’t welcomed with land like the non-Indigenous Australians. It means a lot. It’s one step closer to closing the gap in my eyes.”

– Lynton Robbins, Indigenous Cultural Performer, Able Seaman Aviation Support

Watch the full service, which was live streamed on Facebook.

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