Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women have a long and proud history of serving the Australian Defence Force. They have been involved in all conflicts and peacekeeping operations involving Australia since before Federation through to the present day.
Ensuring that Indigenous former servicemen and women receive the support and recognition they deserve is a priority for DVA.
In 2013–14 , DVA expanded its Indigenous Champions Project, establishing a partnership with the Gold Coast Titans National Rugby League team. They are helping the Department to connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans and their families who may not be aware of the assistance available to them. The Canberra Raiders NRL team is also a partner in the project.
Retired Titans player Preston Campbell has embraced the role of Indigenous Champions Ambassador, to raise awareness about the valued role of Indigenous servicemen and women. Preston says, ‘The Indigenous Champion Project is a step in the right direction to ensuring that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and women get the recognition they deserve and the help they may need.’
In October 2013, Preston travelled to Palm Island for a football match between the Australian Defence Force and the Palm Island Skipjacks, held in honour of Uncle Bill Coolburra, who was a respected Palm Island elder and veteran.
Through his research, Preston found Bill’s own account of his service in Vietnam, in which he tells of the challenges and adversity that he and his mates faced during the war and after their return home. This is an extract of Bill’s story:
My name is Bill Coolburra. I was in the first batch of Australia soldiers to be sent to Vietnam. I was a sapper, or military engineer, and one of the first tunnel rats. We had to descend into dark tunnels searching for Viet Cong with a torch and a pistol … I was gassed in a tunnel once and the next thing I knew the padre was pronouncing the last rites over me. As a result I have been unable to sleep in the dark since.
Bill’s story highlights the importance of DVA building relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, through initiatives such as the Indigenous Champions Project, to ensure that veterans like Bill are honoured and assisted.
The Australian War Memorial is developing a list of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who served, to ensure that their contribution is appropriately commemorated.