This episode of For Kin and Country Yarns was recorded during Reconciliation Week following the Victorian Aboriginal Remembrance Service (May 2022). In this podcast, guest host and acclaimed Gunditjmara actor Tom Molyneux yarns with Ngarigo Dunghutti veteran Rex Solomon about family connection to service, his experience in the forces and reflections on how First People's service is commemorated today.In this episode of the podcast, Rex Solomon sat down to chat with Tom Molyneux about his service.
Speaker: Rex Solomon
Editor: Laura Thomas
Title: Emu and Brolga
Composer: James Henry
Performed by: Air Force Band Wind Quintet
This song was debuted at the Shrine of Remembrance for the Victorian Aboriginal Remembrance Service.
Megan Spencer, for her keen ear and feedback on this podcast.
The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Shrine of Remembrance.
If this interview raises any issues for you, please contact:
Lifeline on 13 11 14
Open Arms (formerly VVCS) - Veterans & Families Counselling on 1800 011 046 or visit their website.
13 YARN, Australia’s first, 24/7, national, Indigenous-led Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander crisis support line. Phone 13 92 76, or visit their website
TOM: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander listeners are advised that the following podcast contains references to First Nations people who have passed.
Ngata – hello. My name is Tom Molyneux, and I’m a proud Gunditjmara man. I’d like to pay my respects, on behalf of the Shrine of Remembrance, to the Traditional Custodians of the land on which this podcast has been recorded, the Bunurong People. We acknowledge their Elders and Ancestors with gratitude, and extend that respect to the Traditional Custodians of the land where you may be listening from, as well as any First Nations people listening.
This podcast series accompanies ‘For Kin and Country’, an exhibition currently showing at the Shrine of Remembrance until April 2023 to commemorate and explore the stories of First Peoples’ defence service, with a Victorian focus.
In this episode, we invite you to hear the stories and experiences of Rex Solomon.
Rex is Ngarigo/ Dunghutti man who lives in Orbost in Eastern Victoria. He first joined the Australian Army in 1982 in Melbourne, before serving in the Signals Corps in Victoria and NSW. Following his time in the army, Rex missed it so much that he joined the Army Reserve for a few years, before eventually re-entering civilian life and making a substantial contribution to education from 1992 onwards.
Rex and I caught up during National Reconciliation Week after the Victorian Aboriginal Remembrance Service, which is always a moving event. We invite you to be a fly on the wall for this yarn, a conversation conducted in our cultural way of connecting with each other and understanding through stories. You might like to join us and grab a cuppa, as we did down in the small studio that exists in the belly of the sacred Shrine of Remembrance, and be entertained by Rex who is a man with very strong values and a deep sense of purpose, and like so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service men and women, has made a great contribution to our country. I hope you enjoy the yarn.
TOM: So Rex, thanks very much, mate for joining us here. And it's great to be on the lands of the Bunurong people. And we obviously pay our respect to the Elders and Ancestors of this Country, for hosting us for this yarn. We're down in the bowels of the Shrine of Remembrance with a cuppa, and we're just going to have a yarn. So, to start off, I was really hoping that you could introduce yourself and where you from?
REX: Right, yeah, my name's Rex Solomon. I'm an Aboriginal person from East Gippsland, so far east Gippsland, so Orbost towards the New South Wales border area is where I'm from. I'm a descendant of the Ngarigo Monaro people of Southern New South Wales and the Djangadi (Dunghutti) people on my mum's side in northern New South Wales. So that's my cultural mob. But I've always been a Victorian.
REX: I was born in Victoria, even though my mob are from New South Wales to a degree, even though that part of our land is cut off by the borders that we have nowadays. Some of our land is in Victoria, some of our land is in New South Wales, but it's just the way it is nowadays I suppose
TOM: That's it.
REX: I have five children, in my family, as in me, my kids. Four boys, one girl, she's the boss.
TOM: Oh, yeah.
REX: She's definitely the boss and the youngest, so she's just turned 18. So she's now free to drive around and do what she wants.
TOM: That's deadly. And so obviously, building on that connection to Victoria and where you've lived for, for all your adult life. And, you know, that's part of what this exhibition that's on at the Shrine of Remembrance at the moment is about, For Kin and Country, and celebrating the service of Aboriginal Victorians here at the Shrine of Remembrance. And so I wanted to ask you about your service. You're a veteran. And I was hoping you could explain to people your story of service.
