All the way with the USA? How Darwin received its US troops
It’s almost a year since the public learnt of an agreement between Australia and the US to base an “enduring presence” of US marines in Darwin.
The first tranche of around 200 marines have been and gone, in a six-month stint of well-honed PR activity, and the Americans are floating the idea of raising their number even beyond the full company of 2500 announced last year. So how has Darwin welcomed the influx?
At first glance, this week’s revelations of last minute cold feet over the US base announcement might seem misplaced. There is a lot of local goodwill towards the US, in no small part because of our shared military history. Locals recognise a cultural affinity, and a significant local Australian Defence Force presence means the town knows a thing or two about the military.
But our diverse, harmonious town shouldn’t be presumed to go all the way with the USA. Darwin does also have a strong peace tendency — see the large marches against the invasion of Iraq. We also have links to regional neighbours who’ve borne the burden of US bases, including local ethnic communities.
Darwin has some limited experience of hosting foreign forces for joint training or R&R trips. On a good week, that can mean a bit more coin for certain small businesses, in particular our small but busy strip of late night drinking holes. But locals remember the occasional offence, including s-xual assault, committed by visiting servicemen in the past.
Concerns that an “enduring presence” of marines could bring an increased risk of similar incidents are backed by a recent ADF report that identified s-xual assault as one of only two issues with a significant risk rating. (The other was unrealistic expectations of economic benefit.) Activists say the Status of Forces Agreement, a 50-year-old treaty that purports to delineate jurisdictional rights over US troops in Australia, has flaws that have allowed offenders to evade justice in the past, and should be formally reviewed.
The treaty didn’t need dusting off this year. The first rotation of US troops — they arrived in April, left in September — was a tightly scripted diplomatic mission that left the soldier-ambassadors with little opportunity to take a step out of place (apparently one fella got a speeding fine). Personnel partnered with community sector organisations like Red Cross and St Vincent de Paul to take part in some well-publicised charity work. I saw two particularly glum young men in full uniform, sitting behind a stall in a shopping centre, soliciting donations for kids with SIDS — the fellas donating blood at least had better smiles for the cameras.
The marines literally hit the ground running, with most of them participating in the Darwin long distance running championship within days of their arrival. The media got some good images, but other participants were not surprised that a few of the recent arrivals weren’t thrilled to be pushed so hard — things are pretty hot and sticky in our subtropical climate at that time of year, and most of us have long distance running pretty low on the list of things to do in the middle of an April day.
During their stay, a few of them got involved with the Clontarf foundation, which runs Football Academies that encompass mentoring for young people going through school and onto employment. By the time they were about to leave in September, the troops were acclimatised, and the weather more amenable. They put on a show of strength as they completed a (considerably less gruelling) fun run days before departure, and the Chief Minister Terry Mills tellingly congratulated them on their tour, saying: “The mission was to put out a good impression, and they did that very well.”
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