It’s 1980s regional South Australia, and in Port Augusta, children have two choices: to stay in the town offensively nicknamed Porta Gutta, or get out. Owen Brady chose the latter.
As an Indigenous boy growing up in a town where there was little to do, Brady said he had no interest drinking alcohol or adding to the already high youth crime rate.
However, despite having a tight-knit and supportive family, Brady said at school he was defined by teachers as “just another indigenous boy from Port Augusta with little prospects”.
He recalled sitting quietly in the classroom with his hand up, curious and eager to ask a question. The teacher paid him no attention.
Ignored, Brady turned to the classroom window and looked out at the dry, red-hued landscape.
The land he overlooked is the gateway to Australia’s vast interior, the land of his ancestors. It is land that once held great promise. A seed was planted in Brady’s imagination.
Brady said he was eight years old when he decided his future was with the Australian Army, but what he did not realise then, sitting in his classroom, is the land of his ancestors would one day call him home to help preserve the natural habitat of his country.
“It was in primary school where I made the decision that I wanted to join the Army,” Brady said.
“I thought that they were tough and that it was very admirable, also so people would view me as a positive beacon of someone that helped break the stigma of negativity in my community.”
No longer the Indigenous kid refused a voice, after 16 years of service in the Royal Australian Signal Corp as a ‘Geek’, or information system technician, for Brady, now 40, the time has come to leave the Australian Army.
It feels right. He is ready to reconnect with the land and his culture, return to Port Augusta and pursue his dream to study agriculture while starting a position in Adelaide with Soldier On Pledge Partner JLB-Yaran, mentoring young Indigenous professionals.
With the support of the Australian Defence Forces Veteran charity Soldier On, which takes a holistic approach to employment and education, Brady said his future was mapped out before he leaves the military in May.
Brady said he always felt different. He is a self-confessed deep thinker, someone with “determination and spirit”.
A smile crosses Brady’s face when he describes himself as someone who prefers not to follow the crowd: “No one wants to be the Wiggles, everyone wants to be a rockstar…”
However, what became clear to Brady, is his infectious determination to not only be different, but to do things differently.
“I’d rather be the Wiggles and do things differently, but my way,” Brady said.
“An opportunity without preparation is a missed opportunity, do the preparation and the opportunity will present itself.”
Medically retiring from the Army in May, Brady had meticulously planned his exit.
His long-term goal after being discharged is to be a self-sufficient regenerative farmer in regional South Australia.
Yet what Brady was unsure of, was how he could achieve this dream of building a future in regenerative agriculture.
Brady said the defining moment in his transition to civilian life was listening to a Soldier On education officer.
“I told Soldier On, I want to work in agriculture, I need to be outside and have that connection with nature and the elements; a career in IT would not satisfy my need to play an active role to regenerate my country,” he said.
“Soldier On did everything possible to help me get into university and to map out my future. Soldier On listened to what I am passionate about and where I see my future, they guided me to achieve this.”
Ex-Soldier On education manager Daniel Vincent, said Brady’s journey do discovering his purpose was inspiring.
“He took the opportunity to make his transition as successful as possible, by looking at his purpose,” he said.
“His story is truly amazing, and I look forward to continuing being a part [of it].”
Brady, once an Indigenous boy discouraged from making plans, could now see his future studying at university and living off the land.
“I need to get back to Country and to my future ambitions, Soldier On has helped me achieve this,” he said.
“I was always passionate about the environment and animals.
“That is probably one of the main reasons driving me to become a regenerative farmer but preferably an environmental scientist.”
Brady said patience and the ability to make informed decisions were critical for anyone considering leaving the military.
“I am not the smartest person, but it does not mean I can’t learn new things, learn something you are interested in,” he said.
Soldier On Pledge Partner JLB-Yaran operations manager Daniel Cooper said Brady represented the best in Indigenous servicemen and women.
Cooper said Brady would now become a mentor for JLB-Yaran’s Indigenous development and employment program.
- Story by Tiania Stevens