Looking back on army life

28 May 2021

In honour of Reconciliation Week, we asked Indigenous veteran Sergeant Elgan Leedie to relive his years in the Australian Defence Force.

Now a Wakka Wakka elder and board member of the RSL Kingaroy/Memerambi Sub Branch, Elgan was only 18 when he enlisted in the army in the 1980s.

He was inspired by his grandfather George Robert Aitken, who was killed in action in Belgium during World War I.

Elgan recalls the story of what his grandfather went through to enlist.

“He enlisted with his two white brothers from Townsville. It was very hard to enlist then because he wasn’t taken on the same par as his white brothers.

“They rode on horseback to St George, then from there down to Brisbane, then onto a ship, and then they were on their way to the Western Front.”

In a letter from the Front to one of his brothers, Elgan’s grandfather wrote, “If I don’t see you back in Australia, I’ll see you in heaven.”

 

NATURAL TALENT

When enlisting in the Army himself, Elgan’s eye was caught by an advertisement in a newspaper.

“I saw it was written in the papers, it says, ‘JOIN THE ARMY!’. So, I'm thinking, ‘I'll give this a go.’

“I applied and did all the testing, and sure enough, next minute I'm on a bus trip down to Brisbane enlisting, catching up to all these other young fellows.”

Elgan found the training extremely tough at first, but he stuck it out.

“My first three months, I found it very hard. After the fourth day I think it was, because they were yelling at me and everything, I was thinking, ‘What have I let myself in for?’”

He decided to keep going after excelling at Basic Training.

“I realised I got best at PT, and I got a trophy because my fitness level was pretty good.”

 

A REWARDING CAREER

Elgan served with the 2nd/4th Battalion during his service in Townsville, and eventually moved to Darwin to become a regimental police officer.

“I really enjoyed the work that compels a regimental policeman”, he remembers.

After leaving the Regular Army, Elgan joined NORFORCE (North-West Mobile Force, an infantry regiment of the Australian Army Reserve), where he rose to the rank of Sergeant.

“I was involved with the training and aspects of working up there. This is what a lot of Australians don't know, that NORFORCE is up there doing their part for protecting Australia.”

A talented musician, Elgan played several musical instruments in the Army, and still performs at military ceremonies.

“I’ve played the bugle at a number of places,” he says.   

“They even flew me down to Canberra for a memorial. I used to play the bagpipes when I was in the Battalion as well. I was in the pipe and drums for a couple of years. I was always the base drummer.”

 

MORE RECOGNITION NEEDED

Looking back on his time in the Defence Force, Elgan says he has fond memories.

“As far as my army life, if I had the chance, I'd do it all over again.”

Yet Elgan believes more needs to be done to recognise the military service of Indigenous Australians.

“When it comes to our involvement in the history of service, a lot of people don't realise that there were black people who served in the wars.

“There were over 200 of our servicemen that served in World War I and II, and a lot of them had to change their nationality [to enlist]. My grandfather did.”

“I'd like to see more involvement with the kids on ANZAC Day, because it needs to be passed onto the next generation”, he says.

As a Cherbourg local, Elgan would also like a monument to be built in his hometown to honour all the servicemen and servicewomen from the community.

To his immense pride, Elgan’s family is carrying on the military tradition.

“With my granddaughter, I’m so proud of her now. She's going good, she's in her fourth year of regiment up in Townsville.”

 

Join RSL Queensland at the Indigenous Veterans’ Ceremony.

Where: Shrine of Remembrance Ann St Brisbane

Date: 29 May

Time: 11am