REX: Yeah, I guess I need to put it in context. My grandfather was in World War Two. So he was part of the 22nd battalion, a machine gun battalion, actually in World War Two, and he served in Borneo and New Guinea, and those conflicts. And so, I was always proud of my grandfather, you know, and I'd always grown up as a young boy, and I had uncles as well, you know, uncles that were in the army. So there was always a military theme around our family I guess I say. And I loved it. I was just one of those young boys that love that type of thing. Looking at. listening to and being proud of that that's my grandfather and that's my uncle.
TOM: So it was always sort of on the horizon for you to enlist?
REX: I think it was. There wasn't a, what do you call it, a conscious thought of ‘that's what I'm gonna go and do’ growing up because as a young blackfella growing up in the country, you didn't really think about what you were going to do. But there was that thing of the military, the army more, more to the point that that's something that was strong in our family. My grandfather was strong about his connection to the military. And my uncles would always talk about it. So, there was going to be some sort of influence.
TOM: So, there wasn't necessarily like a conscious decision that you made one day that said “Yeah, I'm gonna go and sign up now”. It sort of, it was always kind of lingering around as an option. And then you just took it?
REX: Yeah, it was a funny thing really, when you think about it. Like, in the early days before I joined the Army, there was me, my brother, who's younger than me, because I'm the oldest in my family, and then a cousin. And, you know, young fellas growing up and being at that age where you're allowed to go and do stuff, so 18 and 19ish. And 19, I say that, because that's when I joined the army when I was 19. But before that, you know, we were off travelling around stuff, we used to travel up to Mildura and Swan Hill and Robinvale picking grapes. That was what we did. We just got out. And it was my younger brother that actually had the thought of “Oh, I might join the army”. It wasn't me. Even though I had a big – it was one of those things that I was influenced by, but it was my younger brother, and then I don't know how it happened. I ended up in the army (laughs)
TOM: And what was that like? You know, when you took your first steps, how did that process go for you?
REX: Actually, it was quite interesting. Again being 18 and naïve, naïve-ish if that’s a word, not knowing a lot about life in general other than just growing up in the country town down east Gippsland way. When I actually joined, it was like this, an awakening. I don't know how else to explain it really. Like I'd been working in the local town. You know, working for Telecom in the local town, or Telstra, it’s called nowadays. That's probably telling you a little bit about my age. But then I joined the Army, and it was like this, there's a whole other world out there. And that's literally what it was. I can't describe it any other way - that it was a different world from where I was growing up. You grow up in your little country towns and your areas and that's your world. You know, that's who you are, and your influences and your friends and family and whatever else. But when I joined the Army, it was this whole new world. And not just whole new world, but a whole new experience. Using a weapon - I've never fired a gun in my life before the army. Obviously, you play with toys, as you know, an as an influence in your younger age, that sort of stuff, you know, playing with army figurines as a little boy, you know, that sort of stuff. There was always that but actually doing it for real was a big eye opener and an experience that I don't think I'll ever be able to top again in that context of your first experience of something.
TOM: And so were you with your brother, when you were sort of on those early days, like training and stuff? Were you together?
REX: No, no, he never joined
TOM: Oh, right
REX: But his intention was to, but he just never got around to it and I just did it.
TOM: You actually followed through
REX: I actually fell into really, if that makes sense. But it wasn’t something I fell into it. I really thought I would like to do this. It just happened so fast.
TOM: And did you love it? What was it like?
REX: It was the best experience of my life, I have to say that, you know, I've got kids, and I've got a good working life, and partner. But this is probably, that was probably the best thing, at that time in my life, the best thing that's ever happened to me. And best thing because you got to travel, you got to experience new things like learning how to march, say, or use a weapon or work as a team, because I've never played team sports in my younger grades. So that wasn't something that was there for me. So, it was all new for all these new experiences. And I just fell into it. It just clicked. I don't know why it just clicked.
TOM: Yeah. I was going to ask like, you know, a lot of people talk about the army changing them. And so, what sort of person were you when you enlisted? And, you know, was it a big eye-opening thing? Were there a lot of changes that started to happen pretty fast for you?
