This year marks 40 years since Australian troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. Three Vietnam veterans open up to us about their time in Vietnam and how they feel today as they look back on that conflict.
None of them sees himself as a hero but all continue to support and demonstrate the commitment of Vietnam Veterans: “Honour the dead but fight like hell for the living.”
Terry Westerway is a Vietnam veteran who keeps his head high and tries to remember his experiences with humour and lightness. He was an only child raised by his widowed mother. In 1964, with eagerness and spirit he joined the army.
In May 1966, he was told that he would be going to Vietnam in a month. Terry called his mother, excited to tell her that he was off on an overseas adventure. When he explained it was Vietnam, all he remembers was the complete silence on the other end of the phone. Buoyed with a sense of adventure and innocence, he began his 12-month post in Vietnam.
Terry’s role was that of an Artillery Surveyor in the 131 Divisional Locating Battery. He looked after putting guns and radar on the same grid and orientation. He was also sent to listening posts where he had to report the sight or sound of firing, explosions and flares to tactical HQ. Terry was fortunate he didn’t not lose any of his mates during his time in Vietnam but the experience there has still left its effects.
“I refused to accept the war had affected me … It wasn’t manly to admit you had a problem … I was Mr Tough, nothing is wrong with me,” he said.
Terry believes Australia’s troops now in Afghanistan will have a similar mindset when they return. He questions how effective counselling is in dealing with this attitude and the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
In 1967, Terry returned on a Hercules transport plane to Darwin and was then transferred on a civilian flight back to Sydney. He recalls arriving among men in business suits and happy families, “no one knowing where I had been, what I had done”. Everything was to be kept out of the public eye and they were told by superior officers not to speak about Vietnam or their experiences. Returning to normal daily life seemed empty.
Sadly, when Terry’s son passed away in a car accident in May 1996, the effects of Vietnam started to have a renewed impact him. It was following this traumatic period in his life that Terry began to question his state of mind and open up more about his experiences. He now does so generously and with humour. However, mostly he finds it easier to speak with other Veterans.
One of the biggest difficulties Terry found when he returned home was the anti-war protests. He felt angry and hurt by people he believed didn’t understand or even want to understand what the war was about. “I was just there doing my job, just like everyone else”.
I spoke to Terry on the day that Australia lost another trooper, Corporal Scott James Smith in Afghanistan. He sighed when he listened to Prime Minister, Julia Gillard speak without apparent emotion, just her normal monotone. Terry’s voice quivered as he expressed his longing for a politician to simply say:
“He died with his face to the enemy and his wounds in front. I was there. I did what I was asked. I came back without any holes in my skin.”
Richard “Barney” Bigwood
Richard Bigwood, affectionately know as “Barney”, was a REO (Australian Infantry Reinforcements) and arrived in Vietnam in 1968, aged 22.
During 1968, Australia sustained significant heavy casualties. As a REO, Barney was moved between four battalions. He was a reinforcement, always replacing dead or injured soldiers. Each time, in spite of being battle hardened he was a stranger to the battalion and treated like a raw recruit.
Barney witnessed first-hand some of the most horrifying impacts of war. A painful experience was the loss of his best friend, “Jock”, in September 1969. They had shared all of the ups and downs of training and fighting together. The loss of Jock still effects him greatly.
“ The cry rang out: ‘Jock’s copped it!’ That night I remember thinking, it could be me,” Barney said.
Returning home, Barney like so many soldiers confronted the surreal experience of a home that seemed unchanged. His own life experience had been permanently altered.
“I went back to my old drinking hole. Same people, doing the same thing. They didn’t understand life. I felt I understood how fragile life is,” Barney explained.
Barney didn’t realise how fragile his own life had become. Married and with a young family he tried to deal with his war trauma by constant distraction and drinking. Their first child was stillborn. He later found that most of his platoon had lost a baby. Barnie threw himself into work as a logistics manager for Woolworths, 14 hours a day, 7 days a week (10 stubbies every night). It was at a veterans’ get-together, as one mate’s wife described another mate’s behaviour, Barney realised he was in the grip of his own trauma.
In 2007, Barney began to seek help and was advised to change his working habits. He began to research war records related to his units. Through this he was able to get a clearer picture of the tactics that he had been a part of and the mistakes that had been made. In particular he had been involved in a special unit called Defence and Employment (D&E). Until 2007 he had not been able to find any record of their existence. Piecing together his wartime experience, sharing this with other veterans and writing a book, helped Barney to make better sense of his experiences in Vietnam. He returned to Vietnam with his grown-up son Andrew in 2007 while researching his book: “We Were Reos”.
Barney mentioned, with real feeling, his experience of working with journalists and the exposure he and other soldiers felt when the worst of their stories were emphasized to the exclusion of the rest. The search for a good story obscured the realities of what happens when ordinary men are placed in extraordinary situations.
The journey was valuable for son Andrew who began to understand the forces affecting his father. But touring the former battlefields proved difficult for Barney who wished he had not returned. He had found value though, in assisting many Vietnamese employees in his workplace. Like many veterans, he maintains a commitment to the care of Vietnam veterans and promoting the awareness of the needs of currently-serving veterans and their families.
Tim McCombe headed to Vietnam in 1967, a 23 year old rifleman about to face the atrocities of war. His experiences have left scars both physical and psychological but that hasn’t stopped Tim lending a hand to other veterans and current soldiers.
Tim McCombe is the president of the Vietnam Veterans Federation Australia (VVFA). The VVFA is designed to support Vietnam veterans and work with those returning from current and recent deployments.
Tim saw many of his mates die in Vietnam. His worst experience of the war was the loss of his best friend. Five months into Vietnam, Tim was by severely injured by a mine. He returned home with other victims on a Hercules transport plane and was taken straight to hospital. He was there for over 12 months, followed by 18 months of rehabilitation.
The years that followed were not easy. “It took the stuffing out of me,” Tim explained.
He joined the VVFA after hitting a low point. He was drinking heavily and going through significant personal issues. A former association president and good friend suggested that he volunteer a few days a week. This slowly became a full-time commitment.
“[It] gives a bit of meaning to life,” Terry said.
Despite the major physical and psychological injuries Tim has suffered, he does not want to disregard Vietnam or their people. He has returned several times and is now married to a Vietnamese woman. He describes them as very good people with “a similar sense of humour to Australians”.
Looking back, he sees the war as something that shouldn’t have occurred.
“We were up against it, they were a good enemy and it was difficult for us from the start,” Tim said. “Australian troops performed very well, and personally I believe I performed well too.”
Part of the VVFA’s role is to help current troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tim sees the men coming back with the same issues, same physical problems and same psychological damage. “It is just history repeating itself,” Terry said.
When I asked Tim what he feels should happen, he says with an air of hope:
“Keep out of war. We have a habit of following America and we need to review such a policy.”