This year’s National Reconciliation Week theme, In this together, reflects the achievements and relationships forged across northern Australia between the Regional Force Surveillance Group (RFSG), Indigenous communities and Indigenous soldiers, both serving and enlisting.

The RFSG was established in October 2018 and has assumed command of Army’s three Regional Force Surveillance Units, namely 51st Battalion, Far North Queensland Regiment (51FNQR); North-West Mobile Force (Norforce); and The Pilbara Regiment. 

These units monitor the remote landmass and waterways of Australia’s north and north-west, drawing on local knowledge of the significant numbers of Indigenous Army Reserve soldiers who make up the bulk of the force. 

Commander of RFSG, Colonel John Papalitsas, said the group was tasked with “protecting the border and closing the gap”, which are strategic priorities for the Australian Government and the Australian Defence Force. 

“Protecting the border is an ongoing, real-time operational commitment that contributes to the nation’s sovereignty over its northern boarders,” Colonel Papalitsas said. 

“Closing the gap is a government initiative to deliver better health, education and employment outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“RFSG delivers outcomes that support these priorities through the deployment of our patrols into the field, and with the training and employment of our personnel.”

However, some potential recruits may be disadvantaged by the circumstances of their remoteness, such as insufficient schooling or fitness. 

To support these individuals, Army has established three Indigenous Pathway Programs: the Army Indigenous Development Program (AIDP), the Indigenous Pre-Recruit Program (IPRP) and the RFSG Education and Development Course (REDC).

The AIDP is a five-month program for those who do not currently meet the general-entry standards for Army, and assists in developing education, aptitude, fitness and resilience skills. 

The IPRP is a six-week program for those who meet the general-entry standards, but need to develop confidence, resilience and fitness standards before commencing. 

Individuals participating in these programs are enlisted into the Army, given full medical and dental support, and after their training and mentorship are ready for acceptance into recruit training at Kapooka. 

For those wishing to remain in the north with RFSUs, there is an opportunity for an RFSU commanding officer to waive one or more enlistment requirements and have the individual placed on the Regional Force Surveillance List. 

To improve trade and promotion prospects, recruits can then attend a second pathway program, of 12 weeks – the RFSG Education and Development Course (REDC). 

The REDC and the AIDP are delivered from the RFSG Training and Education Centre (RTEC), 15km east of Darwin at Defence Establishment, Berrimah, NT.

RFSG delivers outcomes that support these priorities through the deployment of our patrols into the field, and with the training and employment of our personnel.

The RTEC opened its doors in March last year and is designed to provide a centre of excellence for Army’s Regional Force Surveillance Capability, including RFSG Trade Training and Indigenous Pathway Programs. 

Major Joe Kelly, who is responsible for the design, development and management of training at RFSG Headquarters, said the REDC had gained such a positive reputation that recent courses have been fully filled.

“Contributing to the success of RTEC has been the move to Berrimah, where we can access the support of Army units at Larrakeyah and in Robertson Barracks, including the use of physical training instructors,” Major Kelly said.

“RTEC is also the location for RFSU trade promotion courses and will gradually expand to support other specialist training and simulation. The centralisation of RFSU training will benefit our soldiers through the standardisation of instruction to students.

“Previously, the training of soldiers in the regions could differ because of the terrain in their patrol areas. Some soldiers were proficient at watercraft skills, but were lacking in vehicle skills because of their operating environment. The reverse is true of other regions.

“Drawing personnel from the three RFSUs creates an environment where we can deliver training in all aspects at the highest level possible to everyone, which strengthens the capabilities of our dispersed units and sub-units.”

Transformation of the RTEC building for its current purpose speaks volumes of its significance to its students. 

Major Kelly said the main RTEC building revealed evidence of what it meant to the local Darwin community to complete the renovation.

“While work was in progress you could see the pride in the workers’ faces when they told you how they sourced raw mahogany to complete the orderly room benchtop, or convinced a friend to include a stained-glass representation of the RFSG crest in the front door,” he said.

“Then, just as they were finishing, we had men from the local Larrakia Nation complete a two-storey mural behind the flag station. 

They’ll remember what you did for them and one day when you see them with two hooks or a crown on their chest, you’ll know you made a difference.

“The standard of workmanship on the RTEC building has become a bricks-and-mortar representation of the commitment Army and our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have to each other.”

The synergy between communities, the RFSG and Indigenous soldiers also expands into the broader Army, offering opportunities for soldiers to serve as the staff who make the pathways such a success.

Major Kelly said it was a priceless experience to become an instructor and see a young Indigenous adult go from being unready to join the Army to becoming a uniformed soldier ready to serve the nation.

“Some of them come from tough backgrounds and need a good leader during this influential period,” Major Kelly said. 

“Others lack confidence and all want to find what they are capable of. 

“They’ll remember what you did for them and one day when you see them with two hooks or a crown on their chest, you’ll know you made a difference.”

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