REX: Yeah, I'd say there were a lot of changes. One of them was interacting with people on a level that I don't normally would do. I'm a bit of a loner, in some ways to a degree and even my partner nowadays, would say that I'm not a big conversation, even though I'm having a chat with you right now.
TOM: That’s it, you're doing it on a national podcast mate
REX: So it changed me because I had to integrate, you had to talk. You had to, you know, team work, you had to do all that sort of stuff. So that was new. But it wasn't, for me personally, and I have spoken to other Indigenous servicepeople since and everybody's had their own experiences. I had a fantastic experience. It was the best thing for me, like I said, learnt new things, made a lot of new friends, and they’re still mates that I’ve got today. One of them was my best mate at my wedding. Best man at the wedding, that sort of stuff. And he's still in my life today, me and him. So I've got friends in a lot of places that are part of the military. It's been a fantastic experience that I, and this is not a recruiting thing, but I would ask any, I would say to any young person have a go at it
TOM: Consider it, yeah
REX: Definitely. And, and I suppose I have to add to that, my son is now in the army.
TOM: Yeah. Well, I was going to touch on that too. And ask you what is it like, you know, you've obviously moved through it. And you're, and you're a veteran now. But, you know, seeing your son enlist, and now looking at it through the eyes of a dad, is that any different to how you felt when you were going through it yourself? And can you put yourself in that position of your father thinking about what he was thinking looking at you when you first enlisted?
REX: Yeah, that's a really good question. Because ultimately, I am so proud of my son for what he's done. And it wasn't something that I said “You've got to go and do. Come on. It was great for me. You should do it”. We never had those types of conversations. He actually did on his own, and didn't tell us that this is what he was going to do until right until the time when he had to go through all the testing phases before you get in. So it was almost like “What?! That’s great!”
TOM: A bit of a surprise for you.
REX: Whereas for me when I joined my mum, and it was the same deal, it was me that made the choice, not my mum or dad saying you should go or this or that, or because of this or because of that. I made the choice of that's what I want to do. So that was probably similar, I guess, in our experiences of me doing it and me as a father now, my son doing it. But the joy and proudness of my son joining the military is unexplainable. I don't know how to explain it, really. But it's just I'm so proud of him. He's my youngest son, I've got five, he's the youngest. So proud of him, because he made that choice, even though I think he might have had some influence. He knew about his great grandfather who was in World War Two and, and me. So he'd always known that sort of stuff. And he was sort of, you could see it as he’d grown up. But if I had to stop and think, I would think there was times when I think he might be going that way you know, that's it, but it never struck me at that time. But thinking back on it, I could see him, he was probably thinking of something like that, maybe.
TOM: And so now you've got this, in your family, this multi-generational connection with the Australian armed forces. And there are many Aboriginal families in the same boat. And I wanted to, I guess, dig into that a little and ask you, what were your perceptions of the army and how it was for Aboriginal folks like yourself? And, you know, was there anything any specific challenges? Or, you know, any barriers to being open about your ancestry while you're in there? Or what was the environment like? And how has your family seen that kind of shift over time as well?
REX: Yeah, that's a really good question. Because growing up in a small country town, in most Aboriginal communities and families that live in these small country towns, there's always an experience of racism, or not inclusion within the communities. In the town that I grew up in, which is far east Gippsland, it's called Orbost, so, it's only a small little town, a timber town. Me personally, I don't remember any racist type of feelings, although it was there. Other family members or cousins and that had experienced it. But me personally, I don't recall any, going through anything that was a racial sort of an issue. So, when I got to the army and got into the army and started being part of what the Army system is, I could see it. I didn't feel it as directed at me.
It was almost like your mates just stirring you in a context. It wasn't a big racial saying “Aw you’re black or whatever”. There was just this “Oh you're an Aboriginal, good stuff” or something like that. What I'm trying to say is that the feeling of my racial background, it didn't seem to be an issue to everybody else that I was around in the military. So, I had a good experience in that concept. And I know a lot of other people haven't. But for me, personally, it was like, when I was in the country town growing up, and then going to the military, they were pretty much similar for me. I think it really comes down to that I'm pretty flexible.
TOM: Yeah. Did you hear any stories from the past from your, you know, the family passed down about how that might have been for them back in World War Two or earlier?
