Friday, 21 August 2009

Second Tour - (1)

I’ve returned to Vietnam twice in the last three years.

Most of what I saw, heard and felt on these return journeys is probably worth sharing. Apart from anything else, the act of returning lifted a monkey from my back.

Until going back in 2006 I’d always harbored a vague guilt about Vietnam – there were two reasons for this.

One was that I never believed in the "cause" - the notion that we were preventing a Communist takeover of SE Asia which would eventually lead to this heinous ideology gradually descending (through gravity I guess) from the North upon defenseless Australia.

If I'd had the courage of my convictions, I've have failed to report for my medical - and what followed would have been a matter for the courts. All the advice I was getting at the time was that I'd best go along with it, as any criminal conviction would not be a good result in terms of my future career.

I had just started teaching, was successful at the job and enjoying it, and didn't want to put any of this is jeopardy. So I knuckled under - probably the first and last time in my life that I ever participated in something that I didn't believe in.

Another regret that developed during my tour was that I was also pretty typical of my fellow diggers in that I didn't really see the Vietnamese as individuals. Everything I learned since my return in 1970 indicated to me that this was a lost opportunity - not that my posting in an Infantry battalion gave me much opportunity to get to know well these people we were supposed tyo be fighting for.

There is a story going around that if I had made my feelings known to the army, I would have been posted to a unit not “warned” for active service. According to this yarn, in every unit a parade was held prior to embarking for South Vietnam. At this parade, any digger not keen on saving the free world from Communism was asked to step forward. These miscreants would then be reposted to a unit not heading for active service – or so the story goes.

Whether this was the case or not (and establishing the historical fact would be fascinating) I have no recollection of the mythical parade. Paul Ham certainly writes about it in his book, Vietnam - The Australian War. If it had happened, I can’t imagine any other outcome than that of the bulk of the Nashos present taking one step forward. Anyway, it didn’t happen to me.

The other reason is that I’ve always found my experience hard to reconcile was that I’d treated the Vietnamese I’d encountered pretty badly back then. Not that we had much contact with civilians except on R & C in Vung Tau, or occasionally when we encountered unarmed civilians (not VC) on patrol.

I was on a TAOR patrol in March when we came across a group of civvies out collecting wood. They were somewhere they shouldn’t have been, so we rounded them up and shepherded them into a clearing. We then stood over them until the ARVN arrived and took them off somewhere.

One old woman caught my eye. She must have been eighty if she was a day. Despite the fact that I was standing over her and carrying an SLR, she was obviously sorry for me, sweating copiously as I was, and burdened with pack, water and ammunition.

She moved towards me (not threatening because she was diminutive and only came up to my armpit) and mopped my face with a clean rag she was carrying. This amazed me – in the first place that she could feel compassion for someone waving a weapon in her face, and also because she was game enough to make this gesture.

I remember thinking bizarrely about my grandmother and what she would have thought of me if she could see what I was doing.

But back to my return visit.

I travelled back with a bunch of veterans, most of them, like me, ex-infantry. There was no-one from my unit, but there were half a dozen from 8 RAR who were in country the same time as I was back in 1970. My two sons (aged 21 and 23), also came along.

One of the events arranged for us was an encounter with three Vietnamese who had been members of D445 battalion, the same mob that we’d spent months thrashing around the scrub in an attempt (mostly unsuccessful) to eliminate.

We met these blokes outside a war memorial near Ba Ria. Vietnam is a bit like Australia in that there are war memorials everywhere. Generally though, there are a lot more names posted on theirs than ours. They paid dearly for forty years of war.

On the whole, they had aged better than we had. There was plenty of grey hair, but no beer guts evident. They greeted us enthusiastically, with the words – “War is over – we are friends now”. There was much shaking of hands, slapping of backs, and a man-hug or two.

The deal was that we’d be introduced, interpreters would be laid on, and we’d have an outdoor lunch and a Ba-Mi-Ba (beer) or three together. Many of the ex-diggers were carrying laminated army maps marked up as the battlefield had been back in 1970. It didn’t take long for the grog to start flowing, and the war stories soon followed. What was unique about this was that we were sharing stories with our ex-enemy – a strange experience.

