Story 13 - The Pain of Vietnam Veterans

By: George. E. Parker, 110 Signal Squadron (SVN 1968-69)

Written: 23rd April 1993  Printed: In the Queensland RSL News for Anzac Day 1994
Webmaster:  Photos added for story website presentation

In Canberra on the 3rd October 1992 an elegant and moving memorial was dedicated and stands in silent tribute to all of our Australian soldiers and civilians who lost their lives during the Vietnam War; their grieving families; those veterans and their immediate family who still suffer today. Our national pride and reconciliation to the acceptance and recognition of the Vietnam Veteran was finally expressed by the dedication of this memorial.   I believe that this dedication was expected to see an end to the inner conflict from emotional and social trauma of the veterans, which was created by this war and those so-called “peace protestors”, who were led by the Parliamentarian member, Jim Cairns.

110 Sig Sqn - Story 13   110 Sig Sqn - Story 13 Moratorium (Dr Jim Cairns) and Groups opposed to the Vietnam War - Internet Source

Veteran during the Dedication summed up our memorial by saying; “Hopefully this memorial will be the final Band-Aid in­ the healing process for our Veterans!”  This statement was so simple, meaningful and caring, and possibly with much compassion. But will it really heal a Vietnam Veteran?

110 Sig Sqn - Story 13Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial, Canberra - Internet Source

To some the memory of Vietnam has never faded and I doubt for some it ever will. Many of our veterans have taken steps that have helped them to come to terms with the great doubts and uncertainties that have followed them after their service in Vietnam and have accepted it as part of what has happened in their life. 

The simple fact is that the Vietnam War was a unique war and had no effect on most ordinary Australians, unless they were members of the anti-war movement, these so-called, “peace protestors”. During their demonstrations, more young people took to the streets protesting against the Vietnam War than ever served there and through their lack of understanding, knowledge and commonsense, we, the Vietnam veterans experienced a “Social Trauma of Vietnam” through the hands of these so-called “peace protestors”.

110 Sig Sqn - Story 13   110 Sig Sqn - Story 13
The ALP and Trade Unions - Internet Source
(Never forgiven or forgotten!)

Unfortunately for us, the end result being, that some of those demonstrators are today possibly hold high positions in the government and education systems and to a veteran, he wonders what those people feel now toward what they did then and “Do they care?”   I am sure a lot people do care, but unfortunately they really didn't understand a Vietnam Veteran.  So “What is a Vietnam Veteran?”

We were soldiers, Full-time, Part-time and national servicemen who served in Vietnam from 1962 to 1973. We believed we acquitted ourselves in the finest traditions of Australians at war and some believed that we were so successful that North Vietnam Army (NVA) and Vietcong (VC), both highly ­skilled and well-trained soldiers, sought to avoid our fighting­units wherever possible.

110 Sig Sqn - Story 13
Huey picking up members of 7RAR during the Vietnam War - Source AWM

Our soldiers were born-losers from the very start and became “three-way victims" of this war.  We first encountered on our return home the­ inhumane anti-war movement and demonstrations, which only highlighted those atrocities against the enemy, and these demonstrations and atrocities, were further enhanced by the daily TV coverage. And secondly, the widespread political manipulation and interference in the field, and finally the underrated enemy soldier, who at the age of six in 1945 were learning the basic fighting skills to kill a Frenchman with a sharpened bamboo stick.  And at the age of 27 years the soldiers matured, and were well trained and disciplined carrying an AK47.

The politics of the war was irrelevant to our soldiers; they had­ a job to do and did it well.  They were inexperienced, fought in the image of our Anzac fathers, unprepared for what they were to face, came home shaking after being on the edge for 365 days and on their return were branded murderers and baby-woman killers by these so-called “peace protestors”.

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Anti-Vietnam protests during President Johnson's visit, Sydney 22 Oct 1966 - Source Spectator Australia

There were no psychological support networks available to our ­soldiers on our return and many of them had to suffer in silence, bearing the psychological scars alone or secretly in the company of other Veterans.  Even the Return Servicemen's League (RSL) in some­ States and ex-servicemen would not accept us on our return. A ­fair percentage of our veterans were shunned by all, and at times, including their families.

Many of us were completely disenchanted with all that was going on around us.  Some of us retreated into a world of almost hysterical bitterness, anger, grief and guilt and our lives were characterised by alcoholism, violence, self-destruction and divorce.

