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Training warriors in the Far North

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WHEN DR TIMOTHY White spins a yarn he attracts an audience – capturing the listener with his imaginative use of language, easygoing charisma and astute deployment of a punchline. With decades of experience as a police psychologist in the remote Aboriginal communities of Cape York, he’s also got the ear of the boys of Aurukun. He speaks their language and understands the cultural minutiae – so when he talks, they listen.

‘Your job as warriors,’ says White to an audience of young Wik men seated in a circle around him, ‘is to be a protector of your community… Not a no-good fella starting fights down on Kang Kang Road.

Today, White has gathered a dozen fighting-aged males in the bushland outside Aurukun. Beneath a camouflage net strung-up a spear’s throw from the banks of the Watson River, they are here as part of White’s new community-development drive – the Kapani Warrior Program – which uses simulated military training to instil leadership, teamwork and initiative in young men with chequered pasts. Items on the program include map reading, navigation exercises, obstacle crossings, stretcher carries, bush mechanics workshops and group counselling – a curriculum aimed at equipping participants with new skills and a new desire to positively engage with society.

‘The name “Kapani”,’ White explains, ‘comes from the Kalkadoon phrase for “follow me”. In times of war, the clans around Mt Isa would send an envoy with a message stick to unite the whole language group. It was about building a community to confront a bigger problem.’

So too, it seems, with the Kapani Warrior Program – White’s push to grow a new generation of male leaders in Indigenous communities.

At first glance, Kapani appears to function as a kind of work readiness program – a pathway for young Aboriginal men to acquire underlying competencies relevant to practical, bush-based jobs.

By his own admission however, White’s long-term goals are more ambitious. Tackling domestic violence and disproportionate incarceration rates in former-mission communities throughout Cape York are central to his vision.

It’s a daunting task though, not least because a traumatic legacy of dispossession and violence is as strong as ever in places like Aurukun. For White, the problem for many men comes down to a loss of purpose – embodied by the slow degradation of traditional expressions of masculinity like hunting for the family or being ‘on country’. By this reading, the separation of men from the land has been a recipe for social unrest, with the vagaries of sedentary community life now manifest in chronic mental illness, addiction, suicide, domestic abuse and street violence. It’s a view shared by many who work in Indigenous mental health, and White’s breath-of-fresh-air approach for getting troublesome males back out-bush has been positively received – especially by community leaders and the program’s own participants.

‘There was a fight down on Kang Kang Road last night,’ says Aelan Wollamby, a Wik Ngathan man who is just days from completing Kapani’s first program in Aurukun. ‘Some of my family wanted me to get involved but I thought about Tim and I thought about my future and I decided against it. I’d rather be out bush with the warriors.’

Next to Aelan, in the driver’s seat of a camouflage-pattern Mercedes Benz G-Wagon, sits Warrant Officer Allen Jolly, a company sergeant major with the Cairns-based 51st Battalion, Far North Queensland Regiment (51FNQR), one of the Army’s Regional Force Surveillance Units. The Army is in town this week recruiting graduates of the Kapani program – an astute tactical move for an organisation whose remit includes the surveillance of Australia’s remote northern borders. Jolly’s area of operations includes the coastline, the bushland and the riverine systems of Western Cape York, and his unit is interested in the knowledge of country that Indigenous soldiers can bring to bear. ‘You made a good call,’ says Jolly, as they drive to the makeshift recruiting station where Aelan will sign his name on the dotted line. ‘You’ve come too far already to go getting yourself into trouble.’

After three weeks with the Kapani Warrior Program, Aelan is about to enlist in the military – an employment pathway he always thought he might like but never really fathomed was his to grasp. ‘I thank Tim for that,’ he says.

While other employers have profited from Kapani’s pre-recruitment-style training, the Army has been its most notable beneficiary.

According to the Department of Defence, nine of the last eighteen new recruits to 51FNQR were graduates of the Kapani Warrior Program, a number not to be scoffed at in a part of Australia where the Army’s outreach has been intermittent at best.

‘The Kapani Warrior Program enhances the Army’s ability to recruit Indigenous personnel from remote and disadvantaged communities,’ a spokesperson for Defence says.

