Donald William Tate, my long-time friend from Australia, fellow author, and Vietnam Veteran, offers a personal look at how Vietnam Veterans were treated in Australia since the war ended. It’s not pretty!
The author, serving with 10 Platoon, D Company, the 4th Battalion, 1969
When President Lyndon Johnson committed American troops to Vietnam early in the 1960’s, he said it gave him no great pleasure to send into battle ‘the flower of our youth, our finest young men.’
The same sentiment surely applied to the soldiers from Australia who also went to fight the war — the flowers of the nation’s youth. Surely, its finest young men.
And indeed, that was the case. Because the fact was, only the very best of men could get to the killing fields of Vietnam. Make no mistake about that. The Jungle Training Centre at Canungra made sure of it. And I’m not just talking about the fighting man of our Army — the infantryman — because even the cooks and cleaners and bottle-washers had to prove themselves at that testing ground, before they left Australia.
To put it simply, weak men, or cowardly men, or men deficient in some other area, never made it to Vietnam, or at least not onto its shores. The processes of elimination weeded them out beforehand.
So yes, the finest of men fought in that war. Over 58,000 of them were Australians, according to the Vietnam Veterans’ Nominal Roll. Indeed, the “flower of our youth.”
A typical Australian infantry platoon — the recon Platoon of the 5th Battalion led by Lt Michael von Berg MC (far left of the back row) in 1966. Photo courtesy of Daryl Henry, a Canadian War Correspondent
Yet today, the remnant army of Vietnam veterans is one of the most reviled minority groups in Australia. They are widely seen as malcontents, as malingerers, and as whiners, despised not only by the wider community, but by veterans of other ex-serviceman’s communities including those who had served in previous wars.
Of those 58,000 men, some 12,000 have already died. More than 1000 have committed suicide. Most receive a disability pension of some form (a financial holy grail to some) many suffer debilitating ill-health, many are under psychiatric care, and many more are unemployed and unemployable. A large number are drug addicts, or dependent on prescribed drugs.
They are locked away in jails, in clinics, and in mental asylums, and in each case represent a greater percentage of the otherwise ‘normal’ members of society. Many live out their lives in isolated makeshift camps in remote country areas across all states of Australia, armed and dangerous in many instances. There is anecdotal evidence that some live on boats in the Whitsundays, coming to shore only for re-supply purposes, and in secure camps in other, isolated regions. Others never set foot outside of their homes. Only about 12% are married to their first wives, and for many of them it’s only because of the good graces of the particular woman — a special breed.
Most of the men are holding onto a seething anger, without really understanding why — an anger slowly eating away what is left of their health, and souls.
So, how is this so? How is it possible that the ‘flower of our youth’ has become such a tormented group, in just over three decades?
As a returned veteran of that war myself, a regular soldier who joined the Army willingly and asked specifically to serve as infantryman, and who was subsequently wounded in action, I have particular views on the reasons why this has happened.
The author, as forward scout with C Company 9th Battalion in July 1969
First, there were the peculiarities of the War itself. And the worst type of war at that — a combination of civil war and revolution, fought in tropical jungles against an enemy that had been engaged in guerrilla warfare for as long as it could remember. And it was an enemy that could use the geography and the environment far better than we, along with the clandestine support of the locals.
In the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldier, we faced an enemy also better skilled in the art of psychological war than us — like using booby traps, mines, and the elements of concealment and surprise. He was a cunning, committed soldier who would not give ground without hard resistance, who would often resist full-on assaults against his bunkers, as well as artillery bombardment and air strikes before yielding — an enemy perhaps of greater commitment and consequence than the Japanese soldier our forebears took on in New Guinea and other fronts in the Pacific during World War Two.
Not only did he have to face new, improved weapons of waging war, the Vietnam veteran also fought in an environment where he had to endure nature’s worst — the fire-ants, snakes, scorpions and leeches, even tigers and monkeys and wild pigs on occasion, and at the other end of the scale, minuscule parasites that entered the body through the tightest of openings. He fought in sauna-like heat and humidity in the dry season, and put up with the torrential monsoon storms of tropical Asia during the wet.