One Veteran was quoted as saying, “There was so much guilt that came out of Vietnam, guilt for going there, guilt for surviving when friends did not, guilt for seeing friends die and thinking ‘Thank God it wasn't me”; the guilt for losing and guilt of uncivilised acts caused by the eroding of our morality!”   But, did those so-called “peace protestors” ever think of the damage they did to us?

110 Sig Sqn - Story 13
Australian so-called "Peace protestors" during the Vietnam War - Internet Source
(Never forgiven or forgotten!)

I was a Regular soldier, but those conscripted soldiers who were unlucky enough to win a marble in the National Service Lottery, and on their return were discharged and thrown back into society without any psychological support.  The Regular soldier just­ kept soldiering on.

We both wanted to live life to the full once again, but unfortunately with a problem that nobody understood. We­ socialised, we were the life of the parties, we were practical jokers, we ­had happiness and energy, we made new friends and we made a lot of enemies.   We were drunks, we were addicts, we were odd balls and we were weirdos.   We could not understand we had a problem, a psychological and traumatic problem that is known today as “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder­ (PTSD)”, which was coupled with a “Social Trauma”.

Our family and close friends did not understand and would not accept our irrational behaviour due to our problems.  Our problems cannot be compared with any other war experiences of the past, such as WW1, WW2 and the forgotten war Korea, because the circumstances were totally different.

We had to face the anti-war demonstrations, critics, politicians, families and friends who had no idea what the war was like and those jealous and guilty soldiers and friends who did not go. The mockery that was dealt out to us from some defensive older generation of returned servicemen who felt we had it easy and they could not understand our feelings, situation or problems.

There was so much bitterness retained by us on our return home, especially when we remember that coming home meant being smuggled into Mascot Airport in Sydney at midnight to avoid the anti-war demonstrators.  And sleeping on the chairs in the foyer of Mascot Airport, as it had taken until 3am for most of us to collect our pay and leave entitlements as we waited for our return home at 7am.  The luxury of flying home was possible by us paying the difference between the train, and airfare costs. Then afterwards being met with scorn by those civilian passengers around us at 7am, as we waited to catch our aircraft home to our families.  We didn't expect to be welcomed home as heroes, as our Fathers and Grandfathers were, but we never expected to be branded as the “untouchables and unmentionables” of the Australian society as the “peace protestors” labelled us.

We copped all sorts of flak from all walks of life.   An old school teacher spat on one of our Veterans, just because she belonged to the “Save our Sons Organisation”.  And then the “Wharfies” went on strike and refused to load our ships.   And then the “Posties” refused to handle our mail; I went for eight weeks without any mail from my wife.  No wonder we said to­ our mates who were going home on R & R to “Punch a postie while on R & R!”

110 Sig Sqn - Story 13
Mail was important, it was the only link to families in Australia - Supplied by Blue Gilfillan (104 Sig Sqn)
(Never forgiven or forgotten!)

And thanks to the so-called “peace protestors”, the Australian public started to call our soldiers “baby and woman killers, and murderers”!  And because of this entire “Social Trauma” that was going on around us, we retreated into our turtle shell. We never told anybody about Vietnam, because there was no one who would listen, as we believed that no one cared or would understand. Some veterans even denied that they had been there.

All return servicemen know what it is like to lose a friend.   The fear, pain and anguish were too much for one to bear.  There was no war front in Vietnam, the “Goodies” to the South and the “Baddies” to the North.  They were all around us, in the streets and in the jungle they owned the lot.   The only ground you owned was that one-square foot, each time you took a step.  Vietnam was a brutal never ending land of pain, death and curses.   We all told stories, true or false, never the bad stories much the same as our older generation returned servicemen.   To unravel the puzzle of Vietnam Veterans is just as confusing to the Veterans themselves. They kept their concerns, fears and emotions within and carried them for many years.

Our “Welcome Home March” in Sydney on the 3rd October 1987 was an historic event, which went a long way in healing the wounds of a divided nation, brought about by the so-called “peace protestors”. After their “Welcome Home”, many of the Veterans began to relive some of their experiences, fears and concerns and were overwhelmed with anxiety and depression.    And half-the-time, all the medical professionals and friends could do for us was to hand us a handkerchief and tell us to wipe our nose, and say, “You've had your Welcome Home!”