During an animated conversation over a map rolled out on a picnic table, one of the Vietnamese blokes started laughing loudly. When we asked, through the interpreter, what was funny, he explained that he was very familiar with a patrol route that was showing on the map. It showed a range of paths used for TAOR patrols – the patrols that moved out a couple of Klics from the Nui Dat base to ensure that we weren’t mortared. The idea was that if the VC knew that they could encounter an Aussie patrol any old time, they’d think twice before setting of a base plate and making a “shoot and scoot” attack on the base. Whilst the routes followed were deliberately random, there were a set of paths followed more or less routinely.

What had caused all the merriment was that the map indicated that patrols regularly passed through an area under which an extensive tunnel system had been set up by the VC. (Later, we were shown the remnants of this system). This ex-VC was laughing as he recalled watching us pass by from the safety of a hidden tunnel opening. When he was asked why he didn’t ambush us, he said – “Too much trouble – we knew you were leaving in the future, and it was better to wait”.

He saw much more humour in it than we did, but I suppose it had its funny side.

For me, it fairly neatly encapsulated the absurdity of the situation that we found ourselves in, back in 1970.

The country is thriving, with a great deal of foreign investment (very carefully controlled by the Vietnamese) creating massive and rapid development. The breed of Communism (called “Doi Moi” – liberal economic reforms introduced in 1986) is far removed from the Marxist dogma promoted by Ho Chi Minh. In fact, I’m sure the old man would be spinning in his grave if he could see what was going down in the name of the People’s Republic at the moment.

Enterprise and entrepreneurship is everywhere, and a lot of people are getting very rich very quickly. The Vietnamese pay lip service to Marxism, but they have, in reality shrugged it off much in the same way as they shrugged off American intervention in the sixties and seventies.

The bulk of the population have no memory of the war, and to them it is irrelevant.

I came home with a weight lifted from my shoulders. I really hadn’t done much harm to the country, and my involvement was a footnote, rendered irrelevant by the energy and optimism of contemporary Vietnam. And there were no hard feelings.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Jungle Liturgy

Given that yesterday was Vietnam Veterans day, it's probably a good time to post this recollection.

Enjoy -

Jungle Liturgy

Infantry battalions were supported in country by a range of people and structures. One important element of this support was the padre. He rejoiced in a variety of nicknames, including “sky-pilot”, “god-botherer” or “bible-basher”, but these nicknames, like the attitude of most soldiers, were generally benign.

There was a grudging respect on the part of most diggers for anyone who was prepared to share the privations and dangers that were central to the daily life of patrolling as an infantry soldier. I encountered a few padres during my service, and was generally impressed. I don’t know if there were any poor quality padres in Vietnam, but if there were, I didn’t come into contact with them. I guess anyone who wasn’t genuine would have been given short shrift by the diggers.

We were fortunate as a unit to have a Father Keith Teefey as our padre, and he was well respected by most of us. I got to know him during April on our second battalion operation, when he traveled with B Company.

During the operation I did a stint as LOB (which meant I was back in base for a week – a job that was rotated through the rifle sections) and I traveled with Keith Teefey back to Nui Dat on an APC. There wasn’t much opportunity for conversation on the APC – they’re much too noisy, but we moved on to a truck at FSB Anne, and I was able to talk to him then.

He had worked in the Darling Downs and this gave us something in common, as I knew the area.

He talked about some of the civil affairs work that he was involved in, and this raised my interest straight away, as it sounded preferable to tromping around the scrub in a rifle platoon. Most things sounded better than what I was doing at this time.

Besides, I was a teacher, and would have given my eyeteeth to be working in Civil Aid, where my expertise was. I began to harbour thoughts that I would get myself – somehow – into civil affairs, and when I got back to the Dat, penned a letter to the CO requesting a transfer to a unit involved in this work. (It was this letter that was partly responsible for my posting to Q platoon later). The response to this was predictable. The company commander made a point of letting me know that he thought this was my way of escaping operational duty, by calling the letter “a load of bullshit”.

He was right about me wanting to get out of a rifle platoon, but wrong in calling what I’d written “bullshit”. I really did have altruistic motives. Incidentally, my platoon commander was supportive. On reflection, it may have been simply that he wanted to get rid of me.

