When a Torres Strait Islander sailor started calling Chief Petty Officer Barry Watego ‘Uncle’, other sailors were intrigued and asked if they were really related.
CAPTION: Chief Petty Officer Marine Technician Barry Watego at Fleet Base East, Sydney. Story by Corporal Veronica O’Hara. Photo by Able Seaman Jasmine Moody.
After explaining it is an acknowledgement of respect from the younger generation, they also started using the term.
“It’s kind of caught on now and even the white lads call me Uncle as I walk past,” Chief Petty Officer Watego said.
“I think a lot of kids [sailors] know they can come to me with their problems and I’ll listen, but also I’m able to talk to them.”
Chief Petty Officer Watego’s country is Bundjalung and Nywaigi. His father, from the Tweed Heads area, met his mother while cane cutting near Ayr.
Both great-grandfathers were recruited from the Lifou and Tanna islands in the Pacific Ocean, during the mid-1800s for cane cutting.
Chief Petty Officer Watego was the ninth of 15 siblings and grew up in Queensland’s Burdekin region.
He did a boilermaker apprenticeship at a local sugar mill, but two of his sisters worked in Navy stores and each time they returned home, they suggested he consider enlisting.
Chief Petty Officer Watego joined Navy as a direct-entry tradesman into the hull technical category at 33 years of age.
He was the only Aboriginal man on his ship and one of a handful at Fleet Base East when he joined in 2001.
He said Navy’s diversity has changed a lot in more than 20 years, with people in Chief Petty Officer Watego’s hierarchy including personnel from Arabic, Asian and Indian backgrounds.
“Walk on a ship today and you’ll see a big mixture, like there is no minority. It’s a totally different workforce,” he said.
For Chief Petty Officer Watego, NAIDOC Week is not just a celebration of the culture, but also of seeing more Indigenous people integrating into the military, especially women.
He said more were joining thanks to opportunities like Navy’s Indigenous Development and Indigenous Pre-Recruit Program.
The hull technical manager on HMAS Adelaide manages 18 personnel who maintain things like the ship’s structure, sewage, plumbing, air-conditioning and refrigeration and damage-control equipment.
He likes to promote a culture in his department of seeking a sailor’s best performance.
“Some sailors you need to work with and they come around eventually – they just need a bit more nurturing than the rest,” Chief Petty Officer Watego said.
While Chief Petty Officer Watego will be at sea, participating in Exercise Talisman Sabre during NAIDOC Week, he hoped to catch up with family in Townsville when the ship docks, particularly to see the two young sons of his nephew dancing during the celebrations.
Next in his career, Chief Petty Officer Watego hopes to become an Indigenous liaison officer or work with Indigenous career pathway programs.