110 Sig Sqn - Story 13
Welcome home parade in Oct 1987.  22,000 Vietnam Veterans marched carrying more then 500 Australian Flags, each flag represented one of the fallen, including seven RASigs members lost in the War.
Source ABC News

When the news of another Veteran had suicided or attempted suicide, which was heart rendering news, causing our emotions of anger, bitterness and pain to rise up within us.   Some of the Veterans asked themselves “Why am I like this? Why did they do it? Why did they kill themselves?  Am I going to cope with myself?”   But, many couldn’t the deep-down buried hurts that were placed there by our Nation via those so-called “peace protestors”!

Our experience was one of total figment.   After 365 days in Vietnam ten hours later you are back into a totally different environment, and I guess at times that many of us felt we were never there.   We were not all “gung-ho killers”, we all didn't kill, but quite a lot of us were always in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The political manipulation that involved us in this war, the ­anti-war demonstrations led by those politicians, the naivety of friends and relations and those self-righteous returned­ servicemen from other wars and others who would say in those ­times “You've got a problem son! Get over it! Get your acts together!'   These sorts of comments caused further problems and always made us feel bitterer than before.

A lot of Veterans didn't start drinking until then and I mean hazardous drinking.  They found it hard to relate to people and­ ever since then they have been following the path of ­self-destruction and at times in desperation they would take ­their life. Their wives and immediate family had no idea what ­they were going through, because when they came home, all they wanted ­was to be left alone and they found it very hard to find comfort anywhere with the Australian nation. A veteran can drown his sorrows, but his immediate family, the­ wives and children had to bear the full brunt of the reality that ­the veteran was going through at the time.

We have all sat on the edge and became a group of misunderstood people, a nuisance to all and alcoholics. We didn't feel any self-pity, occasionally in outbursts, when someone questions us, “Why are you like this?”  We just scream back, “You don't know what I am ­going through!”  But then, we didn't know what we were going through either and unfortunately there are still a lot of our Veterans out there who need our help.

A good percentage of us have all passed through the stages of the “Vietnam Veteran Syndrome”. We did a great deal of soul-searching, hard bargaining with our emotions and with quite a few emotional outbursts, which gave us the excuse to “Drown our sorrows'” and justify our drinking. Our behaviour was based on our thoughts, therefore to change our behaviour we had to change our thoughts, and we should therefore believe that within our sickness there are seeds to overcome our illness.

110 Sig Sqn - Story 13
RASigs Vietnam Veterans with a Corp Banner, preparing to march, at the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial dedication in Canberra, 1992.  Supply by Bob Florance (104 Sig Sqn)

At times some of us were blessed by our addiction because it taught us something about ourselves, and gave us the ability to rise above the trap­ that we were creating. Before this could happen we all had to destroy the trust of our family and the friendship of families and friends of long association, including ourselves. This process has taken 20 years plus.

I am sure our veterans care for one another and appreciate all the hard work that is being carried out by that small band of men involved in the various ex-servicemen organisations, but it is now time that our veterans take account of ourselves and the­ direction we are heading.  Those veterans who are not involved should now become involved in the welfare of other returned servicemen and our fellow veterans. We have to forego our past-­preconceived notions, past differences, egos, and apathy, letting go ­of our bitterness, fear, guilt, self-pity and most of all we should “FORGIVE”.

110 Sig Sqn - Story 13
Welcome home!  RASigs Vietnam Veterans waving to old friends at the Australian Vietnam Forces
National Memorial
dedication in Canberra, 1992.  Supply by Gordon Taylor (104 Sig Sqn)

The “Roll Call” of ­our WW2 veterans is getting smaller and once they go, all these organisations that were formed by our grandfathers and fathers­ will fold and were will us Vietnam veterans be, including the future of other returned servicemen. Legacy, TPI Association, other Ex-servicemen Welfare Organisations and the DVA Volunteer Support Project need our support.

Many of our veterans were unable to make our Welcome Home March in Sydney (1987) and the dedication of our War Memorial in Canberra (1992). There are still many veterans who have never worn their medals, or attended an Anzac Day March, because of their guilt, bitterness and forgiveness of our Nation. I ask these Veterans to please come and join us all on the 25th April, and show that we as a Vietnam Veterans do care and our wounds are healed and we do forgive our Nation and all of those so-called “peace protestors”!

George Parker


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