Green skin: Australia’s indigenous army

By David Hancock 7 July 2010
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An historic force is protecting our northern coastline from invaders, and offering a model for cultural connection.

AROUND ME ARE 10 men from Norforce regiment, all indigenous and mainly from Arnhem Land, NT. Dressed in fatigues and their faces camouflaged, they move through the bush effortlessly and silently, hugging the shaded areas, at times unseen. The few words of command are spoken in Yolngu Matha, the native tongue of north-east Arnhem Land. 

Even though I’m familiar with the river and have worked outdoors in the Top End for 25 years, I’m feeling out of my depth with these soldiers. Their silence is absolute – no snapping twigs, no sudden movements. Even the bush creatures barely notice us pass. I began the day-long patrol clumsily, but I soon get used to the unhurried rhythm that synchronises so well with the humid, tropical woodland; the pace is comfortable and I sense, indeed know, they can walk like this for days, if not weeks.

As they travel through the bush along the edge of the Daly they keep an eye out for exotic flora and fauna, drug runners and illegal immigrants. Over the course of 12 km they note anglers out for barramundi, crabbers pulling in pots, a helicopter flying between cattle stations, a truck bouncing across the dusty floodplain, even a low-flying customs aircraft. Any unwarranted activity is relayed to headquarters in Darwin by radio.

While the soldiers carry guns, a radio and medical supplies, their easy movement and silent observations are skills that cannot be taught by even the best military instructors; their talents are instinctive, a product of thousands of years accumulated knowledge. It’s expertise the Australian Army is putting to good use to protect the remote north of the country.

STAND ON ANY BEACH or rocky outcrop of Australia’s northern shore and you can listen to the steady, rhythmic slap of the water, experience a tide that drops and rises up to 7 m or watch the sunset turn the languid sea to a shimmering sheet of gold. It may be heaven for tourists, but the snaking coastline from Broome, WA, to the NT/Queensland border on the Gulf of Carpentaria, is some of the most exposed and isolated in the world. It’s an open gate to drug smugglers, illegal fishermen and terrorists, and provides access to a ripe pasture for feral plants and animals, and their diseases.

The Australian Government has the Jindalee over-the-horizon radar in place, along with regular sea and air patrols, but no amount of radar or patrols can ever successfully protect the north from any of these threats.

Illegal fishermen are regularly discovered hiding among coastal mangroves or fishing some of the best reefs. People who live “out bush” or on remote parts of the coast often talk about low-altitude, midnight flights that wake them from their slumber, and random lights at remote airstrips they are reluctant to investigate. Scientists and pastoralists fear the devastation a bovine disease could bring to the nation’s economy.

“The northern coastline is wide open,” a NT policeman told me on condition of anonymity when I visited a coastal community in 2007. “We try, but there simply are not enough of us and very few resources. Our best hope is the locals.”

The “locals” are Aboriginal people who live along the coast and inland as far as Alice Springs. They know the sea and their country like no others, better than a military GPS system and in more detail than a satellite image. Their knowledge of the landscape, the seasons and the weather is intimate and invaluable. The Australian Army has harnessed this knowledge through the North West Mobile Force, or Norforce, which conducts surveillance and reconnaissance in the NT and the Kimberley region of WA, an area of 1.8 million sq. km – one of the largest of any military unit in the world.

NORFORCE TRACES ITS HISTORY back to World War II, when the North Australia Observer Unit was formed to patrol coastline under threat by the Japanese. Known as the “Nackeroos”, these soldiers worked primarily on horseback and their brief was to observe and report on land, sea and air activities. In 1942, commanding officer (CO) of the Nackeroos, Major Bill Stanner, said: “I wanted a highly mobile unit with good radio links, light weapons, and made up of men with a bush background and adventurous spirit who could live outdoors months at a time, operating in small groups on their own initiative.”

While little has changed with the concept in 67 years, the way the unit’s current incarnation operates has. Horses have been replaced by aircraft, four-wheel-drive vehicles and inflatable dinghies, or Zodiacs; the force is made up of regular and reservist soldiers – 60 per cent of whom are indigenous – trained by a group of experienced instructors; and when Norforce was formed in 1980, the 640-strong unit was opened to women.

“We operate a little differently to other units in the regular army,” says Lt-Col Richard Parker, former Norforce CO. “We try to work closely with our indigenous soldiers and accommodate Aboriginal culture; for example, soldiers are allowed time off for important cultural events such as funerals and ceremonies.”

Norforce also borrows from Aboriginal culture the concept of different “skin” groups to differentiate clans. “The green skin of Norforce is something they understand in their culture,” Richard says. “When we come together we form our own group, the green-skin group. It’s a very effective way of doing business. In Arnhem Land this is very important – elders have allowed them to work together and give priority to green-skin business.

