… would probably agree with me on this one: if you serve your Country, you should be recognised by your Country. I wouldn’t have thought this was too much to ask for from the powers that be – a person’s service should be acknowledged right? It doesn’t have to be bragged about either. In fact, most veterans I know would prefer it wasn’t – but we’re all agreed on one point: it should count for something at least!
Medal’s and Awards became one way to acknowledge such service. If you’re in the know, you can tell simply by glancing at a veterans medal rack, where they’ve served and sometimes – in what capacity.
Here in Australia – up until the Vietnam War at least – these service medals were not awarded directly to Aboriginal and Islander veterans. They were collected and held, on behalf of Aboriginal and Islander veterans, by their relative State and Territory body responsible then for “Native Affairs and Welfare”.
The Protector (head of this dept here in Western Australia) was responsible for ALL Aboriginal people in our state – from 1905 through to his predecessors – up to and past the 1967 referendum that gave Indigenous people the right to be included in our country’s national census. Up until 1967 (and actualy later in most parts of Australia) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were not actual citizens of either the Commonwealth or the state or territory they lived in.
As a result – and herein lies the irony – Indigenous Australians actually weren’t allowed to fight for ‘King and Country’. It was strictly illegal for them to do so because there were very clear laws pertaining to non-citizens and ‘coloureds’ becoming members of this country’s military forces. Yet they did so in EVERY War and conflict from the Boer Wars to the present day.
Aboriginal people – like Capt Reg Saunders – volunteered to serve alongside their non-Aboriginal counterparts(as was the norm during the Boer Wars and both WW1 and 2). They volunteered for Borneo, Malaysia and the Indonesian Confrontation. They volunteered and fought alongside their mates in Korea and Vietnam and they’ve been involved in the Middle East, Namibia, Rwanda, Somalia, Cambodia, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan – in more recent times too.
They’ve also served in a plethora of other areas – far too numerous to name and several ‘hotspots’ that officially can’t be mentioned. They’ve performed all manners of roles, been in direct danger and well outside of it, been freezing bloody cold one minute and stinking bloody hot the next – and they’ve done this Country proud – each and everytime!
They did this alongside their mates. Whitefella mates for the most part – mates who once the bonds were forged – forgot all about the differences between each other, based on the colour of a fellas skin. The cold hard truth of any war is it doesn’t give a damn about what colour you are. Service people who had no ideas of each others lives and cultures back on their own homeland – cried and screamed, bled and died – in each others arms in places so foreign to us now, most Australians today would struggle to name them.
Before Vietnam (let alone Korea – THAT is another story altogether), when service people returned from active service, they – for the most part – were entitled to various things. One of those things after the WW’s was that they were entitled to land (and THAT too is another story in itself!). Whitefella veterans were given blocks of land to develop for agriculture. Blackfella veterans returned to their communities and were entitled to nothing!
Returned servicemen could seek medical aid if they were experiencing certain problems. Indigenous servicemen weren’t even allowed near these services – nor were they allowed inside any of this country’s hospitals. A veteran – or a fella in uniform – could walk into a bar in these times and someone might shout him a drink. Unless your were a blackfella in uniform – as this would often get you thrown out or arrested. It didn’t matter if your whitefella mates stuck up for you either – it was the LAW and they’d be binned as well.
Widowers could seek a pension based upon their dead husbands service during war time. Indigenous widowers weren’t entitled to a single penny/cent. Indigenous widowers who were able to – could write to their relevant Native Affairs authority and petition them for their dead husband’s awards and medals. Hardly any of these were released to Indigenous widowers or the next of kin and as a result a widower couldn’t stake a claim on her dead husband’s service – it just wasn’t recognised due to the laws separating black and white at the time.
Now I learned of all of this well after my own military service. To say I was angry to learn such things would be a gross understatement. I was confused and torn. The people I served with are some of my staunchest allies in life, but I was completely gob-smacked! Every blackfella (veteran or serving) I’d ever met never had a bad word to say about their time in a uniform. They didn’t tell me of these ‘discrepancies’ – they never complained (like so many of our veterans just getting on with it regardless).
I can say however, that more and more Australians are identifying with this country on levels that demand more connections to an Indigenous Australia. I think more people want the intimacy that this new knowledge can bring. This land is your land too after all. YOUR ancestors died defending it too an they more than likely did so – alongside a Indigenous mate they never saw or heard from again.
You’ll be happy to know that there are some folks out there trying to right these wrongs. In WA this stemmed from John Schnaars – a Vietnam Veteran – and a few of his mates getting together to form a small organisation called “Honouring Indigenous War Graves Inc”. John and his supporters seek the help from serving military personnel to identify the grave sites of Indigenous veterans who have passed away unnoticed. They place a tri-service military head stone on their grave and lend assistance – where possible – to the families of these veterans, in getting the recognition for their family member – that they so rightly deserve.
It’s the ‘small’ things like this – that we can all take part in – to recognise the wrongs of a time past and step out on a path clear of the obstacles these times (and their policies) brought us. We don’t need to baggage left over – to clutter our future – anymore than it does already…
Belongum – Out!