Earlier in this operation, we had moved into FSB Anne after what seemed like months of patrolling. In reality, we had been “bush” for about five weeks. The best part of getting back behind the wire, in a slightly more secure situation, was enjoying a field shower, which removed several layers of sweat and filth, and made us feel human again. When you haven’t had a proper cleanup for five weeks, you become very appreciative of this kind of opportunity.

We set up positions within the relative safety of the base, and began to clean our gear and deal with what the army called “personal administration”. This was code for getting all our paraphernalia back into best possible nick, trying to repair or replace lost or damaged items, and getting stuck into weapons maintenance.

This last aspect was treated with almost religious fervour, because apart from the fact that we had been drilled since the first day of recruit training into looking after our weapons, we knew that in a real sense, our lives depended on weapon reliability. Generally, the SLR was reliable under the worst of field conditions, but the M-16 and M-60 were less so, not tolerating sand or grit. The belts for the M-60s had to be kept clean, or the result was a stoppage, possibly at a very inconvenient moment when the rest of the section was relying on the gun.

There was also time for a different and more conventional variety of religious observance – that of a “church” service. Easter was coming up, but this was to be a simple communion service for all ranks. The place chosen was in the open to one side of the FSB. It was made clear that religious denomination wasn’t an issue and everyone was welcome.

I went along, as did the bulk of the platoon, and was amazed to hear Keith Teefey announce at the beginning of the service, that communion would be taken, and everyone, irrespective of denomination, was welcome to join in, providing they did so in the right spirit. Quite a few of my non-Catholic mates did so, and whilst we didn’t discuss it (soldiers generally don’t comment on liturgical matters in the field), seemed to show due reverence in the situation.

As a Catholic brought up in a fairly conservative tradition, I was impressed by what I regarded as a rational and ecumenical approach to pastoral care in the field. A letter to my parents, written that afternoon after the morning service, explained what I had seen. I knew my father would be interested, as he was something of an amateur theologian, and had a keen interest in liturgical reform, originating about the time of Vatican II.

My dad told the Parish Priest in Texas at the time, and all hell broke loose.

This priest, a very conservative Irishman, reported Keith Teefey to the Bishop of the Diocese, much to my father’s dismay, which began a long-running feud. (The bishop, who didn’t have any jurisdiction in this case, had enough common sense to ignore the report, but it made my father very angry.) This feud culminated in a denouncement of my family from the pulpit. This made dad even more upset, because the priest cast aspersions on one of my sisters who was obliquely accused of giving bad example, because she was enjoying a busy social life in Warwick. My father refused to have anything more to do with the priest.

This was a local issue, as dad was principal of the state primary school, and had at this time two children (my youngest brother and sister) attending the convent school. Looking back, the situation was a good example of the power of ignorance.

To some extent, it was also indicative of the attitude of some Australians to the conflict, an attitude born of ignorance. I remember thinking that the whole episode had elements of farce. I never told Keith Teefey about it. Later in my tour, in Admin Company, I had the chance to travel with Keith Teefey to the Baria orphanage, which had been adopted by our unit. I enjoyed the contact with the children immensely, some of whom had obviously been fathered by American servicemen. The conditions in the orphanage weren’t wonderful, as it was overcrowded and understaffed, but the kids seemed full of life, bright, and very pleased to see us.

We would scrounge all sorts of useful items and give them to the staff, who were very grateful. The diggers were very generous, and would scout around for useful items if they knew they were going to a good cause. It was pretty clear to me that there was an enormous amount of goodwill between the average digger and the ordinary Vietnamese, and I’m sure that we would have spent our time much more profitably in South Vietnam if we had been engaged in civil affairs work, and left the fighting to the Yanks.

There may have been a better long-term political outcome if we had done so. Mind you, one of the reasons for the relative security enjoyed in Phouc Tuy was the superior tactics and field craft exhibited by 1ATF. If the security had been managed by the Yanks, it would probably have been a very different story.

There were a number of diggers who professed to despise the Vietnamese people, but I’m sure this developed out of fear, and was not a typical reaction. The major issue was always that of being unable to trust anyone, as there was no front line, and security was never guaranteed.

