Norforce, the outback army unit using Indigenous soldiers to detect foreign threats
Norforce recruits recently graduated in Broome after a four-week intensive course. (ABC Kimberley)
An unorthodox army outfit is helping young Indigenous people rise out of poverty by protecting Australia’s most remote regions.
For nearly 40 years the North West Mobile Force, or Norforce, has been operating from Western Australia’s Kimberley region across to the Queensland border.
The reserve unit conducts surveillance patrols designed to detect foreign threats, but it also has to contend with native adversaries like crocodiles, snakes and venomous spiders.
It is unique in the Australian Defence Force, with Indigenous reservists making up 25 per cent of the ranks.
Kimberley Squadron Commander Major Chris McGlashan believes these soldiers set Norforce apart in more ways than one.
“Our strength lies in our regionality and who better than people who’ve been here and learning this region for more than 65,000 years, in some cases,” he said.
Soldiers rely on bush survival skills and an ability to covertly monitor an expanse of territory as large as some European countries.
At the top of their watchlist are drug smugglers, but they are on alert for any foreign incursions by land, sea or the air.
Due to soaring daytime temperatures and the need to remain unobserved, the unit moves mostly at night, on foot or in specially-modified vehicles.
Opportunities for regional recruits
Norforce recruits Seth Lawlor and Siberia McDonald stand to attention with their spears at Halls Creek. (ABC News: Matt Bamford)
Recruit Steven Lan, 18, from Cloncurry, Queensland, recently undertook a four-week induction course to join the unit.
He said he hoped Norforce would give him access to opportunities not available in his home town.
“When I left school there was no jobs, there was really no way to get money, I was bored and getting slack watching other people get in trouble with the law,” he said.
“[So] I just packed my bags and went to Darwin and signed up.”
Norforce recruits Steven Lan and Germaine Wunungurra hope they can develop new skills and opportunities through the unit. (ABC Kimberley: Matt Bamford)
Fellow recruit Germaine Wunungurra, 25, from Arnhem Land, said he wants to follow in the footsteps of his father, who also served in the unit.
“I see this as the last opportunity before getting to that stage where it’s just like receiving payments and probably getting on the piss all the time,” he said.
Indigenous people in remote Australia experience significantly higher rates of unemployment, incarceration, substance abuse and suicide compared to other Australians.
For many, Norforce is a rare chance at a skilled and secure job.
Recruits like Mr Lan have experienced hardship firsthand.
“It has been tough, I got sent everywhere in Australia with child services,” he said.
“I got taken off family for a while and came back to them, but they were pretty much in the same state.”
Path out of poverty
Norforce troops conduct joint military operations in Australia’s north. (ABC Kimberley: Andrew Seabourne)
Commanding officers have the power to waive the normal Defence Force recruitment requirements, so Norforce can be a path out of poverty for those held back by poor education or minor run-ins with the law.
But it is not an easy road.
The recruitment course runs seven days a week for four weeks and features fitness training, starting from sunrise, to navigation exercises that finish close to midnight.
There are compulsory maths and literacy classes to boost basic education levels, while map-reading and weapons courses are designed to prepare recruits for the demands of being deployed.
Recruit Nerelda West from Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia, has had to push her body to its limit.
The rifle skills come in handy when protecting themselves from crocodiles. (ABC Kimberley: Matt Bamford)
“There are times when I have felt like giving up,” she said.
“I just said to myself, ‘I’m here to set a good example as a role model’.”
And there are other threats.
Northern Australia is an unforgiving frontier where isolation, extreme weather and deadly wildlife make military operations especially hazardous.
As they move through waterways where crocodiles are common, members of Warrant Office Paul Harrison’s squadron have the authority to shoot if a threatening reptile emerges.
“Crocodiles are a big threat out there and we take it quite serious in terms of training and around water, so we give the guys the tools to protect themselves,” he said.
Norforce graduates learn how to use rifles as part of their training course. (ABC Kimberley: Matt Bamford)
After weeks away from family and friends some recruits struggle with homesickness, but many, like Mr Lan, do not want to leave the course.
“I want to stay a bit longer and keep on going, I want to learn a bit more,” he said.
“I can understand my maths, reading, spelling [and] I’ve got friends who can help me do things.
“I feel like you’re a new person, that you’re a better person.”
As the first woman in her family to serve, Ms West hopes it will inspire her daughter.
“I think, for her, seeing me go to Norforce and achieve something like that [is great],” she said.
“She did tell me that she was proud of me and I used that as an example that you can do anything.”
Upon graduation, Norforce privates can continue to serve part-time or keep training to pursue a full-time career in the Australian Defence Force.
Many choose to enter the Bachelor Institute in the Northern Territory to keep building up their skills before applying to enter the mainstream Army.
Recruits Seth Lawlor and Siberia McDonald at Halls Creek ahead of the unit’s first Anzac Day ceremony. (ABC Kimberley: Matt Bamford)