Then there were the sights and sounds of war itself, the death of mates, the torn-apart bodies, the makeshift graves, and all the variables of such combat. For one man it was to stand on a mine and have your legs blown off; for another, it was to fill a canteen with water from a creek as a dead body floated past; for another it was to kill off a wounded enemy soldier as he defiantly tried to throw yet another grenade even as he died; for another it was to sit at a the machine-gun of a chopper as it loaded men aboard, knowing they were sitting ducks; for another it was just the never relenting realisation that the enemy could strike him at any time at any place and that there was no refuge; for another, it was the fear of his ship being sunk; for another, it was to go down into underground tunnels, or having to defuse mines; for another, it was to handle body bags and severely wounded men; for another, it was to know he had drunk a chemical cocktail that will likely up and strike him in days to come; and for yet another it was to have his body torn open by high-impact bullets. And so on.
The result of a machine-gun bullet on Private Don Tate on July 1969- a bullet that shattered his hip bones, requiring hospitalisation for more than two years, and leaving him permanently disabled
With the territory, there also came a disintegration of individual morals and ethics a man might never have degenerated to under other circumstances — the mutilation of dead men, the killing of children, the abuse of women, alcohol, and drugs, the indiscriminate destruction of property, and the many other acts best not spoken about that have left men with such guilt.
Viet Cong bodies following the successful night ambush at Thua Tich by the 2nd D&E Platoon on May 29th 1969
Then add the poisoned cigarettes and irradiated rations our government handed out to its fighting men, and you start to get the picture.
Some of what the veteran experienced, he had been trained for, but the truth about soldiering is that the reality of war is a far greater burden than the expectation of it. The worst aspects of soldiering, and the true horror of warfare itself, was fully revealed as he watched his fellow soldier and enemy die alongside him in the most savage type of bloody combat. Then, if he was lucky and survived the contacts and ambushes and battles, but was physically wounded, he suffered the ignominy of being packed like a sardine into the dirty holds of lumbering old cargo planes for the three-day trip home to hospitals in Australia, and thinking his war was over.
But it wasn’t.
I ended up taking that same route home myself, and well remember that trip home with about forty other wounded men. There we were, piled two and three high in those dirty old planes with bottles of blood and urine dangling everywhere, and with wax stuffed in our ears to drown out the sound of the engines — a hell of its own.
For wounded men, this was the final indignity. Not only would the wounds of many of us get more infected during the flight, we came to realise very quickly that now we were second-class soldiers, and would be second-class citizens when we got home.
We had given the war machine our bodies. Now we were superfluous to both the Army, and the country.
The veteran was not aware of it at the time, but soon learned, that the wounded and dying were essentially smuggled back into the Military Hospitals, away from prying media eyes, and aware that newspapers only printed a doctored list of casualties each day, generally only listing casualties from their own states on many occasions, or staggering the casualty lists over a number of days to allay concern about the number of men falling. Couldn’t have the public getting too outraged, you see.
But what he didn’t know then, but would learn very quickly, was that if he joined the list of wounded men, or the queue of men whose health would deteriorate so quickly later on, he could not only look forward to a life of relative poverty, but a life of battles with those insensitive, recalcitrant bureaucracy supposedly meant to support him — The Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Australian War Memorial could not know that they would falsify reports, hide information, and battle him every inch of the way for meagre pensions to compensate him for his sacrifices, or assist him to validate aspects of his war service.
In my case, because of maladministration and a cover-up of atrocities that concerned a second unit I’d fought in — the 2nd D&E Platoon, my service history was bastardised. It took me 29 years to prove to the Army that I’d served in the 9th BattalIon despite a plethora of documentation proving that I had. The Army eventually corrected its error, updated the Nominal Roll, and sent me a letter of apology from a current, serving General (Fergus McLachlan).
But the damage was done. There are some who have a lot to answer for.
My personal situation aside, the fact is that the young man, now a war veteran, and no longer the same young man who had left his country’s shores a year earlier, came home.
