By Indigenous affairs correspondent Isabella Higgins
Posted about 2 hours agoFri 24 Apr 2020,
Copied, compiled & edited by George W Rehder 24/04/2020
Colin Watego will tell you there are many stories soldiers bring home from war that no-one else should ever hear.
- Thousands of Indigenous Australians served in World War I and II
- In recent years, their contribution has been given more attention in Anzac Day events
- Indigenous communities hope the momentum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander diggers is not lost this year
But for him, there is one day of the year when those difficult memories can be shared with others who understand the torment.
That day is Anzac Day.
“I believe that’s a healing time, because sometimes the healing comes from sharing,” Mr Watego said.
“For our veterans in particular, this is a time where they get together and they may share a drink but they’ll definitely share a story.
“The stories sometimes that they share are the ones that no-one else gets to hear… and they shouldn’t have to.”
The retiredRegimental Sergeant Major is a proud Bundjalung, Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander man who spent 43 years in Australia’s armed forces.
His father, brothers, uncles and grandfather all served as well. Some fought for Australia before they were even recognised as citizens.
Anzac Day is an important occasion for Mr Watego to reflect on the sacrifice his family has made, but this year it is going to be an especially tough one.
There will be no opportunity for him to gather with his former veterans and share the stories of the past, because of the ban on all gatherings.
“It’s especially important for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans, who we know sometimes would come home and not receive the benefits of other soldiers,” he said.
“The opportunity for that healing is gone for them or their families this year.
“We must find ways to reflect and keep their legacy going though — it is still a very important day.”
Event bans remove chance to ‘reset our relationship’
It’s thought at least 1,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers served in World War I, and thousands more joined the effort in World War II.
Between 1942 and 1945, more than 1,000 men enlisted from the Torres Strait, despite the fact its population was only in the thousands.
Records indicate almost all men of enlistment age in the region volunteered. They became known as the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion.
They fought side-by-side with other Australians, but because they weren’t considered citizens at the time, many received only a fraction of the pay.
When the war finished, the benefits afforded to most veterans were not extended to the Indigenous troops.
Mr Watego said there had been a tremendous amount of change in Australia’s armed forces since then, and they were now much more inclusive.
In recent years the acknowledgement of Indigenous veterans has grown.
The Australian War Memorial opened a monument to honour Indigenous soldiers in 2019, and Aboriginal diggers led the national Anzac Day march in 2018.
The War Memorial also helps to run a dawn service smoking ceremony in Canberra on Anzac Day to remember Indigenous veterans.
But Mr Watego said the discrimination endured by past Indigenous soldiers was still felt by their families today.
“I think of my ancestors and think how they would have felt as well about that … it makes me emotional,” he said.
Ray Minniecon helped launch the annual Anzac Day Coloured Diggers march in Sydney after learning about the “disrespect” his grandfather suffered after he served in World War I.
Thousands attend the annual event, which aims to provide a culturally safe commemoration for all past and present Indigenous servicemen.
“My grandfather was in the 11th Light Horse Brigade and I went up there to honour him on the 100th year commemoration of the Beersheba campaign.
“When I followed his footsteps back home, I went home to his grave site.
“It’s an unmarked grave, while other soldiers were given burials.
“The Coloured Diggers march was to honour our ancestor’s incredible warrior spirit, but also for us to reset our relationship with Anzac Day.
“We have to right those wrongs of the past. And I’m not the only family member who’s had that incredible disrespect for our soldiers.”
This year there will be no Coloured Diggers march, and no dawn smoking ceremony in Canberra.
It will be difficult for Indigenous families who have never felt included in mainstream commemorations, Mr Minniecon said.
WA RSL reopens old wounds for Indigenous diggers
In February, the West Australian RSL branch made a decision to ban Welcome to Country ceremonies and the flying of the Aboriginal flag, after Noongar language was used in an Anzac Day dawn service.
The move was overturned days later following widespread backlash, but Mr Minniecon said it brought back deep feelings of hurt for many families.
“It is a challenge for the RSL to change its attitude and its behaviour … this is 2020 when once again we had that disrespect shown to our people and to our Aboriginal diggers,” he said.
Both Mr Minniecon and Mr Watego believe that including Indigenous language, dance, stories and flags in mainstream events would help to make them more inclusive.
“I am just as much Indigenous as I am Australian, as I am a soldier,” Mr Watego said.
“You can’t compartmentalise yourself and I think one of the problems is that too many [of us], for too long, we have tried to do that.
“We could have events that capture our whole history, that capture the whole story of this amazing country.”
Mr Minniecon hopes the growing momentum to recognise Indigenous diggers is not lost this year.
“We have still got a battle on our hands to make sure that the recognition and the respect and the honour given to these incredible warriors is respected and recognised appropriately.”