Local volunteer emergency services are also reaping the benefits of Kapani’s emphasis on bush-based activities. A year ago, the SES shed in the Daintree community of Wujal Wujal – a remote Aboriginal community five hours north of Cairns – had plenty of sophisticated equipment but no one to operate it, a common trend in northern Australia where externally driven development has tended to emphasise infrastructure over manpower. Now though, after two dozen sign-ups from the Warrior Program – many of whom also enlisted in the Army – the SES’ Wujal Wujal branch is fully staffed and ready for the wet season’s notorious flooding.

That said, while prospective employers are happy, White is not declaring victory just yet. The mission, he well knows, is anything but accomplished. Indeed, as one arrives in Aurukun, puttering along the dusty, bauxite-red thoroughfare that splits off from the Cape York Development Road, it’s easy to be sceptical of the many attempts at aid-dispensation in this part of the world. The PCYC hall (a police-run activities centre) only seems to attract interest when there’s a free barbecue on; the local school is stymied by low attendance numbers; and officials from Queensland Health, when they are in town, seem to fly in and out on the same day.

Certainly, the history of whitefella development in northern Australia is one replete with broken promises and unintended consequences. But urging his four-wheel drive slowly through the outskirts of town, White is adamant that Kapani’s warrior training is different.

Development can work if you have fully-engaged participants, White argues. The key is to make it interesting. And teaching bushcraft in an adventurous setting is both exciting for the men and relevant to employers.

Where tackling violence is concerned, White has also got his strategy well thought out. By creating an environment in which young men from rival clans are working together in the bush, there’s the added benefit that they will learn to see each other as part of a team instead of as potential adversaries on the street. Successfully crossing an obstacle or moving a loaded stretcher across a remote tract of bushland – tasks which point towards an Army career – all requires teamwork. Similarly, the group-counselling sessions also reinforce this co-operative theme, envisioning the ‘soldier’, the ‘hunter’ and the ‘warrior’ as leaders who can transcend clan rivalries and bring a group of people together to achieve a common goal – protecting the community. White calls this aspect of the program ‘anger inoculation’ – his methodology for reducing the number of violent stoushes between competing clans in Aurukun.

‘It’s inspired by the model we used during village stability operations in Somalia,’ says White, who, in an earlier life, deployed to Somalia as an infantryman with the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR). ‘Essentially, we would find allies in the community, induct them into our tribe and then they would go back to their community and bring more allies to our side.’


WITH GREEN CANVAS tents hung up everywhere and a fleet of military vehicles peppered around the campsite, it seems that the tribe White is building in Aurukun is a very Army-like tribe, indeed. And also in keeping with Kapani’s military theme, the other instructors on the program are all former soldiers – veterans of Australia’s campaigns in Somalia, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. For the veterans White works with, operational service was punctuated by periods of intense combat – high-stimulus experiences that left an existential void following separation from the Army. The loss of tribe is a common theme among veterans post-discharge and for many removing the uniform and adapting to civilian life is the most difficult task of all.

‘I thought the Army was going to be my career,’ says John Brendecki, nicknamed ‘Bren’ after the World War II machine gun. ‘So it came as a little bit of a shock when I was told I couldn’t play the game anymore.’ Bren, a thickset former reconnaissance infantryman of mixed German and Papuan roots, now works as a judo instructor at a martial arts gym in Townsville – a job he finds relevant to his skillset but not quite as satisfying as his previous life in an infantry battalion. After being discharged from the Army for a variety of health reasons, he found transitioning difficult – his mood gloomy, his outlook grim.

‘But Kapani changed my life,’ he says. ‘The program is good for us as well. It’s honest work.’

Bren’s wife has also noticed a difference since he signed on as a program instructor. Tasked now with being a mentor for a different demographic of vulnerable men, Bren has remade himself – rejuvenated by the pleasure of working in the bush and by his ability to have an impact as a soldier-turned-role model.

‘We’re making a difference here,’ he says. ‘That feels good.’

In a very real sense then, Kapani also functions as therapy for the therapist, and White’s decision to employ former soldiers as mentors is part of a deliberate attempt to make a dent in the equally urgent crisis in veteran’s mental health. In convoy, White and his veteran mentors have driven here from Cairns and together their outlook is hopeful.