If not a casualty like myself, he either flew home in half a day by jet, or took a week or so by supply ship. Straight from the battlefield to normal life again, although by now his sense of normalcy had new parameters.
Now, he found he had new battles to fight.
Already traumatised by experiences which had been terrifying, dehumanising, and soul-shattering, he was met at airports and sea ports with open hostility and disgust from the society he had risked his life for. There were no welcome home, mates. No well dones. No victory parades. No sir. Or not for a quarter of a century, at least.
Instead, he confronted other armies.
First, there was the Moratorium marches — peace protestors made up of friends, family and workmates unable to differentiate between the war they were objecting to, and the warrior who had fought it. They mocked and jeered him. Threw red paint at him in one instance, or pig’s blood. Called him “baby-burner”. Spat at, and abused him in ways no other returning soldier from this country had ever endured.
Many veterans didn’t stand up to the Moratorium marchers. I did.
It was a national outpouring of rejection, of hatred, and revulsion the likes of which he could never had dreamt he would return to. If he had come home physically unscathed, here, he received a bayonet thrust through his psyche that was more damaging than any other wound.
When Prime Minister Billy Hughes sent men of to World War 1, he told the Australian public ‘…we say to them, You go and fight, and when you come back we will look after your welfare…’ and he was a man of his word, initiating the first repatriation benefits for returned veterans. But successive Prime Ministers and their fat-arsed Ministers and bureaucrats of that portfolio have been lesser men and women, and in no way have they honoured Hughes’ pledge to the Australian public.
Then, he faced the greater army — society at large, armed with the weapons of public indifference and disregard for what the digger may have gone through. Instead of acclaim for a job well done, he was told that he hadn’t really fought in a war at all, it had been a ten-year police action, and that he wasn’t as good a soldier as his father or father’s father had been anyway. He was ridiculed in that bastion of the returned veteran — the Returned Serviceman’s League — for losing a war, a first in the nation’s history.
He could argue that he had well and truly subdued the enemy in the particular region allocated to Australia in the war, but it would do him no good. The veterans of the earlier wars, even those who hadn’t actually fired a shot in anger took great delight in putting down the Vietnam veteran as an inferior man. Subsequently, any pride he may have felt for what he had done, at putting his life on the line for his country, was stripped away from him.
Came home too, to find the available jobs taken by men who hadn’t fought in the war. Men who got their degrees and diplomas while he trod the bloodied paddy fields and jungle tracks of Vietnam, then who would lord it over him, and dictate his life in a plethora of bureaucracies for evermore. Tough luck, mate. It was every man for himself.
The veteran never really came to terms with the reaction he received back at home, never understood or comprehended the intensity of the response from his fellow Australians. But over the years, he was able to rationalise a little of it, mulled it over while the bitterness festered.
He was already aware, of course, of the political history surrounding Australia’s involvement in the war.
The thinking veteran suspected that Prime Minister Menzies’ excuse for committing us to war was probably based on falsehood, and that the S.E.A.T.O and A.N.Z.U.S treaties were international jokes, but young men can be excused their naiveté. Years later he learned that Menzies deliberately lied to the Australian public in relation to our involvement in the War, but the damage was done by then anyway, and it mattered not. There has never been a war fought without political hypocrisy of some sort.
He watched the politicians send their own sons out of the country on extended European jaunts while the sons of lesser men were selected to fight and die. He suspected that the birth dates of prominent leaders of both government and industry somehow would never be plucked from the national service ballot — that lottery of death. And some even knew that Menzies himself, as a twenty-year-old, had opted not to enlist when Australia needed volunteers for the World War 1 killing fields.
Nothing unusual about any of that, of course. That’s the way of politicians of all persuasions.
He had seen the same politicians fly into Vietnam by the first-class jet on ‘fact-finding’ missions. Knew men like Jim Cairns were having trade talks with the enemy, even as Australians bled on that foreign soil. Heard stories of how Andrew Peacock landed by helicopter three times so photographers could get the best angles and profiles like McArthur had done many years before in the Philippines. And knew that Malcolm Fraser was not telling all he knew about the Agent Orange scourge that would reap such a horrific whirlwind decades later.
