Saturday, 23 October 2010

Reflections on Independence

There are a few kids on my caseload with Spina Bifida.

This used to be a relatively common congenital malformation, but is becoming less so possibly because of the use of folate.

One of these kids attends a very remote school, and I have been supporting him there since 2005. As a consequence, I've become very familiar with the barriers to independence that his disability confers - and until recently was feeling pretty useless in terms of contributing to his quality of school life.

This was because he was not independent in terms of self-care.

Generally, Spina Bifida results in incontinence. Every case is different, but it's always a problem. With this boy, bowel continence was well-managed at home, but he needed to be catheterised at school to ensure that his bladder remained healthy. Bladder infections are common with this disorder, and if the bladder isn't completely voided, infections can develop which can make life very difficult for both child and carer.

With this lad, an elderly relative would drive to school daily and perform the catheterisation. My experience with these kids has been that by the time they reach upper primary level, they have usually learned to manage the process (called CISC*) themselves.

I therefore set up a training programme for this boy and his male teacher aide so that over time, he would learn to be independent. Trouble was, he was unwilling to be trained. Despite flying a properly certified nurse trainer out a number of times, and many discussions with both him and his relative, no progress was made.

This went on over a number of years, the aide (who was the only constant staff member) was becoming more and more frustrated, and I was feeling totally useless. This frustration was felt less by both the special needs teacher and his class teacher, as they generally changed every year, because of the rapid staff turnover typical of remote schools.

Problem was, of course, that he was completely comfortable with the arrangement.  He wasn't embarrassed by his relative coming up to school, as he's never known anything else. This relative (who never seemed to get ill) was a caring person, so prepared to help so long as it was necessary.

I was beginning to wonder how this arrangement would operate once puberty arrived or the elderly relative became infirm.

Last week an email arrived from the special needs teacher. She told me he was now totally independent with the process, and the elderly relative no longer was needed at school.

What had changed?

The turning point was his decision that he would manage it himself. He learned the process in about a week once he'd made that decision.

How had he come to that decision? The breakthrough was his going on a camp on the coast with a group of boys with Spina Bifida his own age. At this camp he saw others with the same problem managing it independently. The penny dropped.

Thinking about it, this was fairly easy to understand. Because of his isolation, he'd simply never met anyone his age with Spina Bifida before, so he had no reference point. I guess peer pressure may have had something to do with it.

His attendance at the camp was organised by the local disability services coordinator - a wise Murri bloke with a very easy going manner, and a valuable talent for cutting through bureaucracy. I've known him since 2005, and he's one of the quiet achievers in the game.

I phoned him yesterday to thank him for helping to change this lad's life for the better. He sounded a bit embarrassed - I don't think anyone's ever done that before.

He mumbled something about being a member of a team, and then said  - "Nothing I did, brother - just connected all the bits together".

He told me he now has another problem - the elderly relative is feeling a bit unnecessary, and he's talking to her a lot. I know the feeling - it happened to me when the youngest of our four left home….

*Clean Intermittent Self Catheterisation

Thursday, 21 October 2010


Our military commitment to Afghanistan bothers me.

It doesn't seem to bother many Australians. You don't hear it discussed at barbeques. It's rarely on the front page, with the consistent exception of blanket reporting of the repatriation and funerals of the diggers killed there.

There have been 21 so far.

And this is at the heart of the issue. If our young men in uniform are dying there, they need to have the will and the commitment of the nation behind them. Put crudely, I don't see that.

Apart from what the polls tell us - I don't see anyone marching on the streets supporting them. I also don't see anyone demonstrating against the notion that we should be there.

This is a major difference from Vietnam. The year I was there (1970) saw the biggest marches in Australian history at the Moratoriums.
Obviously, Vietnam veterans don't look back on this with any fondness, but I sometimes wonder whether indifference is any better than outright opposition. At least those opposing the war had thought about it.

What is happening now looks very much like blind indifference. Put simply, most Australians really don't give a stuff.