REX: Oh yeah. Obviously, now working in education that history and those type of stuff of what happened to Aboriginal people in the past. Yeah, I understand all that sort of stuff. And I've heard and seen it. And my grandfather actually talked about it a little bit too.
TOM: He did?
REX: He never used to talk a lot about his military experiences overseas. But he would talk about little bits of something every now and then when he probably had a couple of lemonades. He'd open up a little bit. The aunties would say “Shhh don’t say that because the kids around” but he would talk about some of the things that were, he, he himself had a good experience in the military, because of those times back then, you know, they weren't required to go to join the military or the Army or the Air Force or Navy, whichever one you choose. But his experience was he was equal. And hearing that sort of stuff and seeing that myself in regards to my experiences going to the military and doing stuff that I had to do, I could see that that came through.
Because I understand that the military is such an equaliser, this is how I seen and still see it actually, I still do, is that it gives us more opportunity, and especially the men and women back in those times, this is the only way they could become an equal have, you know, recognition in a way. It's just the after, the coming home is the thing that didn't go the right way. But that's history now
TOM: I hear similar things in my own family history. And I had ancestors that went and fought in World War One. And, you know, it was one of the first examples of them feeling like they were properly included, you know, they got equal pay. And, you know, they pretty quickly figured out they had to have each other's back in a conflict zone, if they were sent overseas. And it was, yeah, as you say, sort of coming back where the problem started more than anything.
REX: And I think it was, I think that's the same as every Aboriginal person experienced that whether you were in the military or in civilian life, it's just unfortunate that it was the policies and things back then but that like I said, the military just gave, afforded us Aboriginal people a certain amount of humanity. Equal pay, like you said, and mateship. And mateship with people who are Aboriginal. Non-Aboriginal. And I felt that, I definitely felt that in my career. And going on to where my son is now, he actually says to me, because we talk a lot and I can't help it I quiz him a lot about “How's it going? What are you doing? Are you going on here? Are you going there?” But he has that same connection with his mates in the army now that they're very, you know, they’re mates, doesn’t matter whether you're black or white. You’re mates. And so, I'm happy with that that that's still going on. So that hasn't changed. It's just those other things that have messed it up in the background.
TOM: Well, that's it. And you know, and obviously, the policy frameworks got a lot more inclusive and all that stuff over time as well. I did have a question for you about, you know, what that sort of day-to-day life was like for you once you'd enlisted, and you’ve gone through your training, you know, what's it like to paint a picture for us. Those who haven't been in the military, you know?
REX: So, going through the military, you go through your normal recruit training, which is a certain amount of months at a training institution up at Kapooka, which is great three months, or it's not great, but it's interesting.
TOM: Hard work?
REX: But I see the concept and the understanding of it is that they break you down and build you up the way they want you to be as a soldier, and you're all the same, you’re equal here, so that's that part. So, you go in and it's “Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir”, that sort of thing. You know, you can't be a smartass really because oh gee I used to see some things happen to the smartarses. I won’t go into that part. But you go for your training, you know, your three months training and your initial training of being a soldier, and then you go off and do your job training, your corps training. I chose transport. Because my dad was a truck driver. It was in the blood in a way on that concept. So, his brothers and other brothers, they're all truck drivers around the country. So, I chose truck driving, because I'd already know how to drive and I always knew how to drive trucks because my dad used to let me drive his truck. So I chose transport.
And the other thing I chose about transport is that the training for transporting the armies was at Puckapunyal in Victoria. So, I've got to come back to Victoria to do my training. Although, when I say transport, I chose transport within the signals corp. So I was actually a signalman. So radios and that sort of stuff, which as a transport driver, you don't touch. All we are as transport is transporting those types of equipment and people personnel around. You use radios and satellite dishes and whatever else you need for communications around the areas. So, I was at transport within the signals corp. And both of those were in Victoria, so I got to come home, which is a great thing.
TOM: Was that important to you at the time, that feeling of being close to home?
