Two Air Force veterans and Indigenous Australians reflect on life in Defence

Current Defence personnel Patricia Thompson and Steve Weaver describe the role models that drew them to service and what keeps them optimistic about the future.

As told to Tess Durack

At a glance:

  • Senior Indigenous Liaison Officer, Patricia Thompson’s job is to inform and advise on cultural education.
  • “We want everyone to feel safe and know their cultural background is valued and respected,” she says.
  • Steve Weaver AM is involved in recruitment courses that give First Nations youth an understanding of what’s involved in military service.
  • “I love working with people like Patricia … to strengthen our ability to build trusted relationships with Mob,” he explains.

On 31 May, Patricia Thompson and Steve Weaver AM will help to lead the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans Commemoration Service, which is supported by RSL NSW and the NSW Government. The event brings the community together to remember and honour the service and sacrifice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans.

Read RSL NSW’s photo coverage of last year’s service and veterans’ reflections on the day.

Patricia Thompson

Patricia Thompson is Squadron Leader and Senior Indigenous Liaison Officer at Headquarters Air Command.

“I’m a proud Mardigan woman who grew up in Cunnamulla with my parents and seven siblings. I remember when the Army would come through town when I was a kid and set up in the showgrounds.

“In the 1980s we used to see Len Waters, the first Indigenous fighter pilot, around town. He always looked so smart, never a hair out of place – but we never learned about him at school. 

“After finishing school, I worked in health services for about 15 years before becoming a teacher. I worked for Queensland Education, the Baptist Union and the Abu Dhabi Education Council in Al Ain.

 

“I remember meeting an Army captain at an ANZAC Day event in Abu Dhabi who told me they needed teachers in Defence and asked if I would consider it. My first reaction? No thanks!

“But later, at a Defence recruitment information session for my niece, someone else suggested that I should join the Air Force. ‘I’m too old for that!’ I said.

“‘No, you’re not,’ came the reply. ‘We’ll take you till you’re 55.’

“So I found myself filling out the form. The recruiting team got in touch and said they’d like me to interview for the position of Aboriginal Liaison Officer, a role that would allow me to share my cultural knowledge.

“My primary school students meant so much to me, so when I walked out of my classroom for the last time in 2019, I wondered if I was being brave or crazy. And every Friday for the first month at Officers’ Training School, I packed my bag to go home.

“But I stayed. And five years later I can see how much I’ve grown, how much I’ve learned, and how much I’ve developed as a leader. I’m grateful to have had this opportunity.

“Defence has made a commitment to help close the gap, and the role of Aboriginal Liaison Officers to inform and advise on cultural education and issues is a critical part of that effort. It’s about working together with our commanding officers, squadrons and units to develop positive relationships with Elders in our communities, schools and Defence.

“We want everyone to feel safe and know their cultural background is valued and respected. We’ve got a long way to go, but I am certain we will get there.

“I’m humbled to be involved in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans Commemoration Service supported by RSL NSW, recognising the extraordinary resilience of our First Nations veterans. Many First Nations veterans had to fight just to take part in protecting this country, and they came home to find they couldn’t even march in parades or share a drink with their mates at the local Club. It’s important not to forget that, while at the same time look forward with optimism.

“And I do feel positive. I’m a proud Aboriginal woman and an equally proud member of the Air Force. It’s an honour to wear the uniform. 

“Steve Weaver was at the service and I’m always happy to connect with him. He’s a brother, a role model and a mentor, someone I can always reach out to. If I’m stuck on something or just having a down day, I can rely on Steve. He just gets it.”

Steve Weaver AM

Although First Nations veterans and serving members still face challenges, Air Command Warrant Officer Steve Weaver AM believes things are changing for the better.

“I’m a proud Wiradjuri man who grew up in Gundagai. My mother and father really shaped my sense of service. They came from modest means, with Dad working several jobs to make ends meet. Despite this, he still made time to volunteer for the local fire brigade and Rotary club.

“My brother was born with Down syndrome, but as there was no school in Gundagai to cater to his needs, Mum drove him more than 300 kilometres to Tumut every week. It turned out that there were many other local kids who also needed to make the trip, so Mum drove all of them. That’s the type of person she was – she recognised the value of community.

“There was no funding for a group car and no money for petrol, and sometimes that meant taking food off our table. But that’s just who my parents were – they recognised the value of community. Their commitment had a huge impact on me.

 

“I was good at sports but not so good at school, so I was grateful Defence took a chance on me. They saw my potential and gave me opportunities to lead. And I’ve excelled in those roles and in advancing through the ranks, not because I’m the smartest, but because my culture has taught me to do the best I can with what I’ve got.

“I believe First Nations people bring a different perspective to Defence. If you grow up with that culture, you understand that you and Country are not two different entities – you’re one and the same. We’ve been protecting Country for millennia, and protecting Australia’s security becomes an extension of that commitment.

“The qualities we look for in modern Defence personnel are the very qualities First Nations people have always demonstrated: resilience, resourcefulness and an ability to fight through adversity, not just to survive but to thrive.

“If you look at First Nations cultures and at the military, you’ll see that both are steeped in ceremony – whether that’s parades, marching and saluting, or smoking ceremonies, initiations and corroborees. Bringing elements of both together at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans Commemoration Service demonstrates a mutual respect.

“Acknowledging and learning about each other’s cultures is critical. If we don’t do that, we start to judge and look for differences instead of points of connection.

“It’s true of course that there are still challenges facing First Nations veterans. Back in the 1980s when I joined, I witnessed racism, innuendo and jokes, and as a fair-skinned Aboriginal man I found it difficult to call that out.

“But advance 30 years and things have definitely changed for the better. I’ve been involved with Indigenous recruitment courses that give First Nations kids an understanding of what’s involved in military service and sets them up with education, health and wellness programs. It’s about creating pathways that lead to better outcomes, whether they choose to serve or not.

“And I love working with people like Patricia Thompson to strengthen our ability to build trusted relationships with Mob, and be inclusive of First Nations members and their cultures.”

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans Commemoration Service, supported by RSL NSW and held at the Pool of Remembrance on Friday 31 May, is open to the public.

Whether you’ve served for a single day or decades, RSL NSW welcomes veterans of any service length and background to join the organisation. Access support services and become part of a like-minded community of peers by becoming a member of RSL NSW.

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