I guess back in 1970, there was always the chance that you'd be "called up" or someone you knew, or your brother or son could be involved for no better reason than his birthday fell on a particular date. I remember sitting and freezing behind an M60 at 3am during an exercise back of Cambelltown in winter 1969, looking at the lights of the city and seething about all the 20 year-olds tucked up warmly in their beds.

That situation did not brook indifference in the Nasho concerned, or the family involved.

Perhaps we need something to happen that won't brook indifference about Afghanistan.

How about increasing the pay of every soldier on operational duty in Afghanistan to the level of a federal backbencher? After all, we keep hearing from both sides of politics how vital their involvement is to national security. Let's put a price on our security. The extra costs incurred could be recovered by an Afghanistan levy paid as a surcharge on income tax. That would get some kind of reaction fairly swiftly.

Alternatively, the banks could also be levied by imposing a super profits tax. They've done very well in this country as a result of being protected by the government during the global financial crisis. Sounds like fair dues to me.

Another option would be to offer free housing to families of deployed soldiers and free education vouchers to their children.

None of this will ever happen, of course. As soon as there is any move to share the financial burden across the community, the various lobby groups will be up in arms, and the politicians will turn to water. We are happy to endure causalities providing there are enough photo ops for the PM and the leader of the opposition, but the hip pocket is sacred.

Sorry to sound cynical but am I right or am I right?

Our diggers deserve better than this.

In terms of the reasons behind the current deployment - I agree with Andrew Wilkie in that these reasons have passed their use by date. Al Qaeda is quiescent in Afghanistan. The problem has moved across the border into Pakistan. In fact, there is a very strong argument that our continuing presence increases the risk of home-grown terrorism.

Sure, women are badly treated in Afghanistan. The same is the case in some parts of Somalia, and in all of Saudi Arabia. I don't hear any talk of deployments in these countries.

The other reason given for our continued deployment is to maintain faith in our alliances. This means, of course, that when the Americans move - we follow. That worked a treat in Vietnam - didn't it?

The Kiwis had the courage to stand up to the Americans over the nuclear ships issue, and after all the posturing was over (on both sides) nothing really changed. The Americans will support us if it's in their interest, not because of history. The alliance has more to do with geography than history.

Unless Australia is towed thousands of kilometres away from its current location, geography is a constant.

The wash-up, for me, at least, is we should stay until it's over, but only if the whole nation is behind it. In the past I've personally seen too much anguish and sorrow caused both here and in the country concerned (in the case of Vietnam) for any overseas deployment to be half-hearted.

The ultimate commitment of the diggers has to be matched at home; otherwise they are betrayed by their country each and every day they are deployed. Vietnam taught us that - if it taught us nothing else.  

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Pollies flogging shoes???

This might have been forgivable on Fox - but the ABC?


They fixed it - eventually.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010


I've always had a soft spot for Caribou.

The aircraft, that is - not the Rangifer tarandus.

It's probably because I've always associated them with getting out of undesirable places - whether it was a bush strip in the Putty Mountains in sleet during a training exercise in July 1969, or travelling from Nui Dat to Ton Son Nhut in November 1970 on my way to a Saigon Guard.

Strangely enough, it wasn't a Caribou that flew me to Saigon to link up with my RTA flight in December 1970. That aircraft was a clapped-out Thai Air Force C-123 pictured here.

Visiting the Army Aviation museum at Oakey last weekend triggered a few memories about Caribou in particular and military aircraft in general. Again strangely, the last military aircraft I travelled in was a RAAF C-130E during the pilots' strike in 1989.

At that time I was a school principal in Townsville, and booked to Travel on Ansett to a conference in Brisbane. Bob Hawke brought the RAAF in, and the aircraft supplied was a Herc.

My colleagues and I were queuing up with our boarding passes to walk up the cargo ramp when I noticed our position in the queue. If you've ever travelled on a Herc you'll remember that you sit in four rows along rather than across the aircraft. Each of the outside rows has its back to the fuselage. About a third of the way along the aircraft, the undercarriage bays intrude narrowing the fuselage and the people sitting in the outside rows are forced to sit with their knees interlocked with those in the rows opposite.