REX: It did, because it was the first time I was away for that long was three months in Kapooka. And even that was only three months, it might sound not very long, but when you're there, it does feel like a long time. Although you are busy a lot. You got to get up early in the morning, you've got to get your uniforms ready, you got to do whatever is required during the day, the training that you're going to do. So, it's a full day, it's full on. So it’s almost like 24/7 to a degree. So it's full on for three months. And that's why it has to be like that, because you only got three months to cram in as much as you can for being a soldier, and they ship you off to whatever job that you're going to go and do training for. So I chose transport but within the signals corps and they were based in Victoria. So, in a way I got to see family again. So that was really important.
TOM: And do you know whether that was like a common thing for a lot of other Aboriginal service people as well, making decisions like that about what sort of strand of the army that we're going to be in based on what location that might take them to?
REX: I hadn't spoken to people about that, but I'm pretty sure it was, because there are a couple of Indigenous guys with me at the same time. One was from up in Queensland and one was from South Australia, but we all chose transport in Signals. And I'm not sure what their reasons for. One, for the South Australian, it was close for him to go home for weekends or whatever. But the other guy, he got posted to Queensland anyway, so he got what he wanted. So the training was that sort of thing for me, it gave me the opportunity to catch up with family again. But to expand my experiences and knowledge. So once you did that, you did the transport at training at Puckapunyal for a few weeks, six weeks, I think, so it was not very long again, but it was easy. I say easy because I'm used to it. Transport, that is. So then I get posted.
Now, when you get posted they try to give you your first choices always, whether it could be like I said, could be Victoria, could be South Australia, wherever. It could be you know, whatever state it is. I got chose to go to New South Wales, which wasn't a problem for me yet. I thought “Okay. It's different”. I've got to do what I wanted. Got to see family again. So, let's move again. So I got posted to Newcastle in New South Wales. There’s an old World War One, but I think it went into World War Two, a fort called Fort Wallis at Stockton, which is on the other side of the Hunter River.
And there was tunnels everywhere underneath it, that you could use, because there had to be guns that were used to fire out if ships were coming up and down the coast. In actual fact, I think it was one of the guns that actually might have been somewhere else. But it was one of those places like that, because there's also one at Portsea as well, which is the same similar type of army establishment, you know, with big guns, but there were tunnels all underneath where the shells would be taken to where the gun positions are and then sent up to where the guns are. And they’re huge tunnels. It was one of those places that just amazed me. Okay, I'm going to a new state.
TOM: It would have been exciting, hey
REX: A new town, but then these experiences. So you got your job to do, but there's experiences about these tunnels. And they had these, these runs that they used to take us on. I used to hate it because they always put the new blokes up the front of these runs. And you run through the tunnels and they turn the lights off. It was black as! And you hit your head on low lights or missed a turn you were supposed to go down because they go for miles!
TOM: Sort of like the house of mirrors. You got to be careful where you go
REX: Yeah, so it's almost like an initiation. Okay, put the new blokes out front. Let them run. And that was one of those things where you had to hold on to the guy's shirt in front. Because it's dark. And sometimes someone would pull away from you. You go like this trying, reaching out to find someone. I just thought about that then, I forgot about that.
TOM: Funny the flashbacks that happen, hey. I was going to ask you just, you know, on this idea of, you know, as Aboriginal people, we take our culture with us everywhere we go. And you hear people talk a lot about this, walking in two worlds sort of framework, I guess, to to – I’ll try that again. You hear people talk about this walking in two worlds framework to describe that sensation that a lot of Aboriginal people have about existing in a professional world, but also trying to carry your true cultural self with you and the balancing act that has to happen sometimes between those things. How did you find that in the army? Were there moments where you had that tension that you had to resolve? Or did you draw on your culture to get you through some of that?
REX: Because of the experience that I had with dealing with just people in general in my little country town that I was born in and grew up in, and, and the racism that I didn't experience as much, even though I knew it was there to a degree. I never really grew up knowing my culture, if that makes sense. I knew who my mob was. I knew who my family are. But in a sense of who Aboriginal people are, in a sense, because we didn't live it or talk it. Growing up in the white man's world, I guess if that makes sense. So, for me as an Aboriginal person, even though I was Aboriginal I was still pretty much learning my culture. So, when I got to the army, and you only learn snippets really over time when people give you the information, especially our elders, which is generally how it works anyway, and family. As I got to the army, obviously I had a little bit more knowledge about my culture, and what it means to be Aboriginal in a sense of who we are, the oldest and that sort of stuff in the world. But in the army, I didn't have to, it wasn't one of those things that I had to say “I'm Aboriginal. Hey I'm the Aboriginal person. If you want to talk about Aboriginal people talk to me.”
