Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have been honoured for their military service at this year's Indigenous Anzac service in Canberra.
By
25 Apr 2018 - 10:38 AM  UPDATED 25 Apr 2018 - 10:43 AM

Wing Commander Cheryl Neal joined the Royal Australian Air Force more than 30 years ago. 

"It's been a great journey," she told NITV.

"I was looking to leave a small town, I was looking for opportunities to travel and obtain education. The defence force offered me great opportunities, particularly travel and education," she said. 

As a Yuin and Darug woman, Cheryl's time in the force wasn't always easy. 

"The number of women was quite low. The culture at the time with being Indigenous, if someone asked me I would discuss it and confirm it and tell them my story," she said.

"But the Australian culture wasn't openly embraced, now it's something to be so proud of."

"I've been fortunate. My journey's been good, I've been treated well and shown respect." 

Cheryl's career led her to various roles within the military including postings to England and across the country.

In her most recent deployment, she looked after people before and after surgery - some of who passed away. 

"I worked with New Zealanders to help return some of our Maori brothers and sisters that had died in theatre," she said.

"There are a lot of cultural aspects about our Maori friends when they're deceased and the spirit travelling back home to New Zealand - it was a very emotional time." 

Now she dedicates her time to reinvigorating the Air Force, ensuring Indigenous people have a place in the force. 

"There are so many opportunities opening up in the defence force now, it's a different world." 

Her service to the military was honoured at this year's Indigenous Anzac Day service in Canberra. 

"I was really humbled just to have been asked," she said. 

"I was really honoured to accept it and recognise women in particular. To be asked to speak about Indigenous women and mention people like Kath Walker and Margaret Tucker is just an honour and I feel really blessed to have been asked." 

For the past two decades, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans and Services Association has been ensuring Indigenous servicemen and women are commemorated in Canberra each year. 

Anzac Day marked with Frontier Wars protest and Black Diggers March
Indigenous servicemen and women, as well as the lives taken in the Frontier Wars, are being remembered across the country on Anzac Day.

This year around 400 gathered in the foothills of Mount Ainslie in Canberra to honour them with a special focus on service women. 

Tara Enchong, a Torres Strait Islander woman from Erub and Mer Island, has served 10 years in the Air Force. 

"I joined up 10 years ago. I think what pushed me over the line was I had my Dad in [the force] most of my life and my brother joined up a few months before me," she told NITV

"It was Kevin Rudd's apology speech that actually pushed me over the line. I was so proud to be an Australian in that moment and that the nation was recognising our people, what had gone on in the past." 

She said she thinks its is important to have women recognised. 

"It's very special to have women recognised this year. There's a lot of strong Indigenous women and to be following in their footsteps, they've paved an amazing way forward for us that we don't always take time to acknowledge," she said. 

"As an Indigenous woman myself in service to be able to follow in their footsteps, that's pretty special." 

Remembering Indigenous service women 

Just one woman is known to have served as an army nurse in World War I. 

Marion Leane Smith, a Dharug woman, served in a British unit in England after enlisting in Canada. 

During World War II, Indigenous women were accepted into the armed forces as part of a wider introduction of women's branches into the army, air force and navy. 

At least nine Indigenous women joined the Australian Women's Army Service, including Oodgeroo Noonuccal, also known as Kath Walker. 

She joined the service in 1942, after her two brothers were captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore. 

'It was hot, humid, helicopters flying overhead': Uncle Graham Atkinson, Aboriginal Vietnam Veteran
At 20-years-old, Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Warrung man Graham Atkinson was conscripted in the deeply controversial Vietnam War. Thrust into army training and sent to a foreign land, leaving his home in country Victoria.

Serving as a signaller in Brisbane, she met many black American soldiers as well as European Australians. These contacts helped to lay the foundations for her later advocacy work on Aboriginal rights.

The Australian War Memorial says Indigenous women played an important role in the armed forces. 

"Many enlisted in the women’s services or worked in war industries," their website says. 

"In northern Australia, Aboriginal and Islander women worked hard to support isolated RAAF outposts and even helped to salvage crashed aircraft." 

The fascinating life of WWI’s only serving Indigenous Australian woman, Marion Leane Smith
The only identified Indigenous Australian woman in WWI was actually serving for Canada.