Given that there weren't any people I would have been happy to share my personal space with for two hours or so, (good-looking women for example), I elected to give up my place, and move back down the queue to ensure a more comfortable flight. I tried to explain what I was doing to my colleagues, but they didn't understand or follow my example. By the time we got to Brisbane, they'd understood.

Anyway, back to Caribou.

I've dug up a pic I took at Rockhampton airport in 1969 when deployed to Shoalwater bay. The Caribou we flew in is on the tarmac, but I can't remember whether we were going out or coming back.

I have a nerdy habit of noting the buzz numbers of the aircraft I fly in. At Oakey on Sunday, I photographed a Caribou (A4-234). It looked familiar, although it didn't have the Wallaby Airlines logo on the tail. The excellent reference Dakota, Hercules and Caribou by Stewart Wilson shows that 234 was deployed in Vietnam from May 1970 until February 1972, so it's possible that it was the aircraft that took me to my Saigon guard.

One Caribou looks much the same as another, of course, and service aircraft are like grandfather's axe, so who knows if it was or not, and if so how many bits were original. What is confusing is that there were a few aircraft with the Wallaby logo on the tail, but Wilson's book shows that some of them were never in Vietnam. They've all had a few coats of paint since those days, so livery is probably an unreliable indicator of history.

Anyway, flying in a Caribou is a unique experience. They're draughty, but in Vietnam the draughts were a bonus. The big Pratt and Whitneys absolutely bellow on takeoff, and also on reverse pitch on landing. You can't really conduct a conversation, even when cruising. They weren't uncomfortable.

Pictured (courtesy of Seven in Seventy) is a platoon emplaning in a Caribou in July 1969 during a training exercise in the high range area. Note the blank firing devices on the rifles.

They (the aircraft - not the rifles) were an anachronism even when first acquired, because of the piston engines, and maintaining these engines became a major issue towards the end of their service. Parts were like hen's teeth. There was a move in the mid eighties to re-engine them with turboprops, but in the end it came to nothing.  

The idea was resurrected again in 1995, but again wasn't pursued. 

So there are no more of these old beasts flying in Australia. They were often referred to as "10000 pop-rivets flying in formation".

Monday, 18 October 2010

Plains, Planes and a Pub

On Sunday 17th October, intrepid members of the Darling Downs Chapter set out to explore country backroads, aviation history, country pub hospitality and exercise their brain cells on a run to Brooksead via Oakey and Pittsworth.

I say "intrepid" because winter had returned with a vengeance and some members wimped it and travelled with tops up. Those who didn't are probably by now nursing various levels of hypothermia.

The convoy (mostly silver NBs with a sprinkling of NCs) left Toowoomba at three minute intervals, armed with a carefully crafted set of questions to be answered, in the first instance, on the way to the Museum of Australian Army Flying at Oakey and then on to Brookstead via Pittsworth.


These same questions were the cause of many domestics and plenty of colourful language for the rest of the day. We discovered, for instance, that odometers in MX5s record distance travelled irrespective of direction (forward or reverse) and this served to confuse and confound, given the amount of backing-up required to catch up on missed signs, and the fact that accurate odometers readings were vital to avoid getting lost.

Remember, we weren't in convoy - it's amazing how thoroughly you can get lost in three minutes.

The Aviation museum provided a dose of nostalgia for the ex-Nashos in our group. The aircraft have aged better than these same ex-Nashos. It's worth noting that if you have a spare $40000 you can buy one of the nine Caribou transport aircraft mothballed beside the museum.

After a warming coffee at the museum, and a queue at the toilets (there was a seniors tour bus there at the same time) we set off for Brookstead via Pittsworth.

More bad language and backing-up followed, involving a junkyard with Datsun 120Ys, a mysterious mural and badly-positioned road signs. Nothing daunted, we arrived at the Brookstead pub where the beer was cold and the hospitality country-friendly.

Over lunch, the questionnaire was scored. The winners were from Brisbane - so much for "local knowledge". The planners did a good job, and we all know a lot more about that particular neck of the woods.

As we left the pub one of the locals drinking on the patio out front requested a wheelie. Someone should have explained to him that MX5 owners are people of taste and refinement.

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...