That didn't have to happen or didn't need to happen, or didn't happen in general anyway, even though people knew I was Aboriginal, because I was proud. I said “Look, I'm Aboriginal”. There’s nothing to say that I wasn't proud about being Aboriginal, it was just about knowing about my culture.
TOM: And there's a relief in that, in a way isn't there of not being singled out differently? Or, you know, we sometimes talk about, in my circles, we talk about the ‘Blak Siri’ phenomenon where someone comes to ya, they want to ask every single question about Aboriginal Australia, and you say, you know, I can’t answer every single question. So it's kind of a relief to not have that pressure sometimes.
REX: I think that thing about it too, is that because I was Aboriginal, people were happy that there was an Aboriginal there. I don't know why. But people did say “Oh, yeah, we've got an Aboriginal in our group”. So it's almost like saying, and a lot of people do it nowadays, “I know, an Aboriginal”.
TOM: They were proud of it?
REX: Yes, that was a good thing about and when I think I said earlier that my interactions with the non-Aboriginal mates in the military, it was almost like a mateship type of relationship. It wasn't this “Oh, you're black, or you're white”. So, we would joke around. And that happens. And you joke around about your culture, too. And that's what blackfellas do, we joke about our culture.
TOM: We've got a good sense of humour.
REX: So that was there, but that wasn't a negative way for me, it was actually positive because it helped me to bond.
TOM: Yeah, totally. So what about transitioning out? So you know, post-service life, you're now a veteran? How do you feel about the way that remembering is done in this country? And, and, you know, obviously, today, we're recording just after you've attended the Victorian Aboriginal Remembrance service, which is a really nice moment, every year.
REX: My first
TOM: Your first? Yeah, which is deadly. So I want to ask you about that. How do you feel? Have you seen things change in a good way over time? And, you know, what's your feeling on it all?
REX: The recognition side of it, I think it's got a hell of a lot better. People are talking about Aboriginal servicemen. And we have been in every conflict that this country has been a part of, whether we were identified or not, Aboriginal people have been there and still are there. So that recognition is getting a lot more out there, as in people know more about it, they hear more about it. And I work for the education department. So, we talk about it all the time, on these Remembrance Days and Anzac Days and any other day that might be of significance to Aboriginal people. Schools like to use that contact or that understanding from an Aboriginal person, and even from an Aboriginal service person.
So that sort of stuff is getting out there a lot more, I'm actually quite happy with the education department is that they are very proactive in cultural understanding. So, the service stuff is part of that understanding, whether it's you know, how do Aboriginal people hunt or whatever. There are Aboriginal people who served in the military. So, those sort of stories get out there and information is out there.
Now, with the public, it's things like this, or remembrance days like today, and other things on ANZAC Day where they do actually, and you hear them talk about there are ex-servicemen or their servicemen or their Aboriginal people that served over there, over here. So, it's getting out there. And I think that knowledge is great. Knowledge is power. But it never used to be obviously, a while back. But it's gotten better. It's gotten better way over time.
TOM: I so agree. And, you know, I think back to, you know, the ancestors who would have served in World War One or some of those earlier conflicts, and, you know, the recognition that they got was practically non-existent, you know, and there are still a few of them buried in unmarked graves and those sorts of things. It's so nice to see the shift now where there's, you know, appropriate recognition for what these men went through. And, you know, when we think about the reasons for enlisting as an Aboriginal person, particularly back in the day, and I don't know if your grandfather had this experience, but, you know, when people weren't classed as part of the population of this country, until 1967, you know, what did motivate these blackfellas to enlist? Do you have a view on that? Or did your grandfather talk about that at all?
REX: Um, no, he didn't talk about that particular stuff he just had was like these little snippets that just popped up every now and then of his life. But I could actually say that his experience of where he lived, he lived up around Armidale Tamworth and that sort of area, growing up and born there, that his experience, and again, a lot of the jobs that they could get around the area are those meaningful jobs or meaning meaningless jobs or stockman or whatever, and he was a stockman. So he wanted better, he wanted something better for his life and better for his family. And I'm sure that he would have done that for that reason. He could have stayed where he was being a stockman working on this big farm up around that area and, and just living his life on from there. But he chose to go and join the military, the army. And I'm sure it was because of those reasons, better himself better his family's condition. And better the outcomes of that, even though he experienced the same thing as everybody else when they come home, you know, back to where you are, the blacks out the back type of thing.