“The soldiers like the way we operate – it enables them to retain family ties, keep close contact with their communities and still serve in the unit.”

Norforce has developed deep trust among Aboriginal communities in northern and central Australia. Norforce soldiers played an important role supporting the Australian Army, which assisted the Federal Government with its intervention into Aboriginal communities in the NT and WA in 2007. The soldiers possess valuable contacts in many of the communities, and helped facilitate medical initiatives during the intervention.

“Our soldiers were able to help communities because of the connection the unit has with them, through their green skin,” says Lt-Col Mick Rozzoli, whose term as CO ended at the beginning of the year. “I have been very proud to be involved.”

Community elders work closely with the unit and want Norforce to sign up more indigenous members; men serving in Norforce are an inspiration to younger people in Aboriginal communities. Soldiers can serve up to 180 days a year; most serve 60-70 days and earn about $80 per day, tax free. On patrol they receive an additional $30-$47 a day.

“Often the elders will come up to us and say ‘take this boy away and make him into a man’,” Richard says. “There are government agencies who deal with problem kids. We want to take the best and make them better.”

When they’re back in their communities, Norforce soldiers are often the first point of contact for Aboriginal people with concerns about suspicious activities – a boat on the horizon, an aircraft at a remote strip or people in the area who shouldn’t be there. That information travels quickly to command headquarters in Darwin where it’s acted upon by the Army, customs or police. According to Richard, at least two incidents associated with illegal immigration, illegal fishing and smuggling are reported to Norforce personnel each month.

KANGAROO FLATS ARMY TRAINING centre south of Darwin can be a dust bowl late in the northern dry season; hot winds whip through the wilting bush, stirring the ash of early bushfires into contorted dust devils. The humidity has started to rise in anticipation of the coming Wet. It’s a tough environment in which to learn how to be a soldier.

Warrant Officer (WO) Ross Seath is teaching 50 recruits how to strip and reassemble an F88 Steyr rifle, the standard Australian Army weapon. He emphasises a refrain I’m going to hear over and again during this training phase: one skin, the green skin. “I am green skin, you are green skin,” he says. “The green skin is paying you and taking care of you. We of the green skin always protect our country.”

The Steyr is surprisingly easy to take apart and put back together. Safety is a priority with Norforce – if any recruit cannot demonstrate complete safety with his or her weapon, they are out. “We don’t shoot to wound,” Ross says. “The reason they carry weapons out bush is to protect themselves from things like crocodiles, buffalo and pigs. Their role is surveillance. They don’t hold ground or capture people, just observe and report.”

Initially, instructors spend time with new recruits in their home communities trying to improve their skills, particularly in literacy and numeracy, so they are better prepared when they come to Kangaroo Flats for two weeks of weapons handling, navigation, field craft and hygiene, morning and night routines, signalling, target identification and how to move through the bush army-style. It’s a boot camp designed to find committed soldiers. Of the 54 recruits at Kangaroo Flats when I visited, 40 graduated.

Instructor WO Rob McKeown is a role model for the recruits. A soldier in the regular Army, he comes from Poonindie, on the Eyre Peninsula, SA. He is of the Ngarrindjeri people, originally from the Coorong area. “I guess I serve as an example to the others,” he says. “I give them hope they can make the rank as I have and they see that I work easily in the green skin.”

For the new recruits, the process can be intimidating. One of seven female recruits at Kangaroo Flats, 19-year-old Sarah Ambi, said there were nine other Norforce soldiers in her hometown of Kalumburu (population 413), on the Kimberley coast. “People in my community thought I was not going to pass but now I hope they are proud of me,” she says. “I am pleased to be an example to the women.

“I didn’t know what to expect at first, with so many men involved; the fitness test was hard and so was the rifle – taking it apart and putting it back together again. Now I want to go on and do the driver course and the medic course.”

For others, Norforce has become part of their heritage. Lance Corporal John Tipaloura of the Tiwi Islands has been a member of the unit for more than 14 years. An instructor, he also acts as a mentor for indigenous recruits.

“My uncle and cousin worked in Norforce,” he says. “When I first joined up I found it difficult because I had to be on time all the time and it was very hard taking it all in, but after a couple of patrols I was okay. After a while I did courses to gain other skills and I got better. I am now a medic and signaller.”

John is proud of the contribution he makes towards protecting Australia, but that’s not all. “Most recruits change their way of living once they get back to their community; people look up to you as a role model. It changes your way of doing things in the workforce – it makes you think a lot, think ahead and helps when solving problems. It makes you a better person.”

Source: Australian Geographic Issue 93 (Jan – Mar 2009)

Gallery: Inside Arnhem Land