They rise slowly and silently from the dry, brown scrub. Their faces concealed by camouflage paint, handfuls of grass and foliage stuffed into their hatbands, and their rifles tracking slowly.
For many of the Indigenous soldiers of the 51st Battalion, Far North Queensland Regiment, the skills they’re now practising – moving silently, staying hidden, tracking and hunting in some of the most remote parts of Australia – are second nature, passed down from their grandfathers, fathers and uncles.
“It’s very similar to what we learned growing up with our families – just with a bit of different skills,” Private Daymarra Deeral tells SBS News.
“I learned from my father and grandfather and uncles and whatnot, we learned just how to be in the bush and hunting, and being sneaky all the time, y’know?
“We’re out on country all the time, rationing and saving what we need to save in order to keep alive and healthy out bush.”
It’s very similar to what we learned growing up with our families … How to be in the bush, hunting, and being sneaky.
– Private Daymarra Deeral
The 21-year-old from Hope Vale on the Cape York Peninsula has a lifetime’s worth of experience hunting, fishing and living off the land. They’re just the sort of traditional skills the battalion actively looks for when hiring, with Indigenous men and women accounting for 40 per cent of recruits.
The unit – one of Australia’s three highly specialised Regional Force Surveillance Units – is tasked with maintaining the far north’s border security and patrolling about 650,000 square kilometres of sparsely populated and remote terrain.
With outposts across the region – including at Weipa, Thursday Island, throughout the Torres Strait and Mount Isa – the battalion is on the front lines, stopping drug and people smugglers, illegal fishing operations and remaining vigilant in case of foreign incursion.
Most of the area it patrols is filled with tough, unforgiving terrain that could appear useful to someone looking to sneak over the border.
But in recent years, the battalion has been instrumental in catching boatloads of drugs coming in through the Torres Strait as well as illegal immigrants.
Community role models
SBS News followed the battalion’s newest batch of recruits as they completed the patrolman’s course just outside of Townsville.
It is an intensive training cycle that sees them living in the bush, getting to grips with an F88 Austeyr assault rifle and carrying out mock attacks and patrols in preparation for returning to their communities and beginning work.
Some live in remote communities in the Gulf of Carpentaria, on the islands of the Torres Strait, and in Cooktown, north of Cairns.
Every operator in the unit is trained in ‘low-visibility’ skills, including shooting and sniping, survival, small boat handling, driving, tracking and medical and radio operations.
But with an area of operation that reaches all the way to Australia’s border with Papua New Guinea, the Australian Army says it need diggers with a very specific set of skills – those who can blend traditional bushcraft and local knowledge with modern technology, surveillance equipment, radios and weapons.
Private Deeral and his comrade Jayden Harrigan, 21, are both of Gamaay and Burunga heritage, amongst others.
They said when they return home to their community of Hope Vale, they’re hoping they set an example for others, especially Private Deeral’s four sons.
“You don’t get trusted with a rifle until you’re worthy to carry one, I want them to see that you can do something, you can be strong enough to lead and have a go,” Private Deeral said.
“I’m proud to be in the FNQ Regiment because we come from this country, we been living on country and we want to defend country … we can make a difference in a place we call home.
“Somebody’s got to protect it.”
During their recruit and subsequent patrolman training in Cairns and Townsville, the pair used much of their pay to buy essentials sought after by some in the remote Hope Vale community, including cutlery and new clothing for children.
“It’s hard to find a job where we come from, very, very hard – that’s why we want to be an example to our community,” Private Harrigan said.
“Show other people that you can be somebody.”
We want to be an example to our community. Show other people that you can be somebody.
– Private Jayden Harrigan
Twenty-year-old Calvin Greenwool grew up hunting, fishing and living off the land along the Bloomfield River, south of Cooktown. He also wants to inspire young Indigenous men and women of his community.
“Home, yeah? They’ll probably look at me really different. To see me how I used to be back then, and look at me now – a changed man,” he said.
He was also taught traditional skills by his elders.
“We can offer the army a lot of knowledge about what we know about the bush and how we hunt and use the bush foods to live,” he said.
“It’s a good experience for the army to learn off us; the last couple days I’ve been showing people bush medicine and what we eat and use for other stuff in the bush.”
