Prior to the introduction of National Service in Australia during the Vietnam War, entrance qualifications for the Australian Army were very low and the average soldier was not unintelligent but generally not well educated. With National Service began a transformation of the army increasing its efficiency and quality of servicemen one thousand-fold.
l left school when I was fourteen, had a number of labouring jobs and enlisted for six years when I was eighteen. Of my intake, there were only two of us who had the bask Intermediate (school) certificate. Prior to going to Vietnam in 1968 I served for two years in Malaya, sometimes attached to the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry and the qualities of the British soldier were similar to ours. Life in the jungle there was physically a little harder with a greater variety of wild animals and no helicopter resupplies.
In Vietnam, I was involved in the Battle of Coral, the 50th anniversary of which is this year. The first night of the attack was Mother’s Day 1968 and our howitzer was disabled from rocket fire. The replacement gun was disabled from mortar fire on the third night so after three days we were firing our third howitzer. When the enemy withdrew after day one we called in the helicopter gunships and watched the choppers firing down on the NVA with red tracers and their fire was returned with green tracers. Back at camp some weeks later and reflecting on events I thought “red and green!” South Sydney! So, I wrote back home to back Souths to win the Rugby league premiership that year – which they did.
Back to Coral… Dragging the bodies in after day one and looking into the eyes of dead men you realise they are some poor mother’s sons so I guess it is survivor guilt that has me returning to Vietnam twice yearly for humanitarian work. Our equipment at the time was substandard as we were provided with 1944 issue jungle greens, foot powder, mosquito repellent and shell dressings. Our rations for one day were not much more than the American’s for one meal however they were adequate.
I was discharged in 1970 and I got a job in a bank, not even knowing what a debit or credit were. Alter nine years there I was called in to head office to explain some delinquent loans and why I had leant the money. When f told the inquisitor, it was because I could not say “no” it was decided I should not stay in the bank so I bought a milk run.
These were the days of the petrol strikes where access to petrol was determined by the last number of your registration plate being odd or even. Petrol theft was rife so I tied my dog “Princess” to the petrol tank, gave her a meaty bone and went to bed. When I got up at 1 am to go to work the bone was bare but so was the petrol tank.
I then got a truck licence and applied for a storeman/driver job at the turf club. The catering manager there had been a paratrooper in the British Army so after discussing all things military he gave me the job, not realising that I only had my licence one day and had never been a storeman. Life there was wonderful. The sandwiches were made at Canterbury on Friday and I would take them in a refrigerated truck and wooden caravan to Rosehill for sale on Saturday. One Friday evening coming back along Canterbury Road passing vehicles drew my attention to a fire in the caravan. I had left the hand brake on and returned to Canterbury towing just a chassis.
Two years later I bought a truck delivering plasterboard. Two men unloading up to 20 ton a day and carrying it up to 20 metres was very hard work but the pay was rewarding for ten years.
I then asked a supplier of the steel framework for plasterboard walls for an account and this was declined so I decided to manufacture it myself. It was pure luck that I succeeded and I built up a major manufacturing/distributing operation for over ten years.
I cashed in my luck and bought a long-term lease on a local golf course – not a good career move. After building a new club house and fully irrigating the facility the business never made a profit so I abandoned the dream.
I am now fortunate enough to be breeding successful racehorses, the best of which has been Red Tracer. I expect that lnvictus Salute, lnvictus Warrior and lnvictus Prince will be prominent by the time the lnvictus Games are held in October. There may be only two owners in the race book but there will many beneficiaries who, through no fault of their own, face the dark side of life.
Insofar as mental health is concerned – many years ago there was a time that I could not control my thoughts and I felt hopelessly lost. Rather than taking refuge in the psychiatry industry, I bought a book titled, “Self Help for Your Nerves” by Dr Claire Weeks. Four phrases from the book became almost an instant cure: Face your fear; Accept your feelings; Float through; Let time pass.
On the infrequent occasions, I feel affected I think “Red Light” and return to normal.
My father was a disabled orphan bought up by the Salvation Army. He never owned a house or a car and any material possessions were always under hire purchase from the Walton’s man at exorbitant interest rates. He was always happy believing that his reward was in heaven and that the art of living was the joy of giving.
I find that I am happiest when I am back in Vietnam visiting Hanoi hospitals and an orphanage south of Saigon. When you hug and look into the eyes of a child with AIDS you realise that it is often simply the fortune and misfortune of birth that stands us apart.
When I speak with the former Vietnamese soldiers I am comforted by their stoicism and ability to get on with life, not reflecting on the past. Notwithstanding the communist regime there, they have no welfare or benefit system and in many respects, they are better than we are.
This year is the 100 anniversary of Word War One’s end. Each year I go to Menin Gate for Remembrance Day. At Tyne Cot Cemetery, a soloist with the pipes and drums sings Abide With Me – for each verse she faces a different direction as if she is singing to “The Missing”. It is a life changing experience.
As I get towards my twilight years and the front of the queue, I take great comfort in the company of lifelong friends formed fifty years ago.