Brett West
Yamatji Man
Retired Warrant Officer WOFF
Royal Australian Air Force
Afghanistan Veteran

Australian Active Service Medal with clasp ICAT
Afghanistan Medal
Australian Service Medal with clasp SE ASIA
Australian Operational Service Medal – Border Protection
Defence Long Service Medal with 2 clasps
Australian Defence Medal

I am a Yamatji man, born in Western Australia; my heritage comes from the Nhanda, Malgana and Yinggarda language groups but I have lineage up through northern Western Australia all the way to Zenadeth Kes (the Torres Strait). My traditional lands are Gutharraguda (meaning ‘two bays’ or ‘two waters’), a place now known as Shark Bay. I was born in June 1969, one month after the death of my uncle Andrew (Andy) Drummond, who died in Vietnam while serving with the 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. I grew up in the small town of Carnarvon, in the north-west of Western Australia, about 900 kilometres north of Perth, enjoying the love and care of my mother’s extended Aboriginal family. During this time, I used to marvel at the small aircraft that came into the small airport, wondering how they worked and what it would be like to travel in them.

My family then moved to Perth, where I did my secondary schooling, and on completion of Year 12, while I applied for university, TAFE and a number of jobs, I decided to try to join the Air Force. This decision was influenced by a number of factors: firstly, I thought it would quench my love of travel (you get used to travelling long distances when you live in Western Australia); secondly, satisfy my curiosity about aircraft and air travel; thirdly, follow in the footsteps of my Uncle Andy by joining the military; and lastly, and most importantly, my father strongly suggested I join as he had fond memories being a member of the Air Training Corps in his youth.

I was successful and was recruited in Perth as a CAT2B trainee, which meant I would train to be a fitter/technician working on aircraft. The travel to RAAF Base Edinburgh in Adelaide for recruit training was from RAAF Base Pearce via a C-130 Hercules (I thought this was a great start to my career). I enjoyed my time at No 1 Recruit Training Unit, everyone was equal, treated the same and expected to ‘pull their weight’. This was refreshing as I had been subjected to a fair bit of racism in my youth, although travelling into Salisbury, Elizabeth and Adelaide and being treated with disdain because of my short haircut and being a ‘RAAFie’, rather than the colour of my skin, was an interesting feeling.

After recruit training I was posted to RAAF Base Wagga for my aircraft fitter/technician training at the RAAF School of Technical Training. While I enjoyed the training, I started to feel homesick; I initially thought it was just missing home but soon became aware I was missing not only family, but the cultural safety of having other Aboriginal people around me (I used to joke that I would carry a mirror around with me so I could see another black RAAF face). After completing my training, I was expecting to be offered a choice of six aircraft fitter/technician roles (from working on aircraft engines and airframes through to the electronic systems) but was surprised to learn I could be an Armament Fitter (working on aircraft weapons systems, explosives and small arms weaponry) or an Aircraft Structural Fitter (working on aircraft metal and composite skins). These choices were not ideal but, after speaking to my parents, my mother helping me with feeling strong within my culture and my father giving me the confidence to see where staying in would take me, I ended up training as an Armament Fitter.

My first posting was to RAAF Base Williamtown (WLM) in Newcastle, No 77 Squadron, on Mirages and then F/A-18 Hornets. This posting was great as the squadron travelled a lot on exercises which really satisfied my urge to travel. During this posting, the Commanding Officer asked if I would be willing to represent the squadron at Leonard Waters’s funeral, the first Aboriginal fighter pilot. I accepted and found this was not only an honour but started me thinking about how successful Aboriginal people provided important role modelling for Aboriginal youth. While still at RAAF WLM, I was posted to No 2 Operational Conversion Unit, a squadron that trained pilots to fly F/A-18s, and then No 402 Wing Field Training Flight which was an Air Force technical school that trained technicians to work on F/A-18s. I enjoyed teaching and developing courses, so much so I went to university and completed an education degree. During my time at WLM, I progressed through the ranks of corporal and sergeant. I also had the opportunity to do a course known as the Aboriginal Cultural Facilitators Course which was conducted on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands. This course was designed to train military personnel to be cultural facilitators for their units by providing an immersive experience in remote Aboriginal communities. I found this experience somewhat strange as the instruction was all about trying to understand the barriers and issues faced by Aboriginal society, facts I was already aware of through life experience! Oh well, it was fun being out bush and I met some good people.

