Sunday, 11 May 2008
Published in today's Sunday Mail by Lou Robson -
The Vietnam vet couldn't sleep. Every time he closed his eyes he went back.
He numbed himself with beer until his marriage broke down and he was left with nothing but a flickering TV. Infomercials didn't help, so the 50-year-old started walking. While other Tweed Valley residents slept he hiked the region with his kelpie, a sleek black dog that padded silently at
his feet. He trekked through wooded fields and crossed creeks southwest of Coolangatta.
There was nothing commando about ii no military overtones. He was just trying to outrun his thoughts.
The flashbacks continued and so did the growths, ping-pong-ball-sized lumps that rose beneath the skin of his
forehead. "They just keep coming," he said during an interview in late 2000. "There were so many chemicals, so many things we were exposed to."
Ashamed at his outburst, he hid the growths beneath a dirty cap, covering the ever-changing topography of his bald head.
"Sorry mate," he said. "Don't get many visitors."
The small amount of information he'd divulged had come out staccato. Several rapid fire sentences about alcohol, losing his wife and the late-night hill hikes. Then he reined it in. He apologised.
The story I'd come to discuss was unrelated. A short piece about the man's growing collection of dead and dying Volkswagens. The car bodies lined the
road outside his rundown farmhouse.
They overlooked nearby cow paddocks. But someone complained and the complaint reached council headquarters. It was heard in the wood-panelled room where local government representatives gathered for monthly meetings.
The concern was one of many. Councilors and residents voiced fears about feral cats and carp. Fruit flies and ferrets. Decrepit VWs and property depreciation.
No one knew the cars were therapeutic. All day the Vietnam vet tinkered. Stripped and restored, avoided TV and the bottle shop by bringing old vehicles back to life. Like many returned soldiers he distracted himself and somehow stayed sane. And for many, like the unrecognised soldiers of the 1966 South Vietnam battle of Long Tan, the insults keep coming.
The Government's failure to ignore bureaucracy and give the green light to bravery awards almost 42 years after the fact is salt in the wound. Red tape aggravates mental and physical ailments. Some speak openly about their experiences. Others say nothing and their silence speaks volumes.
The returned soldier-turned-mechanic preferred to keep his own counsel. He was angered by his momentary lapse. Downed a spanner and disappeared. Returned 10 minutes later with two cups of tea and eyes red with tears. We talked cars, took a photo and then I took off. But I think of him often. Wonder if he's still striding streams until sun up.
I know half a dozen living this life. Don't forget them.
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