Feature

War on the mind

There were 521 Australians killed in the bloody, unforgiving war that was Vietnam. I was lucky enough to talk to three that came back. These are their stories.

Tucked away in the quiet leafy suburb of Mount Hawthorn lies a humble house with a wealth of Australian Military history inside. The ANZAC Memorial House is the meeting place of the WA branch of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia.

At the door, I’m greeted by President Richard Williams and his friendly black staffie, Goldie. The house is filled to the brim with war memorabilia, plaques, awards, and infographics. We settle into the meeting room and Goldie lies down next to Williams, and is soon snoring away.

At 72 Williams is still young enough at heart to be racing motorcycles and going to the gym three times a week, but the eyes behind his gold-framed glasses are old enough to have seen the horrors of the Vietnam war first hand.

Williams was 21 when he enlisted as a qualified mechanic. He serviced the Earthmoving trucks and went in three-man teams to service and maintain landmine clearing vehicles.

“It was an unpopular war. There was a fairly large anti-conscription movement in Australia. I knew people who didn’t want to go in, but they got the job done, right or wrong.”

At the time of the war, the Returned and Services League of Australia refused to acknowledge those who fought in Vietnam, and this became one of the biggest inspirations for the VVAA’s establishment.

                        Richard Williams & Goldie outside the ANZAC house. Photo: Duncan Bailey

Williams saw the effect Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder had on veterans and their families after the war, which was a big motivator for joining the association in the 1980s.

At the time the association was involved in gathering information about the effects of chemical nerve agents used in the war. Today, it helps Vietnam veterans to claim pensions, organise funerals, and can give welfare to a certain extent. Williams says there’s a big focus on families of veterans.

 “Hearing the children’s issues growing up in a family with a dysfunctional veteran, as well as hearing the widow’s side certainly gives me a far better understanding of the effect Vietnam, or any war, has on the families.”

Goldie stirs awake and paces around the room, demanding our full attention. Williams grins ear to ear and gives her a scratch.

“I spend a lot of time reflecting on the ‘What if?’ question.” He takes a moment to gather his thoughts, thinking back on Vietnam. “I often wonder how my time there could have been totally different; had I joined a different battalion or even enlisted six months earlier. I could have come back with bits and pieces missing, but I was lucky.”

As he settled into civilian life, he found that racing motorbikes was a good outlet for his anxiety. For Williams, camaraderie, mateship, and friendships are his biggest motivators for helping others.

After meeting Williams, I visit The Army Museum of WA in Fremantle to speak with some of the volunteers and gain insight into the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The museum is filled with incredible stories and vivid depictions of Australian war history. It also demonstrates a firm reminder of the horrors of war, from the displays of prisoner of war camps to the murals showing the story of Gallipoli.

            Various medals and awards at the Army Museum of WA. Photo: Duncan Bailey.

I walk through the Vietnam exhibit where I meet Jiri Sulc, a volunteer at the museum. We sit down behind a WWII era anti-aircraft gun where he tells me his story.

Sulc joined the army at 16 under an Army apprenticeship and spent 22 years in the military, travelling around the world.

He was a Captain of the Signal Core in Saigon from 1969-1970.

“I wouldn’t say I supported the war, but to not go would be wrong. I felt like I needed to go.”

You can hear the pride in his voice when he talks about his time in the military. “I make it no secret I served in Vietnam, and I’d do it again if I had to. No questions asked.”

It’s no surprise many came back from Vietnam with PTSD. The Journal of Military and Veterans health reports a prevalence as high as 30 per cent among Australian Vietnam veterans. He tells me it’s difficult to identify exactly what triggers it. “One of my mates is still afraid of the sound of helicopters to this day. He has to go somewhere quiet or he falls apart.”

We talk more about politics, Australia’s involvement in other wars and how he feels about it.

“I think Aussies have been dragged into conflict they should not have. You look at the number of suicides from these boys coming back from Afghanistan; well, I don’t think they’re being looked after as well as they could be.”

He’s right too. From 2001-2017 there were 419 recorded suicides among serving, reserves and ex-ADF personnel. 

After the war, Sulc was recruited by the Navy for a project in the Solomon Islands where he helped expand their broadcast service over three years. He’s been a volunteer at the museum for the last 10 years.

We shake hands and he tells me I should speak to Kenneth Carter, another museum volunteer, who is busy greeting visitors when I introduce myself.

“I spent 401 days in Vietnam to be exact,” Carter says.

He laughs and says, “I guess I had the wrong idea of what volunteering was.”

He has a good sense of humour, but when he speaks about the war his words carry weight. Carter was an Infantryman and fought in the Battle of Binh Bah, one of Australia’s most significant involvements in the war.

“Nobody who has seen combat remains unchanged. I was with my squad when my Staff Sergeant stepped on a landmine, 21 of the 33 blokes in our platoon were killed. Just like that.”

He says the hardest part of war was coming home.

“I didn’t hide that I served in Vietnam. I was sitting in a café in Sydney after I came back and a young lady who didn’t agree with the war approached me. She said she wished I had died there. She spat on my badges and called me a baby killer. That was my welcome home.”

Carter was wounded three times during his tour, one injury he didn’t even know about until 2 years later. A piece of shrapnel had been embedded in him.

“I had no help when I came back. I had the support of my family and that was it. The RSL didn’t accept that Vietnam was a legitimate war at the time. I would do it again if I had to though. I would hate to see my kids do it, but I would.”

In my interviews I asked each of these men the same question: Would you do it again if you had to? Without hesitation, all three said yes. Despite their astounding sacrifices, each was willing to sacrifice their time and health again without a second thought. 

This is the courage of the ANZACS.

Categories: Feature, General, Mental Health, Politics, War

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