‘ANZAC Day,’ always the 25th April, is Australia’s National day of Remembrance for fallen soldiers. Like everyone at this time of year, I pass my silent thoughts to all veterans of conflict, their friends and families. Especially the ‘new generation’ of vets, some of whom may hold very fresh wounds.
However, this ANZAC Day, I wish to make a special tribute to Vietnam Vets, as they may not know how ‘special’ their legacy has been, to me and others. My generation have a lot to thank for the Vietnam Vets for.
Firstly, when we were doing our training, and in first postings in the early 1990s, here and there were crusty old Vietnam Vets. I remember a WO1 (Warrant Officer Class 1) in our logistics unit, who was skinny as a rake, chain-smoked and walked around shaking his head and muttering that “noone had a bloody clue.” However, despite his annoyance at our amateur ways, he helped us to eventually “have a clue.” Just as he retired, that unit was deployed to East Timor in Sep 99, and the era of ‘peace’ and non-activity was over.
How lucky that some Vietnam Vets had remained in the Army, a small group with operational experience. There was a thin window in time when their generation and ours crossed paths career wise, and it was just long enough for a crucial transfer of knowledge. Like the baton change in a relay race. The excellent training materials, detailed pamphlets on all sorts of military situations, that we had all studied and learnt from, were the other gems they left for us.
Another time, another Anzac Day, a few of us went to the RSL. For some reason I felt awkward being there, like maybe I didn’t really belong. I ended up yarning with a Vietnam Vet and he asked me about my deployment, I had said to him, “oh yeah, but I was just a loggie.” (Logistics). He immediately pulled me up and said, “We’ll have none of that!” With an intensely screwed up face, he added, “It doesn’t matter what you did, you still“, and he finger poked me to make the point, “you still represented and served your country ok? Everyone who has done that is welcome here.” Then with a warm grin, he said, “Got it? Now can I get you a drink?”
When the Cronolla riots happened, and angry young men burnt the Australian Flag, it was the Vietnam Vets who reached out to those young people, sat down with them and explained what the flag meant to them. A friendship was formed and they were invited to march on Anzac day with the vets. The public and media were appalled and remained stuck in the conflict, arguing this was an insult. They won. But I recall thinking that it was the VV who had showed compassion, wisdom and knowledge of how to handle angry young men and bring them into the fold. They knew how to diffuse conflict and create unity. Perhaps when you have seen and felt the ugly results of escalating conflict, you have more respect for the value of peace. It is a shame that such wisdom was ignored.
The Vietnam Vets wrote amazing supportive letters to our generation when deployed on ops: “Keep your head down, look after your mates and remember we are with your 100% in spirit...”
Another time I was taking the 5 hour flight from Perth to Sydney and as I boarded the plane and looked at where my seat was, unfortunately my face dropped. There was an enormous obese guy next to my seat, and his body was taking up a fair chunk of my seat space. As I sat down, he said, “Yep, you get to sit next to the big fat bloke.” I felt terrible of course! It turns out he was a Vietnam Vet and we had such a fantastic, genuine chat over the flight, that I barely noticed my back was kinked the whole way.
I’ve met some VV who are so damaged that perhaps the biggest thing they might manage a day was to walk around the block, and others who were utterly defeated and acutely distressed at the prospect of arguing with their son over who holds the TV remote. These stories made me realise how affected many of the VV are. But who thinks of them? They are still largely hidden from society, quietly struggling in silence. But I know that they are out there. Hence ‘my thanks’ must be said now. Before that generation passes away.
Only a few weeks ago, at the theatre production of ‘The Long Way Home‘, I was sitting next to a Vietnam Vet and he was shaken as hell by the performance. In the interval he explained to me that when his crew had returned from Vietnam, the RSL rejected them, saying they “weren’t real vets.” I had never realised that the military community had turned their back on them as well.
They say suffering brings wisdom and compassion. Although often damaged, every encounter I have had with a Vietnam vet has had a profoundly positive impact upon me. They have seen the worst of human nature, and yet somehow, now express its best attributes.
The support, the care, the understanding, that they were denied, they heaped upon our generation in droves.
There is something incredibly beautiful about that.