As dawn broke over Hampton beach last ANZAC Day, Helen Ward began to see the faces of the thousand-strong crowd gathered around her.
A sense of gratitude was clear in the eyes of the young and old, joined together in the brisk early morning to pay their respects to Australia’s fallen.
In that moment, Commander Ward, a 30-year Navy veteran, felt an overwhelming sense of pride and relief that her first Dawn Service as the newly elected President of the Hampton RSL Sub-Branch had gone off without a hitch
"It was a wonderful feeling. I could see so many young faces in the crowd, people who want to be involved and hungry to learn more."
At the same moment, many kilometres away on the outskirts of Melbourne, business manager, Colette Shaw was also taking in the enormity of the morning in her new role as President of the Healesville RSL Sub-Branch.
"I am so proud of the position and so proud to be involved with a club that means so much to my community."
“I had a few people say to me, ‘But you’re not a veteran, the President should be someone who has served’, and my response is very simple — Why should our veterans, who have already given so much service to this country, now have to come and give service to other veterans? Why can’t I do what I can to support them?”
Colette and Helen are part of a new generation of women presiding over RSL Sub-Branches across Victoria. At the moment, a record 16 RSL Sub-Branches in Victoria have female Presidents, and Colette and Helen hope they can encourage more women to join them
Helen Ward (56) has enjoyed a distinguished career with the Navy.
After enlisting when she was 21 and training at HMAS Creswell, the biochemist began her Defence career in a teaching role, progressing through the ranks working on a variety of projects including the Department of Defence’s Land 400 project, delivering the next generations of armoured vehicles for the Army.
In 2007, Helen was deployed to Iraq, working on shore with the media operations team in Baghdad. It was considered the deadliest year of the Iraq War, with a peak armed force of 170,000 troops battling sustained insurgent uprisings.
Despite decades serving, it was only after Helen returned from Iraq that she joined her local RSL Victoria Sub-Branch. She’d previously felt RSLs were only for those who had served on the front line.
“I thought, ‘Now that I’ve returned from something, I can jointhe RSL,’ which is the very barrier we are trying to break
down because that’s not how the RSL is today,” she said.
"Veterans are everyone who serves in any capacity, from Reservists to those who’ve served at the front line and those just starting a career in Defence, we want everyone to come to the RSL and be a part of that community. And we want to ensure the Sub-Branch is totally welcoming and inclusive of everyone."
Helen’s initial involvement was about getting together with friends and colleagues, but she very quickly rolled up her sleeves for battle when the Sub-Branch was threatened with closure.
Today the Hampton RSL Sub-Branch is thriving.
The Sub-Branch has installed a Gallipoli Memorial Garden and recently unveiled a replica of the Long Tan Cross and their next project is a tribute to those buried at the Western Front. Each week they welcome students from local Bayside schools, teaching the history of those from their community who served and lost their lives.
"There are incredible stories of service and sacrifice all around us and that’s the message we want to get across. It’s so important for the current generation to know this history."
As of 30 June 2020, the participation rate of women in the permanent ADF reached 19.2% while women make up 45.4% of the Defence Australian Public Service (APS) nationally. In Victoria, 45% of the RSL membership is women, with more than 80,000 female members.
Colette Shaw (50) encourages women to put their hand up for roles. Four years ago, the businesswoman joined her local Healesville RSL Sub-Branch after offering to help with its ANZAC Day commemorations
Soon after, she was invited to join the committee and when long-serving President Brian Luscombe stepped down from the role, he asked Colette to become President of the 102-year-old Sub-Branch.
As she is not a service member of the RSL, it was simply a matter of seeking approval from RSL Victoria who naturally supported her appointment.
“Although I haven’t served, my maternal grandfather served in World War II and my dad was a Reservist, so I have strong connections. But first and foremost, I’m very community minded and I believe if you can help serve your community, you should,” she said.
"“I’m very passionate about supporting our veterans and the veteran community. The community should be looking after our veterans, they shouldn’t have to rely on one another."
Colette, who has built a career in sales and business and recently completed a master’s degree, has now applied to join the Army Reserve. It was something she has wanted to do since she was 17 years old.
“I get a profound sense of satisfaction from helping others, I really do love it and I’ve always had a community-service mindset. I’ve gained so much experience from my RSL role and I want others to have that same feeling.”
Like Helen, Colette is focused on encouraging younger veterans and younger people in the community to become involved.
“It’s a fantastic feeling when you can do something to help
someone else,” Colette said.
“There is a palpable sense of friendship and camaraderie
at these Sub-Branches. There’s always someone up for a cup of coffee and a chat — everyone has a place here,” Helen said.