• "When I look back now, the best thing about being in the Army is the friendships you build with brothers from all sorts of backgrounds": Danny Teece-Johnson. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
COMMENT | 'What are ya, Aboriginal or Australian?’: The question that opened my eyes to what was really lurking deep in the trenches of the Army beside the fighting soldier, writes Danny Teece-Johnson.
Danny Teece-Johnson

The Point
25 Apr 2016 - 12:23 PM  UPDATED 25 Apr 2016 - 12:26 PM

I joined the Australian Army in 1994 when I had just turned 18. It was a last-minute decision, and not something I had given much thought to growing up on Gomeroi country.

I was finishing High School and had very few options about what to do next - all I knew was that I didn't want to go back to Moree. So with that, I jumped on a bus to a recruits’ training school and jumped off at Kapooka Army Barracks to the yelling and screaming of drill sergeants like a scene from 'Full Metal Jacket'. 

In pictures: Indigenous diggers of WWI
Australia's fighting force in WWI included many Indigenous men, some of whom died in battle. These photographs show some of those soldiers who fought for Australia.
Watch: A War of Hope
In year 1942, in the midst of World War II, 235 Guugu Yimithirr people of North QLD were forcibly removed 1500km from their land by armed forces into a government exile settlement at Woorabinda.

One of the first things I noticed when I joined the Army was that I was the only Aboriginal person among hundreds of new soldiers - at least I was the only one who identified. I had my suspicions about a couple of other lads, but identity is up to the individual and I could tell they were more comfortable hiding under the camouflage of an Army uniform than in their brown skin. 

When I look back now, the best thing about being in the Army is the friendships you build with brothers from all sorts of backgrounds. My mates and I were a multicultural crew - a mixture of Australian, Islander, Aboriginal, Maltese and European backgrounds. Our differences made us stronger friends. But even though the Army was becoming more diverse, there was something deep in the trenches of the Army beside the fighting soldier. The entrenched racism was something I encountered every day.

In 1996, I was on a Section Commander course to get promoted to Lance Corporal. I had worked my way up from a Recruit to a Private, and now instead of being a s**t-kicker I was nearly in a position to get people to kick s*** for me.

We were out the back of Canberra, it was stinking hot and it was snake-mating season, so we were all on edge. It was about halfway through the course, and I was feeling pretty confident about passing, but a couple of the Sergeants on the course took exception with me laughing all the time and got stuck into me.

I just thought it was part of the mind games of the course, so I blocked it out. Laughing was my way of beating the stress of the situation, but they saw it as me being disrespectful. That's when things got bad.

I was out in the field doing a navigation test when I walked past an abandoned ammunition bunker and felt an arm on my shoulder pull me into a dark room. My heart jumped thinking it was just part of the Army exercise, but when I looked up, the three Sergeants who had taken great pleasure in yelling at me in front of the rest of the soldiers in the mess hall had me pinned up against a wall in the middle of nowhere. That's when it began.

"What are ya, Aboriginal or Australian?", they yelled at me. I didn't say anything at first because I was trying to comprehend just what in the hell was going on. They screamed it at me again, all three taking turns in their booming military voices: "What are ya, Aboriginal or Australian?"

I was in shock, and was still trying to work out if this was part of the training, but reality kicked in and I knew what was going on. I said back, "Aboriginal Australian Sir!" My response caught them off guard, and only made them angrier.

Who were the Black Diggers?
“'We’re not citizens, yet we’re willing to die for this place, we’re willing to die for non-Indigenous Australians.' Have a think about that one.” - Gary Oakl
8 war heroes you didn't learn about in school
The Frontier Wars was the bloodiest conflict on Australian soil. We look at eight of the warriors who fought for their people and their land against colonial forces.
What are the Frontier Wars?
The Frontier Wars refer to conflicts between Europeans and Aboriginal people including battles, acts of resistance and open massacres.

I was pushed into the wall a couple of times, and they just kept yelling the same question at me over and over. So I just kept saying the same answer back.  They wanted me to say I was just Australian and denounce that I was Aboriginal, but I wouldn't break - I would not give them that pleasure.

I was nearly in tears, but I was not trying to show it. I remember thinking they were going to bash me and leave me out there and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. But all of a sudden it stopped and I was pushed out the door back into the heat of the Canberra day.

I was trembling. I walked 500 metres, leant up against a tree and balled my eyes out.

I had never in my life had an incident like that, and it rattled me. I composed myself and headed to the next check point. When I got there a mate looked at me and said, "are you alright mate? You look a bit rattled."

"F***ing Brown Snakes," I responded.

"Did you nearly get bit?" he asked.

"Nearly three times,” I said.

So this ANZAC Day, take a moment to think about the Black Diggers, who not only fight wars to defend their country, but fight racism on a daily basis to defend their people.

Danny Teece-Johnson is a Journalist/Producer for NITV.