Indigenous veteran reflects on military career ahead of ceremony

20 May 2022
  • First Nations
  • ANZACspirit
  • History & commemoration
  • Veteran stories

When Indigenous veteran Ray Rosendale CSM attends the Indigenous Veterans’ Ceremony in Brisbane on 28 May as a keynote speaker, he will reflect on his life in the Royal Australian Navy and reveal why it’s important to honour the thousands of Indigenous service people, both past and present, who have served and sacrificed for our nation.

Indigenous service people have served in every war and conflict since the Boer War, despite being legally excluded from military service until 1949. As Ray says, “this ceremony is not only an opportunity to highlight the service of our First Peoples, but also to reflect and recognise that not all veterans were treated equally both during and after service”. 

Prior to 1949, the Defence Act (1909) prohibited Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people from enlisting. In 1917, the Act was amended so ‘half castes’ could enlist with Ray saying it was “during World War Two official government policy remained restrictive and there was a ‘colour bar’ that effectively prevented Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from serving in the military”. 

“Returned Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans from both wars were not, in most cases, allowed land grants like other veterans and were not allowed into clubs or pubs in most of Australia with their comrades, in some cases right into the 1970s,” Ray says. 

Ray Rosendale


It’s a different story today though, according to Ray, who says the Australia Defence Force is a diverse and inclusive organisation that truly represents our nation. 

“In my time serving in the Royal Australian Navy, I found, with a few exceptions, that my service was physically and spiritually rewarding. 

“I was lucky to have joined during a period in the ADF where the inequities of the past no longer created restrictions and was privileged to serve in various places, doing things that most only read about or see in movies.  

“While some racism remained, it was mostly from an individual’s perspective, with most serving members treating you like a brother and caring only that you had their back – both when going into danger or in our life at home. This is by far the most important thing that I took away from my service,” Ray says. 

Ray Rosendale


Ray, who retired from the Navy in 2017 following a lengthy and decorated career, reflects fondly on his life in the military and is today, a passionate advocate for encouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to consider a life in Defence. 

“The opportunity to achieve at the highest levels is available to those who seek it through education and advancement on merit.  

“The inequities and racist policies of the past have been relegated to history and today’s service personnel are recognised for their service not on their ethnicity, gender or religion, but on the values and abilities that make our ADF one of the most equitable employers in the nation.  

“The friendships and networks built while serving stay with you for life, and the people that you serve with become your allies in working towards a reconciled Australia will help to build a stronger nation,” Ray says. 

“Being a veteran, I have seen the worst of our world, but I have also seen the best – people enduring great adversity with strength, honour and compassion regardless of their ability to change their situation.” 

Ray, a Kuku Yalanji man of the Western Sunset people, whose traditional lands are situated northwest of Cairns in Far North Queensland, enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy in 1991. He served in the first Gulf War onboard HMAS Canberra before continuing his service on Her Majesties Australian Ships Whyalla, Shepparton, Ipswich, Tarakan, Darwin, Melville and Leeuwin and shore establishments Cerebrus, Kuttabul, Cairns, Stirling, and Watson, and as staff in the Office of the Chief of Navy. 


In January 2013, former Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Griggs appointed Ray as the Navy Strategic Advisor on Indigenous Culture Affairs. It was the first time an Indigenous serving member held a permanent appointed position focussed on the affairs of the First People under the direct command of a Service Chief.  

While in this position, Ray earned a Conspicuous Service Medal for his efforts, until his discharge from the Royal Australian Navy in 2017. 

“To be selected as the Navy Strategic Advisor on Indigenous Cultural Affairs to the Chief of Navy was a highpoint of my career.  

“I was the first non-commissioned officer to be appointed to a Service Chief and the only appointed Indigenous Advisor in the ADF. 

“This allowed me to assist Navy to become an employer of choice in the recruitment and retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people,” Ray says. 

Ray Rosendale


In 2017, Ray decided it was time for another challenge. After discharging from the Navy, he began full-time studies at Central Queensland University, graduating in in 2021 with a Bachelor of Human Services and a Bachelor of Social Work with First Class Honours.  

“Coming from a blended Aboriginal and European family, I have always been acutely aware of ‘social injustice’ in its many forms. This, combined with my experiences in the military, set me on the path to find a way to do something better,” Ray says. 

Now employed as a Community Services Officer – First Peoples at Cairns Regional Council, Ray strives to offer the same level of genuine support to others and make First Peoples advancement a priority for the region. He works closely with the community to resolve concerns, issues, and problems that First Peoples may be facing in his area. 

“I see social workers as ‘modern warriors’ – fighting for people, not with weapons of destruction and violence, but weapons of justice and resilience,” Ray says. 

While the service and sacrifice of Indigenous Australians is often overlooked in the telling of Australia’s military history, RSL Queensland is acknowledging and honouring the invaluable contribution our Indigenous service people have made – and continue to make – to the defence of our nation. 

“I commend RSL Queensland for taking a stand and becoming a leader in telling the whole truth, allowing us as both veterans and the wider community to learn and understand why it is important to know and discuss historical truth,” Ray concludes. 

Ray will attend the 2022 RSL Queensland Indigenous Veterans’ Ceremony on Saturday 28 May at 11am at The Shrine of Remembrance, ANZAC Square, Brisbane, where he is a keynote speaker.


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