Naturally though, some days at work in Aurukun are better for White’s team than others. On one morning, by the time the Kapani convoy has rolled into the centre of town ready for a day of bush activities, only Aelan and his friend Irwin Yungkaporta – the keenest two of the cohort – are ready to go. The others have disappeared down one of the side alleys off Kang Kang Road where a crowd of rival family groups is gathering. Fists are beginning to fly.

Despite being a dry community, Aurukun remains one of the most violent places in Australia, the result of a top end–bottom end factionalism that arose, in part, from the bundling together of disparate language-groups during the missionary period. Deaths during inter-clan clashes are not unheard of and pitched battles with clubs (nullanullas) – even knife and axe fights – often take place in the cooler hours of the evening.

‘I’m so sick of all the warring,’ White tch-tchs as around the corner a young, shirtless Wik Mungkan man is wrapping boxing tape around a clenched fist. ‘Imagine being so enthralled by violence that you can’t even go out bush because there might be a fight on.’

During one particularly violent riot in November 2015, the grandson of John Koowarta, the famous Wik land-rights activist, was deliberately run over by a vehicle – dying from catastrophic injuries. A 43-year-old man was later charged with murder.

Today, accusations of sorcery are being slingshotted around to explain the untimely death of one of Aelan’s relatives. Suspicions have broiled over and a fully-fledged inter-clan dispute is in swing. Another particularly shocking incident in the early hours of the morning has created further unease in the community.

‘Two kids bashed their mother’s head in last night,’ a passing police officer quips as he trots up the road to disperse the combatants. He looks tired, his black issue boots covered in red dust. ‘Nothing unusual for Aurukun.’

At times, the outward cynicism and negativity of many in local law enforcement gets too much for White, not least because his outlook is indefatigably optimistic. Indeed, while some of Aurukun’s police – like Inspector Brendan McMahon, the senior government co-ordinator for Aurukun – are enthusiastic fans of the Kapani Warrior Program, White has found others in Queensland Police to be indifferent, even hostile, to his team’s presence in the community.

‘Some of the police on the Cape won’t do too much for you unless you’ve got something on ’em,’ he jokes. ‘Everyone has their own little kingdom up here – and they don’t like outsiders.’ He calls it ‘the sheriff effect’.

The occasional reticence from some police notwithstanding, there’s a feeling among many community leaders in Aurukun that the Warrior Program will have a positive long-term impact on crime and youth engagement. On this, they take their cues from the experience of Wujal Wujal – a remote Aboriginal community five hours north of Cairns – where White’s flagship program was launched.

‘Over the last year we have seen public nuisance offences drop by 50 per cent,’ says Eileen Deemal-Hall, a Guugu Yimidthirr woman serving as the CEO of Wujal Wujal Aboriginal Shire Council. ‘And we’ve seen more men engaged in the community than I’ve ever seen before,’ It’s a series of changes she attributes directly to Kapani.


PRIVATE NEIL SYKES, a Kapani graduate who now serves as a reconnaissance patrolman with 51FNQR, has similar views about the program’s supposed transformative qualities.

Only a year ago, Sykes, a Kuku Yalanji man from Wujal Wujal, was finishing a stint as an open-security inmate at Lotus Glen Correctional Centre. Now, following a successful rehabilitation and a nod from Dr White as his psychological assessor, Sykes has started a new chapter in his life as a soldier.

‘If it wasn’t for the Warrior Program, I never would have thought about joining the Army,’ he says. ‘Now my son’s got a reason to be proud of his dad.’

Sykes is in Aurukun on secondment to the Kapani Program where he and another Wujal Wujal-born soldier, Private Clayton Baird, are providing an Indigenous face to the mentoring.

Still, many questions remain and White is hesitant to claim too much. Wujal Wujal’s problems aren’t nearly as bad as those of Aurukun and the unknowns eat away at his team. How, for example, does one even begin to solve the problem of violence in the most violent community in Australia? How does one chip away at listlessness and aggression in Aurukun when the problem itself is the result of the historical corralling of rival clans into a sedentary living-on-top-of-each-other existence? How does Kapani get the boys back out on country when the fights on Kang Kang Road are keeping them all enthralled?

For some though, White’s ‘return to the bush’ approach might be a distraction from the ‘real’ causes of the violence – the social pressures created by deeply embedded familial ties, which keep young men chained to internecine disputes in the community.

