'It's probably a way of coping': outer Melbourne RSL builds community resilience

Posted on 21 May 2024

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Anzac Day RSL

As Australia celebrates National Volunteer Week, we shine on a light on an RSL sub-branch in suburban Melbourne for which serving members and the community is part of its DNA.

Ten years ago, the Caroline Springs sub-branch of the Returned & Services League (RSL) didn’t exist.

If not for the energy and enthusiasm of two mates - Vietnam veterans Peter Burquest and Murray Lewis - that may well still be the case today.

Inspired following the dedication of a new war memorial they had helped fund in their local community and urged on by mates, the idea to establish an RSL sub-branch slowly took root.

Murray Lewis
Caroline Springs RSL sub-branch co-founder Murray Lewis.

“We thought the population of Caroline Springs justified the establishment of an RSL and we had a lot of support from the community,” said Mr Lewis, a former member of the 1st Armoured Regiment.

Armed with a vision they could do something positive for local veterans like themselves by building a future that cherished stories from the past, the sub-branch in Melbourne’s rapidly growing outer west officially opened in its own premises on February 21, 2014.

“We started off with $65 in the kitty when we finally got our charter to operate in November 2013 and we built up to about 120 members in pretty quick time,” said Mr Burquest.

Today, the thriving branch has more than 300 members and is considered an indispensible part of the local community. Unlike many licensed RSL branches, it doesn't have poker machines and it is a not-for-profit organisation registered as an incorporated association.

As well as providing for a place where current and former military members and their families can connect with each other, it has become a service hub, and many branch members have embraced volunteering with a passion.

Their activities range from educating school students about Australia’s military history to checking in on the welfare of veterans in aged care and at home, conducting ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day ceremonies and running myriad community fundraising activities.

The branch has also built strong ties with local community organisations such as the Caroline Springs Scout group.

“For us, our connection with the Caroline Springs RSL is really important because for many of these kids, it’s their grandfathers that went to war, not their fathers,” said Scouts leader Claire Mouser.

“For them to actually get to know and have a relationship and bond with a veteran, to hear their stories, makes it part of our youth members' own stories.”

The sub-branch even operates a community bus service to and from the train station at the nearby suburb of Mt Atkinson while the residents wait for local train services to be built.

A soon-to-be-released documentary, Those Who Serve, tells the remarkable story of the difference Caroline Springs RSL has made to the lives of its members and the community it serves.

Peter Berquest pic
RSL Victoria state senior vice president Des Callaghan (centre) presenting Peter Burquest (left) and Andrew Marshall (right) with the Caroline Springs sub-branch's 10th anniversary certificate.
“We thought the population of Caroline Springs justified the establishment of an RSL and we had a lot of support from the community.”
Murray Lewis, former member of the 1st Armoured Regiment and co-founder of the Caroline Springs RSL sub-branch.

Initiated by the Caroline Springs RSL with the support of the Victorian Government and the Veterans Council, the 50-minute documentary was made with the help of a grant under the Victoria Remembers program.

Made with compassion, the film contains at times emotional recollections from branch members who talk about their experiences serving in conflicts ranging from World War II, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan to peacekeeping missions in Timor-Leste.

The documentary also highlights the importance of the social support, welfare provision and camaraderie that drive the RSL branch volunteer network and not only help community members but help validate the shared experience of participating veterans.

Among those featured in the film is Caroline Springs RSL sub-branch treasurer Andy Marshall.

A former army medic who served in Malaya, Thailand and Vietnam, Mr Marshall said his branch provides an important place for members to connect with like-minded individuals who understand what each other has been through.

“It’s a bit of camaraderie mate. It’s probably a way of coping if you like.”

After returning to civilian life, Mr Marshall didn’t join the RSL straight away because the nearest branch was too far away.

He learned of the Caroline Springs RSL sub-branch’s existence only when he met members raising funds at a Bunnings sausage sizzle just a few months after it opened.

“I said, where did you blokes come from? Okay, give me the paperwork. I’ll get my documentation and sign up.”

Ten years on and Mr Marshall is serving his second stint as president.

“Everybody has a job to do, but it’s all voluntary of course,” he said.

“We do the best we can to raise money to spend on the welfare of [former] defence members,” said Mr Marshall.

“These people put in a lot of time, to sell the badges, poppies and all the rest of it and it’s appreciated.”

Mr Marshall is particularly proud of the countless hours his members invest checking in on veterans in aged care, in hospital and at home, some of whom are struggling with issues related to their military service.

“We can give advice and put them onto the right people to talk to so they can get looked after,” he said.

“It’s a very rewarding experience when things work out.”

It’s a sentiment shared by volunteer welfare officer Washington Escano.

“Volunteering for the RSL has impacted so much in my life, as it gives meaning and purpose to what I do.”

Caroline Springs
Caroline Springs.

Mr Marshall is proud of the role played by the branch in the creation of a significant memorial to Australia’s military history in his local community.

Visits by veterans to local schools to educate students about Australia’s involvement in conflicts across the globe helped inspire construction of the $1.5 million Walk of Honour in the newly created neighbouring suburb of Aintree.

Walk of Honour
The Walk of Honour includes QR-enabled information stops where visitors can learn more about Australia's military history and those who served. Image: Woodlea.

Mirvac and Victoria Investments and Properties, the developers of Aintree's Woodlea Estate, wanted to honour the military connection to an important World War II signal station that once occupied the site.

After approaching Caroline Springs RSL for ideas, they were inspired by a collection of drawings sent to the branch by local school children thanking veterans for their service.

The result was a 600 metre fully landscaped homage to Australia’s military past unveiled in 2018 featuring 150 individual plaques commemorating those who served in conflicts ranging from the Boer War to Afghanistan.

Planted with more than 150 trees, the memorial also features a reflection pond and eternal flame, along with QR code-enabled signposts at regular intervals along the walk that allow visitors to learn more about various battles via their smartphones.

“The walk is something for Woodlea to be proud of and it’s something for us to be proud of,” said Mr Marshall.

“It was a lot of work and we’ve taken it upon ourselves along with Melton [RSL sub-branch] to look after it now.”

There are more than 1,100 RSL sub-branches in Australia dedicated to the welfare of veterans and commemorative work within their communities.

Like most of his fellow Caroline Springs members, Mr Marshall is excited about seeing the story of his own sub-branch on the big screen for the first time when Those Who Serve premieres on June 15.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing it. I think it’s something we can all be very proud of.”

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