RSL NSW apologises to Vietnam War veterans

Fifty years since the end of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the Returned and Services League in NSW apologises for the mistreatment of veterans who returned home from the conflict – and reaffirms its pledge to stand for all veterans now and in the future.

At a glance:

  • At a Vietnam Veterans’ Day service in Sydney, RSL NSW President Ray James apologised to veterans who returned home from Vietnam.
  • James said that some veterans were spurned by veterans of previous conflicts, and turned away and refused membership by some RSL sub-Branches in NSW. 
  • The RSL in NSW reaffirms its pledge to stand for all veterans, no matter the length or nature of their service, and regardless of whether they are RSL sub-Branch members.

At a Vietnam Veterans’ Day service at the Martin Place Cenotaph in Sydney, RSL NSW President Ray James OAM, on behalf of the League in NSW, apologised for the mistreatment of veterans who returned home from the conflict – and reaffirmed the League’s pledge to stand for all veterans now and in the future.

Read his apology speech in full below.

Returning home

“When I returned from each trip to Vietnam between 1966 and 1971, I came home to my family. I was then and still am very lucky to have my family around me – because I also came home to people demonstrating against the war in Vietnam, and against those who served, sacrificed and even gave their lives.

“Many of those we are commemorating today, who served, who sacrificed, didn’t have a community around them to provide ballast amid that public opinion.

“Some were spurned by veterans of previous conflicts, turned away and refused membership by some RSL sub-Branches in NSW. Those who were turned away were left isolated, without access to key support services or a network of like-minded peers.

“Today, I’m here to commemorate 50 years since the proclamation to end Australia’s involvement in the war in Vietnam. To recognise the service of all Australians in that war, and honour the sacrifices they and their families made.

“I’m here as a veteran of the war in Vietnam who remembers that sacrifice, and I honour my mates today.

“But I’m also here as President of the RSL in NSW – and for the first time, I’m here to reckon with the past and to address a wrong.

“When veterans needed the League the most, the RSL community in NSW let them down. For those injustices and for our misjudgement – we are sorry. To the veterans who have been at the receiving end of hardship and negativity – we are sorry.”

Improving the future

“Today, we recognise the dedication of the Australians who served or were involved in the war in Vietnam. Some 60,000 fought in a protracted and challenging conflict; others never left Australia; all made an indelible contribution.

“These past weeks, I have attended several vigils.

“In Thirlmere Cemetery I joined more than 150 mourners at the grave of Ian James Thomson, a much-loved 22-year-old who was killed in action in Vietnam. Ian’s family and his company commander, who had been by his side when he was killed, honoured his sacrifice and remembered his bravery.

“At a vigil in Rookwood, my wife Pauline and I saw two other veterans, RSL sub-Branch members, placing poppies on the graves of those who had served and lost their lives.

“As representatives of a community of veterans in this state, we are already doing better than we did in the past. But we recognise that we must continue that focus on being better. We must continually work to ensure that the experiences on home soil that tested some Vietnam veterans’ tenacity, rather than offering comfort, are not repeated for veterans of recent conflicts and in the future.

“We know that this apology does not erase the past – but it could improve the future. Together with our charity partner RSL LifeCare Veteran Services, and in collaboration with smaller veterans’ charities throughout the state, RSL NSW provides support and services to benefit veterans and their families.

“RSL NSW above all remains a member-based non-profit, welcoming all veterans.

“But more must be done, and soon. The ongoing Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide shows a stark need for veterans’ support services to be prioritised at a policy and organisational level, and for institutions to improve their management of current and ex-serving personnel at every stage of their careers and lives. The League’s submissions to and reflections on the progress of the Commission reflect our steadfast support for its findings.”

Standing for veterans

“We must not let those experiences of some veterans on their return from the war in Vietnam be repeated for the veterans of today’s generation.

“And so, the RSL in NSW reaffirms its pledge to be and stand for all veterans, no matter the length or nature of their service, and regardless of whether they are RSL sub-Branch members. We will work harder to provide a warm welcome to all veterans and their families, and affirm their trust in the state’s largest ex-service organisation.

“We will do better.

“Many of our 27,000 members are leaders who act in service of their communities. A great many of today’s members are veterans of the war in Vietnam, who we’re here to honour today.

‘Those veterans, our members, have devoted countless volunteer hours – tens of thousands of hours – over the past 50 years to ensure that the League in NSW remains a home and support for veterans and their families.

“And still, with all that they do, our members ask me – ‘how can I help?’.

“It starts with a promise, and it starts today; I promise that RSL NSW will not repeat the mistakes of the past. I encourage all veterans, whether you are a member of the League or not, to be a part of this commitment.

“Start with a promise of your own – to continue your service. Where you once served your country, you now serve your community of fellow veterans. Embody the League’s principles of mateship and camaraderie by lending a helping hand to your peers.

“And I encourage the wider community – the friends, relatives and colleagues of veterans – to take up this promise. Reach out and connect the veterans you know with support and services available to them at their local RSL sub-Branch.

“The Returned and Services League in NSW strives to be a place of protection and safety, of camaraderie and union, where every veteran is welcome and no one is left behind. We all have a part to play in achieving that.”

RSL NSW welcomes veterans of any age – and from any conflict – to join the organisation. Access support services and become part of a like-minded community of peers – become a member of RSL NSW.

Related Stories
Follow veteran Mic Whitty’s cycling journey across the world
Latest News

Follow veteran Mic Whitty’s cycling journey across the world

Michael ‘Mic’ Whitty’s quest to cycle to Commonwealth war cemeteries was prompted by a chance...
Marc Mathews on connecting veterans with the support and services they need
Expansion of Veterans’ and Families’ Hub Network
Latest News

Expansion of Veterans’ and Families’ Hub Network

In a landmark move to improve support for veterans and their families across NSW, RSL LifeCare, in...
Royal Commission: How far have we come, and what’s next?