Pattie Lees AM
Aboriginal (Yadhaigana) and Torres Strait Islander (Meriam, Magaram clan)
Retired Women’s Royal Australian Navy (WRAN)  Steward
Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service

Medals and Awards
Member of the Order of Australia (AM)

I was born in Cairns in August1948. My mother Temana ‘Agnes’ Blanco was  born  in the village of Gigrid on Murray Island (Mer) in the Torres Strait, and my father was of Irish ancestry from County Cork, Kilkenny and Banteer. I also have Filipino ancestry. My maternal grandfather was a pearl diver and came to the Torres Strait in the late 1800s in search of better opportunities.

My mother has always been a great influence on my life. She groomed me to be her little big girl helping her look after the family. So, I’ve always had that sense of being a protector and looking out for people. In 1958, when I was 10, the authorities came in and took us children away from our mother and sent us to an orphanage in Townsville. The orphanage split us up, and three of us were sent to Palm Island as wards of the state. On the island, I was ostracised initially because of my lighter skin and had to work hard to be accepted. I won a scholarship to a school on the mainland in Charters Tower but returned when I finished school and started working in an office there.

I didn’t want to be stuck on Palm Island, so I started looking for a better future.  When I saw an ad in a magazine, saying ‘Join the Navy and see the world’, I knew I had found a pathway and filled out an application to join.  I was staying with Mum when my call-up letter arrived. I chose the Navy and went down to Townsville to enlist in 1966 when I was 18. They said I’d make a good Sick Bay Attendant, but I couldn’t.  I hated injections! By then, I’d already formed a bond with some of the other girls who were Stewards, so I decided to become one too. I had to adjust to the discipline, but I did my best and progressed through the service. Initially, I worked around our WRAN’s quarters, or Wrannery, and then moved up to look after the officers in the Wardroom.

I’d had a lot of hardship and discrimination in my life, but the Navy was a turning point; it gave me a sense of purpose, of being useful. It built me, made me resilient, and gave me self-belief. It was wonderful. I had a great time with girlfriends in the service and never experienced issues about colour, but I did have trouble getting some people to accept that I was Indigenous. I didn’t fit their image of what an Indigenous person was

From HMAS Cerberus in Melbourne I was transferred to HMAS Harman in Canberra, where I met Fran Loban, who was a Torres Strait Islander and we became close friends. I had a bond with her that was very important for me, she was a role model for me. I still carry her memory in my heart.  I also met my future husband, Terry at HMAS Harman before being transferred to HMAS Penguin in Sydney. I wanted to finish my four-year enlistment but back then, women were discharged from service upon marriage. I left the Navy when I married Terry in 1969, but I made the right decision.

I married a compassionate, caring man, and we’ve had an exceptional marriage with four wonderful children, 13 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. I couldn’t have done any better. As of April 2024, Terry and I have been married for 55 years.

Since leaving the service and moving to Mount Isa to raise our family, I’ve devoted myself to the betterment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. I was CEO of West Queensland Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Corporation for Legal Aid for 20 years and was appointed as Regional Councillor to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and to Task Forces dealing with Violence against Women and Crime Prevention. In 1996 and again in 2000, I was selected to attend the United Nations Commissions for Indigenous Rights and the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. In 2017, I was awarded the AM for significant service to the Aboriginal community of Mount Isa, and to youth, aged care, legal and health organisations. I now work as CEO of Injilinji Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporation for Children and Youth Services.