Access to mentors
As part of their patrolman training, the new recruits are paired up with mentors who have already gone through the training, and in some cases, have been deployed back to their area of operations.
One of them, 30-year-old Edmund Laza from Badu Island in the Torres Strait, has spent nine years in uniform and has taken part in numerous operations against drug and people smugglers.
He said he was keen to inspire the younger recruits in the same way his family had inspired him to serve.
“I got my inspiration from my grandfather, he was in WWII, and my older brother is a sergeant, in the same company I work with on Thursday Island,” he said.
“My brother got me off the couch and into the recruitment office – and here I am nine years later. My family encourage me all the way; they’re very proud I’m a soldier.”
My brother got me off the couch and into the recruitment office – and here I am nine years later.
– Private Edmund Laza
Private Laza and his partner have a three-year-old son and he said he hopes to lead by example.
“I was once like that, sitting around doing nothing, doing nothing with my life – but then here I am, providing for my family, learning and gaining and contributing,” he said.
Badu Island, where he is from, traditionally belongs to the Badulgal and Mualgal people who have a proud history as warriors ready to defend their island.
“We are pretty connected to the land where I come from, in the army we contribute a lot with our cultural skills; survival tactics, living on the land, living on the water, on the mangroves,” he said.
And so for him, securing the border region is doubly important: It’s his home.
“Having been in several successful missions: people smuggling, drug smuggling and illegal fishing up in my waters, in the Torres Straits, for me it’s a pretty big step in contributing to the community and the safety of the community,” he said.
“What we stop coming into Australia … that’s my backyard.”
Closing the gap
In 2017, in line with the federal government’s Closing the Gap strategy, which aims to reduce disadvantage among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the army placed a renewed focus on recruiting Indigenous soldiers.
The army has a total of 1,422 Indigenous personnel – of which, 193 are posted to the 51st Battalion. In 2014, there were only 967 Indigenous soldiers in the force.
While most of the 51st Battalion soldiers are men – many raised in the warrior tradition on country by their elders – the unit also includes Indigenous women who have been recruited for their leadership qualities.
The battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Mick O’Sullivan, said its motto ‘ducit amor patriae’ – Latin for ‘the love of country leads me’ – summed up the soldiers’ connection with the land.
“There is a massive advantage when you have soldiers who have lived on country for their entire lives, where they know and understand how to survive, how to win water, which foods and plants can be eaten, how to do traditional hunting and fishing – that’s a huge advantage tactically,” he said.
“If you want to know what’s wrong and what’s right somewhere, look to the people who have lived there their whole life.
If you want to know what’s wrong and what’s right somewhere, look to the people who have lived there their whole life.
– Lieutenant Colonel Mick O’Sullivan
“To have that traditional education from parents, from grandparents, from Aunties and Uncles… and we try and share that, because it’s not just about the practical training, it’s also about respecting and understanding the different cultures, because we have so many different cultures in the unit.”
He said the battalion recruited differently to most of the rest of the Australian Army – interacting with remote Far North Queensland communities and inducting soldiers directly into the unit.
Due to their circumstances, some would-be recruits would typically be turned away from recruiting stations because of lack of education, criminal records and issues with drugs and alcohol. But as part of the Closing the Gap strategy, Lt-Colonel O’Sullivan has the capacity to waive such issues if he sees the making of a good solider and a commitment to change in someone.
“A lot of the communities we’re recruiting from have not had the opportunities other communities have had, there’s absolutely no secret about that – [but] what keeps these guys coming back is that pride, it’s about being able to contribute to protecting their country,” he said.
“While, we’re all about providing opportunity, we’re doing this for a real-life job; protect the border, protect the country, and I really do believe that the individual soldiers are really motivated to keep on defending their country.”
Lt-Colonel O’Sullivan, who took over the battalion in December 2018, said he believed offering training and discipline to recruits had a knock-on effect in their communities.
“I’ll be honest, before taking this job, while I knew there was a rich Indigenous culture I didn’t grasp the number of different nations and language groups and my eyes have been opened to different Indigenous cultures and the sheer diversity of the region,” he said.
“But for us, there’s one thing that unifies all of us – it’s one mob, all wearing one suit. That one suit unifies all of us beyond any cultural barriers.”