Soldier settlement not happening in the early days for those fellas. So, he would have been thinking about that, too. But he's, I'm sure his reasoning would have been around bettering himself and his family. And it clearly did. And I suppose I have to put it in this context. What he did drove a lot of us ancestors afterwards, people who have come after him, to better themselves. Well, grandfather did it, why can't we? So it makes you sort of proud that he was he was strong enough to stand up and go and do that. So can we.
TOM: And there's still a sense of fighting for Country isn’t there, you know, like that, that endures I think, doesn't it? Multi generationally, you know, these, these people have seen the value in, in fighting for Country.
REX: Well, we’re warriors.
TOM: That’s it
REX: We were warriors to start with, you know, we're cultural warriors now still. We’re out there fighting for our culture. By doing things like this maybe, or we’re working or how we're talking to people so that cultural warrior has always been there. And stories.
TOM: So how have you found a way to move beyond the armed forces? You know, what's that, like that transition out? And, and going into a different career? You mentioned your work for the education department now. You know, how did that go for you?
REX: It wasn't easy to start with. Yeah. And I have to put this, I have to say this, too. I don't think, even to this day, although they are getting better, and I've talked about the Department of Defence and how they treat their ex-servicemen. What I mean by that is that when people leave and put into better context, because there’s things about mental health and suicide, which has happened with a lot of vets and stuff like that or people who are serving too
TOM: You’ve got to talk about it don’t you?
REX: You’ve got to talk about it. So we're getting better at it. But when I left, that was still a, that wasn't a thing. We didn't talk about it. We didn't talk about how you felt. And I'll put it into context. When I left, I had this, I had this feeling of abandonment. Because you signed the paper says, there's my discharge papers, and you're gone.
TOM: All that structure that was around you - gone
REX: You don't have that structure. Exactly right. And you have to start to be a civilian again. To transition back from military life to civilian life was hard for me. I struggled. Literally, I didn't know how to do it. And I had, it was my missus, at the time had to do all that. Because she would do that anyway. Your partners still live in that world, even though they are part of your military life. So, I relied totally on her because I had no idea. I joined when I was 19. And I was in my 30s by the time I had my last association with the army, regular army and reserve. So, I had a long time of just being in the Army. And everything was comfortable. It was like having this comfy blanket around you. So when I left, I struggled. And I'm sure a lot of people did. I still don't know if the Department of Defence still has a structured, I don't know what you call it? I guess is that do they help transition out? I think there needs to be something there, some sort of transition process to help. And you see snippets of little things, but I still don't know whether there's a structured proper system.
TOM: No, but there are more support services now. And I'll reference those at the end of this podcast so that everyone's got the right numbers and links
REX: I think that's where it's gone. Which is okay, which is great. But it was just hard for me. I'm sure it was hard for a lot of other people too. And, and it makes me think about my grandfather. And all those blackfellas. That when they left, what they had to go back to. I had it easy in a sense, but they had to go back to their black lives and live their that part.
TOM: Well Uncle Johnny Lovett talks about that, you know with his ancestors and saying they were just back to being black being black. That's what it was when they came back.
REX: No support. And even your mates, you couldn't even catch up with your mates on Anzac Day because you weren't allowed to go to the front bar. You had to go to the back bar, if you were allowed to.
TOM: So it's nice that we're not finding ourselves in that sort of position. But as you say there's always more that can be done.
REX: I reckon. Well, that's right. There's always more that can be down because I don't fully think that we transition well out of the military. And transitioning, like I said, I left and then I'm now working for the education department. But it wasn't straight after I left the army. There was a period of time there that I was lost, floating around doing various things. And I’ve now ended up in a position where I've been for the last 27 years. I'm loving it. I love working in education with kids. Because we can talk about this stuff. Literally the blackfellas and women in the military. So, it gives me a better perspective, and a sense of, well, I can give something back.
TOM: And how do the kids respond to all those stories that, that you talk about?
