The Aboriginal army defending Australia

Indigenous people have been at war with the Aussie establishment for generations. But an army unit that prizes their skills is now fighting the age-old prejudices

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 – a bush turkey, a catfish, even some wild plums. “It makes a break from Army rations,” jokes Private Schandley, who is from an Aboriginal community near the town of 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. Norforce soldiers patrol nearly 700,000 square miles of tropical bushland, desert and savannah, believed to be the largest operations area of any military unit. 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 sprawling, far-flung 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, inhospitable terrain on earth – would be deployed to observe enemy movements and report back on weaponry and numbers.

With jobs scarce in the scattered settlements of the “Top End”, Norforce, or the North West Mobile Force, to give the unit its full title, has become an important employer. 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 900 kilometres north-east of the coastal Kimberley 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. “I enjoy being out bush, and setting an example for the kids,” he says.

The reservists learn skills that can help them find civilian jobs and become community leaders. 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 prints or tracks, maybe just a broken twig or a tiny thread caught on a tree.”

Norforce is modelled on the 2/1st North Australia Observer Unit, which was formed in 1942, following the first of a series of devastating bombing raids on Darwin by the Japanese. It was widely expected at the time that Japan would launch a land invasion. The “Nackeroos”, as they called themselves, were sent north to give advance warning. The unit employed indigenous guides and trackers to help them cope with the inhospitable terrain and punishing conditions.

Among the surviving Nackeroos is Peter Huskins, 89, who spent nearly two years in the wilds of the Northern Territory. He and his comrades were often accompanied on patrol by a local man named Joshua, who taught them how to find water, catch wild ducks, and make huts from the bark of paperbark trees.

“We didn’t have any maps, but Joshua was fantastic on direction, and he would pick up footprints and say ‘so and so walked along here but he was obviously limping’,” recalls Mr Huskins. “Once when Harold Thomas [a white soldier] was really sick, Joshua went and got some bush and boiled it up like a cup of tea and within 12 hours Tommo was right. We wouldn’t have survived without the Aborigines.”

The invasion never happened and the regiment was disbanded in 1945. However, some of Norforce’s soldiers are descendants of the indigenous guides. For them, the job is a source of pride and prestige, not least because it involves protecting “country” – meaning not just Australia but also their ancestral lands.

During the exercises near Kalumburu, one patrol group was sent to a mangrove-fringed beach, to identify a landing site for Norforce’s Zodiac inflatable dinghies. The men assigned to look-out duties scanned the beach carefully – and not just for “the enemy”. “This is croc [saltwater crocodile] country,” said Corporal Ronald Roe, the patrol leader.

Man-eating crocodiles are not the only challenge facing soldiers in the “Top End”. Daytime summer temperatures can reach 45 degrees Celsius, while in winter, night-time sub-zero temperatures are not uncommon. Then there are the poisonous snakes and spiders.

In Kalumburu itself, the Army was greeted warmly. Children jumped in and out of the camouflaged Land Rovers and peered wide-eyed at the men’s assault rifles. Thanks to Norforce’s long association with communities in northern Australia, the Army is trusted and respected by indigenous elders.

Norforce’s regimental commander, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Goldston, says: “We make some very deep personal connections, which are very important in indigenous culture. They’re used to a revolving door of people who fly in, promise the world and fly out, having delivered nothing. We don’t make promises we can’t deliver, and the same individuals get involved with the same people.”

Among the black and white soldiers – the former constitute 70 per cent of patrolmen – there is an easy camaraderie not often seen in Australia. Bob Terms has a simple explanation. Tapping his uniform, he says: “When we’re wearing this, we’re all green skins. We’re all one family.”

Warrant Officer Terms has undergone his own epiphany. “Before I joined Norforce, I wouldn’t have sat in a foxhole with an Aboriginal person and shared a cup of tea,” he admits. “Now I don’t think twice about sharing a cup of tea with [the indigenous soldiers], or giving them a smoke, and I’m honoured to be godparent to a little Aboriginal girl. I guess I’ve stopped seeing them as a different class of person.”

The push by Norforce to promote more black recruits reflects wider moves to increase indigenous involvement in the Australian military. At present, Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders – the latter 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, regardless of its technical content, begins with a week of intensive English language, literacy and numeracy tuition. Lieut 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 quite proud of that.”

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