My next posting (as a flight sergeant) was to Defence Establishment Orchard Hills (DEOH) to a unit called Precision Guided Munitions – Technical Maintenance Facility, which specialised in maintenance on guided missiles. This was the first time I worked in a unit that was managed by civilians (public servants) and found myself again being discriminated against for being a RAAFie (or military member) rather than my skin colour!

I then went to No 79 Squadron at RAAF Base Pearce, back to my home state and, again, involved in pilot training. As the posting was back in Perth, I was close to family and was able to go back to my Country for what I would describe as a cultural reinvigoration; while at first this was great, I found being back also involved me having cultural obligations I had not been exposed to before. Balancing these expectations along with the expectations of the Air Force was very tricky and I found the hierarchy of the squadron did not understand I had to ‘walk in two worlds’ that did not always converge smoothly. I never thought returning ‘home’ would provide me with such challenges and that the Air Force, an organisation I thought had come a long way with regards to Aboriginal inclusion, was, in fact, still fairly ignorant.

It was then back to Adelaide, to No 10 Squadron, working on the Orion maritime aircraft and for the first time I was operationally deployed, firstly as part of Operation Resolute (now Border Force) and then as part of the International Coalition Against Terrorism in the Middle East Area of Operations. I found the deployments good as I was able to put the training I had been doing for so many years into practice. Interestingly, I again came across discrimination; this time, however, it was because of my mustering (trade) as Armament Fitters/Technicians were not often posted to maritime units and were ‘looked down upon’.

Then came a posting back to DEOH to the newly formed Defence Explosive Ordnance Training School as the School Warrant Officer (WOFF). This school combined the training on explosives for personnel from all three Services as well as for Defence Public Servants. After this, and still at DEOH, I went to Joint Logistics Unit – Regional Explosive Ordnance Services where I performed domestic Explosive Ordnance Disposal duties (think police bomb squad) and inspections of explosive storage areas. While at these postings, I started to think about my experience at Len Waters’s funeral and thought I may be able to be a role model for young Aboriginal people thinking of joining the military. To enable this, I participated in a number of Defence Indigenous Youth Programs and thoroughly enjoyed each and every course, not only seeing the development and growth of the Aboriginal participants, but also the non-Aboriginal staff who assisted. My wife then wanted to return to her home state of Victoria, so I discharged to enable our move.

For the next number of months, I was employed as a reserve and staff member for the next Indigenous Pre-Recruit Programs until being asked to come back full time into the Air Force, this time to Canberra as the WOFF for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Programs – Air Force Unit, within the Directorate of Personnel – Air Force. I was tasked with looking at Aboriginal inclusion within the Air Force and was the manager for a project looking at what the Aboriginal community wanted/needed from the Air Force. Initially, this posting was great, but I soon found that, while senior leadership understood the idea of inclusion, the management level below them was either not ready or willing to make the changes needed to make Air Force a truly culturally safe employer. I did, however, have an incredible experience travelling with the Air Force balloon unit through the central west of New South Wales, interacting with lots of Aboriginal community members, and the trip culminated in a visit to Len Waters’s grave. This brought back a lot of memories and a kind of re-focus on what I wanted to achieve for the Aboriginal community which in turn led me to leave the Air Force for a second (and final) time.

Over the three decades I served, I found the Air Force to become more culturally aware and inclusive but there is still a way to go. When I first joined in the mid-80s, I faced blatant and overt racism, moving into the 90s and experiencing occasions of ‘casual’ racism, and going into the 21st century Air Force grappling with wanting to ‘do the right thing’, but not ready to make the big decisions needed to make the organisation a fully inclusive environment.

I also reflect on my time and discussions with Aboriginal colleagues about having to ‘walk in two worlds’, embracing our Aboriginal culture as well as the white, mainstream society and think that it’s even more complex than that. Aboriginal service personnel actually have to navigate three worlds as the military culture is its own beast that sometimes collides with the other two ‘worlds’, providing issues that are not easily understood by non-Indigenous people.

Overall, I enjoyed my service career and still believe it is a good job to experience (I did, after all, provide stewardship for my son, nephew and niece to join) and believe there is the goodwill within the Services to bring about an even more culturally inclusive workplace.