‘For many young people today,’ says Professor Nicolas Peterson, an anthropologist specialising in Aboriginal issues at the Australian National University, ‘the bush is boring. Even in remote Australia, few have an interest in living out, even on a small outstation.’

Citing recent research in the domain of relational ontology – which concentrates on how individuals situate themselves within dense networks of social relations – Peterson argues that White’s working-in-the-bush concept might only be ‘half-right’.

The men need something to do, Peterson argues, but what they probably want most of all is to be in a place ‘where they are embedded in dense social networks such as the larger communities or town’.

Working in the bush in and of itself, follows this line of reasoning, may not be enough to hold the men’s attention in the long-term, especially if a future career in the Army ends up taking them into neighbouring bushland away from friends and family.

Moreover, there is the additional problem that street violence provides an almost-unparalleled sense of purpose for the men – enabling them to closely interact and strategise with the rest of their peers in the place where they live.

Other observers still, perceiving paternalism in the act of mostly white veterans mentoring Aboriginal men, might even be wont to hint at neo-colonialism – not least because the Kapani Warrior Program encourages a closer interaction with the state through a career in the military. Although this latter concern is not totally without validity, such critiques also come across as extreme when it’s apparent that the program’s own participants view the Army as a sensible alternative for expressing their combative instincts – a way out from street violence that many had already considered independent of White’s interventions.

Aelan Wollamby, at least, has had a lifelong fascination with all things military – especially the martial prowess of Erwin Rommel. Earlier in the program, he’d eagerly described how he’d applied the Desert Fox’s pincer tactics and Shaka Zulu’s ‘horn’ manoeuvre during inter-clan clashes on Kang Kang. After witnessing the vehicular murder of his cousin in the 2015 riots however, he began looking for something different. He sought a more sociable alternative to the norm – one that offered adventure and adrenaline but none of the senseless violence. A life as a soldier patrolling Australia’s remote northern border, it seems, is the new life he wants.

All the same, there’s no doubt that the Aelans of Aurukun are outliers among their wider peer group. Participation rates in White’s program fluctuate daily. Long-term sustained engagement in the community will be required if the Kapani team is to have the lasting impact they desire. But the glint in White’s eye is always there. And the basis of his optimism is self-evident. If just one or two Aelans at a time are able to seize on opportunities that they didn’t have previously then that is a difference made – even if that difference is small and incremental. And besides, the program instructors themselves are finding meaning and a new sense of purpose in the struggle of it all – a contribution in itself to the veteran’s mental health crisis.

The project’s long-term viability however is unknown. Funding remains a key issue.

While Defence allocates significant millions to Indigenous recruitment, they do not currently financially support the Kapani Warrior Program in any way.

For now then, in order to keep courses running, White has obtained a line of credit by remortgaging his home, while Ant Blumer, his former commanding officer in Somalia now turned corporate manager for the business, has called on every skerrick of capital he can muster to keep the program afloat.

‘Eventually we’d like to get it to the point where it’s self-sustaining,’ says Blumer. ‘But right now it’s all coming out of our pocket.’

As the program comes to a temporary pause for the wet season, Sergeant Ash Faulks, an Army recruiter, reports that twenty Kapani graduates have submitted expressions of interest to join the military. Defence estimates that of those twenty applicants, fourteen to sixteen will begin the Regional Force Surveillance List recruit course in July 2018.

For now, White is satisfied with those numbers. It is time to move on until the wet season is over.

On the way out of town, the convoy hits a junction, turning right on the highway south towards Cairns. Across the road, the street sign pointing to Aurukun is riddled with bullet holes and obscured by tropical re-growth. The symbolism is clear. In the absence of investment where it matters, all the signs lead away from Aurukun. For all the Aelans remaining in the community, a viable alternative might require walking away from the bush altogether. If asked though, Tim White would say that a middle-ground between ‘the gap’ and total assimilation may yet exist. It starts, he says, with the bush and with the Army. A blood red sun hangs in the skies above Cape York – at half-brightness in the bauxite haze. White is optimistic.

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About the author

C August Elliott

C August Elliott is a former soldier and freelance writer. He writes regularly on defence issues and was most recently part of the ABC’s...

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