REX: Ah it’s good fun. Especially my own kids, love listening to it. It's family. It's history. But kids in general, I talked to non-Aboriginal kids in the classroom. So, within our systems of education, when we talk about cultural stuff, we don't segregate talking about that stuff. It's talking to everybody about that. So, every kid's the same. You know, they all like hearing stories about something to do with the military. And if it's a personal one about yourself, you know, that sort of stuff, it’s funny sometimes.
TOM: Absolutely, people connect with it more, hey
REX: That's what I mean. So you always got to put that angle in, you know, bit of oh, this is how I did all this. Something that happened to me, so it works.
TOM: Now, Rex, people who are listening won't be able to tell, but you're wearing a medal in the studio at the moment. But can you explain to listeners what that is for?
REX: Yep. So, everybody who joins the military, whether you go overseas or not, you get you are entitled to a defence medal. It’s called the defence service medal. So, it's like Australia saying thank you for your service, and we acknowledge that you did serve whichever military department you're in, army, navy or air force. So, we all get the same medal after a period of time. But it's one of those things that's like an acknowledgment, you know, a well done. Thank you. Here's your medal and saying thank you for your service. Now, whatever service that could be doesn't matter. You served. And I have only one because I didn't serve overseas. But that's okay. I still served my country at the same stage as everybody else who did the same thing, whether they served overseas or not, you're trained the same way you're trained to do the same job. And some go over, some don’t.
TOM: And you all make a contribution
REX: Exactly right. So I put it in a little bit like playing football. You train, you train, you train. And sometimes you don't get on the field. But you’re a part of that team.
TOM: And sometimes you get two possessions, sometimes you get 32
REX: You’re still part of that team. And I’m proud to be part of that team, whichever way I went.
TOM: Well, It's nice to see you're wearing it with pride, and particularly during National Reconciliation week, I think. You know, it's been lovely to see that this morning with the remembrance service. And I guess we're kind of coming to the end of our time. But I really wanted to ask you one last question, which is, what do you want people out there, no matter what background they're from, what do you want them to know, about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in the armed forces?
REX: I think it's very important that people get on board with these things like the remembrance day that we have today, to remember the Aboriginal ex-servicemen and women in whichever area that they served in. I think they need to get on board and support those types of things. Because we have ANZAC Day, which everybody goes through, we have Remembrance Day, obviously, which everyone celebrates and talks about, but this one is about us, about us Aboriginal people. So if people can get on board just to start with doing that. And then out of that, develops conversation. And conversation is the way you find out things. And conversation is the best way to find out things. You don't read it. You don't watch it on a video, you talk to someone. You talk to ex Vets, you know, Aboriginal ones, but I think things like this is where they need to start. Start identifying yourself with these types of ceremonies. They’re important for our country, they’re important for our people, but important for everybody because, like I said, we have ANZAC Day, Remembrance Day and other commemoration or days of different things. But this one's about us. And for them to understand and celebrate us and be part of us. This is the best way.
TOM: Well, as they say, reconciliation is a journey of 1000 conversations. Maybe there's a conversation that people can have with their local RSL about what the recognition is where they are.
REX: Exactly right. I'm going to do that where I come from, in my hometown, they don't do that yet. And I'm going to start bringing that sort of stuff in. So that's the idea. It's not like you have to go there and say you got to do it. You have the conversation. You talk about it.
TOM: Well, it gives everyone an invitation in. Because some people don't know where to start.
REX: That's right. And that's probably the thing. They don't know where to start. Just ask, that’s all.
TOM: Well, that's a great note to finish on. Rex, thank you so much for your generosity and your openness today for sharing your story. And I hope people have enjoyed listening to you.
REX: Thank you. It's been good brother.
TOM: A huge thank you to Rex and to the Shrine team, as well as you for listening – your interest is much appreciated as we journey together towards reconciliation, the journey of a thousand conversations.
The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Shrine of Remembrance. If this interview raises any issues for you, please contact one of the following services:
Lifeline on 13 11 14;
And I encourage you to visit the For Kin and Country exhibition at the Shrine of Remembrance, on until April 2023.
Tune in to the next episode of For Kin and Country: Yarns coming soon. I’m Tom Molyneux, and in the language of my ancestors: ‘wuuwook’ – farewell for now.
Reviewed 04 July 2022