WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images of a person who has died.
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The Australian War Memorial's (AWM) formal recognition of Aboriginal servicemen and woman across numerous global conflicts means a huge amount to Dubbo's Joe Flick.
The 1,192 Aboriginal servicemen and two women nurses who served in the world wars as well as 15 others who served during the Boer War have been recognised.
Indigenous Dubbo man Flick has been deeply honoured to be part of ongoing efforts to find remains of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage soldiers who served the nation's defence forces in various conflicts.
Mr Flick, whose grandfather Michael Flick, a Gamilaroi man from Collarenebri served in Europe during World War 1 between 1914 to 1918, visited memorial cemeteries in France, Belgium, and the United Kingdom in recent months to perform "a bringing home the spirit ceremony" at the tombs of 68 Indigenous soldiers.
"Out of that current [AWM] research findings, it tells us 166 Aboriginal men have died of wounds, disease, in action or missing in action," Mr Flick said.
"It was very hard for them to stay healthy while fighting in the trenches in France for example during winter with heavy coats drenched with rain, mud, and blood.
"There were 23 still unknown on the Aboriginal memorial roll but the AWM Aboriginal liaison officer and researcher are working on them.
"But the Aboriginal soldiers certainly did their jobs, four of them received Distinguished Conduct Medal one level below the Victoria Cross and 26 received military medals one below the Distinguished Conduct Medal."
According to the AWM findings, Alfred John Hearps from Tasmania was the first commissioned officer of Aboriginal heritage killed in 1916 while Lieutenant Colonel Charles Melbourne Johnston had the highest rank.
Marion Leane Smith and another yet unnamed Indigenous nurse served as army nurses with the British troops in England.
The AWM findings also said following the discovery of three men who served before 1901 in the colony's navy and military forces in NSW and Victoria, there were shreds of evidence suggesting up to 1,300 enlisted and their remains must be found.
In the 1930s, the AWM findings stated only 245 soldiers of Aboriginal heritage were uncovered due to "flawed methodology and limited information" available under the 1910 Defence Act which restricted racial descriptions during enlistment.
Mr Flick said despite limited information available, six were identified Aboriginal soldiers who attended the army training camp in Dubbo, including Joseph Knight from Bourke, who was deployed to Europe and died of pneumonia while in the UK.
Joseph and his two other brothers, William and Albert, also served during WW1 and only Joseph never made it home but their bravery is celebrated at Bourke's schools and churches, Mr Flick said.
We just want recognition ... that they went out, fought for our country, and died like other soldiers and we're proud of that.- Joe Flick
But locating the cemetery in Ypres, Belgium where Australian soldier Charles Cage, of Eugowra, was buried and was an honour he deeply felt.
The whereabouts of Cage's remains were only confirmed in 2016 and the AWM researcher Michael Bell included his gravesite among those 68 graves visited by Mr Flick for the traditional Indigenous ceremony.
"Among tens of thousands of soldiers' tombs, Charles was discovered more than 100 years later after enquiries by his relatives and DNA testing," Mr Flick said.
"He is the only Aboriginal soldier whose headstone is inscribed with 'RIP Wiradjuri Man from Eugowra' so it was very special, he was a very special man."
Charles' proper burial as an Aboriginal serviceman was completed in July last year, Mr Flick said.
Mr Flick said AWM researchers have already listed more than 1,200 Aboriginal men, of which 807 sailed off to the wars and conflicts Australia was involved in based on pieces of evidence they've found.
"This finding of tombstones is only right across France, the UK, and Belgium and we have yet to look at Gallipoli," Mr Flick said.
"They know at least five blokes went off with a company [of soldiers] and later that night, next morning or a couple of days later only three has come back so what has happened to the other two? Another bomb could have landed on them."
On ANZAC Day this year, Mr Flick will be marching with the Black Diggers for his "Pop Mick" and his mate George Combo, also of Collarenebri, at Sydney whom he both fondly remembers with profound sadness on their plights as returned soldiers.
"George sailed off with my Pop but they ended up in different battalions, but they made it home with their other mate Harry Mason," he said.
"When they returned to Australia, Pop had a good mate from Victoria, a white fella named Charles Collett. He had written letters that Pop Mick was well thought of by their fellow soldiers and commanding officers, same as any other soldier.
"When Pop got off the boat in Sydney, I've no doubt they would have said to him 'c'mon Mick let's go have a beer' but the publican would say 'sorry mate you're not allowed any'".
"When Pop returned home to Collarenebri, he would march every ANZAC Day and afterward told to 'go round the back of the pub Mick we'd pass a beer out the window to you'."
Mr Flick said his father Joseph Flick and an aunty "were not allowed to go to school [during their time]" and "to watch a film at the theatre they sat on sugar bags or poles and were not allowed on deck chairs."
"But Pop worked his guts out and even put his name out on the land ballot [for former soldiers] but he never got any settlement so it has never been addressed up to today," he added.
"We just want recognition ... that they went out, fought for our country, and died like other soldiers and we're proud of that."
"We know it's one step at a time, but this recognition [of Indigenous servicemen] is something for the future."
Mr Flick's trip to the tombs of the 68 Indigenous soldiers was funded by the Churchill Trust and he has plans to find more remains of Indigenous soldiers wherever they may be.
"Where to now, well, the journey to bring their spirits home is one part and now we should be telling their stories to make a better understanding of the roles of Aboriginal soldiers who sacrificed their lives for our country," Mr Flick said.
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