Karlas Schandley is stealing along a riverbank in an isolated corner of north-western Australia, pausing occasionally to study his surroundings. He's on the hunt for a goanna, but anything edible will do – bush turkey, catfish, even wild plums.
"It makes a break from Army rations," jokes Private Schandley, who hails from an Aboriginal community near Fitzroy Crossing.
The 23-year-old is a reservist in Norforce, a unique Army regiment that serves as the eyes and ears of northern Australia. Soldiers patrol nearly 700,000 sq miles of tropical bushland, desert and savannah, believed to be the largest operations area of any military unit in the world.
The regiment is also one of the few organisations in Australia dominated by indigenous people, working alongside and on equal terms with their white counterparts.
While other government agencies agonise about substandard housing, poor health and truancy – all serious problems plaguing Aboriginal Australia – the Army goes into communities and recruits young men and women. The local knowledge of indigenous recruits is highly prized, as is their ability to live off the land.
"These guys have fantastic bush skills," says Major Glen Kuschert, commanding officer of the squadron that covers the Kimberley region.
Based on a Second World War observer unit, Norforce conducts surveillance and reconnaissance of Australia's thinly populated northern border, watching out for illegal fishermen, drug smugglers and wildlife poachers. In wartime, its soldiers – operating in some of the most remote terrain on earth – would be deployed to observe enemy movements.
With jobs scarce in the settlements of the "Top End", Norforce has become an important employer. But the regiment, which marked its 30th anniversary last year, wants to elevate more black recruits into senior ranks. Recently it celebrated the commissioning of its first Aboriginal officer, David Isaac.
During an exercise near Kalumburu, an Aboriginal community 900km north-east of the coastal town of Broome, soldiers described how joining the Army had changed their lives.
Pte Schandley, a member of the Gooniyandi language group, used to be unemployed and a heavy drinker. Now, when not away on Norforce duties, he works as a ranger with the Kimberley Land Council, which looks after indigenous-owned land.
The reservists learn skills which can help them find civilian jobs. In turn, they pass on their traditional knowledge, which includes an intimate acquaintance with the landscape. "If something is out of place – a bush, a rock – they'll pick that up," says Bob Terms, Kimberley Squadron's sergeant major. "They can see if something has been through and not necessarily from tracks – maybe just a broken twig or a thread on a tree."
The push to promote more black recruits reflects wider moves to increase indigenous involvement in the military. At present, Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders – who inhabit the islands between northern Queensland and Papua New Guinea – account for less than one per cent of personnel, compared with 2.5 per cent of the population.
The achievements of men such as Lieutenant Isaac are partly due to a new emphasis on education. Every Norforce course begins with a week of English language, literacy and numeracy. Lt Col Goldston calls Norforce "an agent for social change". He adds: "I think we're making a difference in our own way – and I'm proud of that."
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