Despite this, Phouc Tuy was more secure during my time in country (1970) than most other provinces, and this was certainly due to the superior tactics adopted by the Australian units, as it had been a VC stronghold. As far as I can see, we were light years ahead of the Yanks in this aspect of the conduct of the war.

I was very pleased (and surprised) at the end of June to be posted to Q platoon, Admin Company. Some vacancies had occurred there as a result of Nashos completing their time in country, and I’d always been honest with my superiors about my discontent at my posting, so the recommendation was made, and my transfer came through. This meant that I would live behind the wire in a tent, and would not be spending the rest of my tour (about six months) tromping through the jungle. I had made some great mates in B Company, and felt some guilt at moving into the relative safety of Admin Company, but in the end was relieved at the less dangerous posting. It sat well with my major goal of getting home in one piece.

As it turned out, in short order I was posted out to the Horseshoe to run the Q unit out there, so I didn't stay in the Dat for long. When the QM discovered I was a teacher in civvie street, and could operate a 16mm projector, I also took over showing late run films to the diggers.

I got to see a lot of movies.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Bush Kids

I've had a great week working in schools more than 300km west of here.

Generally, I traveled by road, but one day was fly-in, fly-out, which is a great time-saver. It also brings me into contact with people working for other agencies, which is always interesting.

In education, we work on a developmental model, whilst in health the diagnostic - therapeutic model is the norm. I believe that this is one reason why medicos (with notable exceptions) find dealing with people with disabilities very challenging. They're not - after all - ill.

It's strange, therefore, that the kids I work with are categorized using a medical description of specific disabilities. It's probably time for a change.

Being an aircraft tragic adds another dimension to fly-in, fly-out. This week there was a change of aircraft (from Piper PA-42 Cheyenne Turbo to Beechcraft Super Kingair).

Apparently the Piper was in Melbourne having maintenance when someone taxied it into a lighting stanchion. This did it no good at all.I don't know what it did for the person responsible.

The Kingair was a bit newer, and somewhat roomier, but is apparently not so much of a rocket ship as the Cheyenne. Either represent a big improvement on driving.

But I digress... this is supposed to be about kids, not planes.

Essentially, one of the main reasons I continue to do this work is the fantastic feedback I get from the kids. Bush kids are different. They're usually pragmatic, honest, and will have a go at anything. Two spring to mind...

One is a year five boy with hemiplegia in a very small school.The first time I met him he had a bruise on his face. When I asked him how he got it, he said simply "playing footy".

His teacher told me that he played second row in the school team. He has a wobbly gait, and his left arm is not all that functional. He tucks the ball under this arm, and fends with the other one (the right) which functions very well indeed. His unpredictable gait makes him very hard to tackle. He's a very popular player and has won "Best and fairest".

The other one is a year nine lad also with mild cerebral palsy in a slightly bigger (but quite isolated) school. A few months ago I helped his parents identify a notebook computer small enough for him to carry from class to class, which he links to a roll-up keyboard. This works well, as it boots up quickly, and he can keyboard his work at the same speed as the other kids write. What he produces is also legible.

Unfortunately, he locked himself out of this laptop, and for reasons not well understood, it stubbornly refused to let him log on. The school's IT teacher spent the best part of a day trying to get him in, but finally gave up in frustration.

On the day I turned up, he was getting desperate, as he couldn't access his work. I dug up the handbook, which gave directions on system retrieval. After he phoned his mum to check that it was OK for me to have a go at it, and after I phoned the manufacturer (ASUS) to check the procedure, we took our courage in both hands and ran the retrieval programme.

Fortunately, it worked, and he put in a new password. Now he wasn't going to let this happen again!

He insisted that I write down the password and put it in a sealed envelope which he gave to the support teacher to file safely. He also asked me to write down step-by-step the retrieval procedure in case it was necessary again in the future.

This setting up of a simple failsafe system was, to me, impressive, and an indication that he was demonstrating a sense of independence that is typical of bush kids.

I'm privileged to be able to work with these kids, their schools and parents. It's also great fun.

Hugh White - Without America

Hugh White is always provocative, and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to criticising current defence policy. In 1995, he was appo...