And then, as the years flew by, he watched a succession of indifferent, cowardly politicians crush the veteran’s spirit through the insensitive administration of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Rarely does that portfolio enjoy a Minister of substance and maturity- look at the lot we’ve had to endure……Billson, Griffin, Snowden, Ronaldson, Payne, Chester, and co. We hold our collective breaths waiting for a real man to fill that position.
Most Veteran Affairs Ministers are more concerned with junkets and jaunts to foreign battlefields instead of tackling the substantial decline in veteran pensions caused by the slash and burn approach governments have had with respect to veterans’ compensation for war wounds, and superannuation. Veterans seethe at this, knowing that politicians’ superannuation has increased by 120% in the last twenty years, while that of veterans has gone up less than half of that.
Finally, the veteran learned that he was probably poisoned in the most insidious of ways while he fought in Vietnam.
In truth, he had fought in a War in which something like 40 billion litres of assorted poisons, insecticides and pesticides were sprayed over the land in the defoliation processes code-named Operation Ranch Hand (or Operation Hadesas it was more correctly called earlier). He breathed in the poisons, showered with waters infected by them, drank them, and even helped spray them himself (never being told of what dangers he was exposing himself to). Even sailors couldn’t escape the scourge of Agent Orange, because they not only loaded and unloaded the poisons, they too, drank water brought to them from Vung Tau — waters already polluted by the poisons.
He was not to know that they would prove to be lethal, and that he could expect to manifest all kinds of debilitating illnesses before they killed him years down the track, or if not that, they could drive him insane. Or leave a legacy of horror to live on in his children and grandchildren for generations to come.
But he knows some of that today, thanks to gutsy crusaders like Jean Williams (Cry in the Wilderness) and Dr. John Pollack, among many others. Knows that certain chemical warfare files he was part of have been classified as “Never to be Released to the Australian Public” — courtesy of Prime Minister Bob Hawke, or at least not until 2020, by which time the veteran will most likely be dead. These include the so-called Malarial Files — the official record of the testing processes carried out using the veteran as an unwitting guinea-pig.
Friedreich Nietzsche, in The Antichrist said that evil was whatever springs from weakness, and in this respect, the weakness of subsequent Australian governments to fully reveal the truth about what chemical companies were allowed to do this country’s fighting men is evil personified, and the actions of weak and cowardly men.
So yes, the Vietnam veteran has much to be angry about. It’s why the platitudes he hears like ‘Put it behind you!’ cuts him so deep. They are logs on his shoulders difficult to dislodge, but the thing is, repressed anger or sadness can’t be repressed forever.
At some point, the demons are released. It’s why so many men have chosen that final alternative and taken their own lives, or live lives festering with an assortment of illnesses. It’s why so many die so young.
So there he sits, the Vietnam veteran, all these years on.
Psychologically unbalanced by the actual horror of war and his exposure to a bizarre array of toxic chemicals while fighting it, alienated and ostracised by family and friends because the war changed him so remarkably, disregarded by the very society he had gone off to defend, physically broken by the use of various experimental drugs he was forced to take, and wounded by bullet, steel fragment or booby trap, he watches the world go by without him, and his resentment and anger become manifestly more obvious.
‘O war! Thou son of hell!’ wrote Shakespeare. How apt those words for the man who went off to fight in Vietnam.
Donald William Tate, a War veteran; happily married for 45 years; retired high school English teacher; father to five, grandfather to eleven-and best-selling author of five books.
This article originally appeared on Medium.com on 10/31/2018.
Thank you, brother, for another fine article. I thank you, too, for your sacrifice, persistence, and courage in taking on the government to make things right for the Vietnam Veterans in Australia. God Bless!
This is the second article on this website from Don Tate. Here is a link to the first published in 2012: https://cherrieswriter.com/2012/07/20/being-wounded-guest-blog-by-donald-william-tate/
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