We visited Mildura recently. It is located on the banks of the magnificent Murray River. The population of the region is around 60,000. Mildura is known for its grapes, citrus fruit, almonds, olives and countless varieties of vegetables. Agriculture is essential to the prosperity of the district.
The Mildura Arts Centre was hosting the exhibition ‘Behind the Wire”, featuring images and stories of Vietnam War Veterans. It had been on display at the Shrine of Remembrance Melbourne before. It focuses on the veterans, their jobs and their experiences, in their words.
I am always unsettled by anything to do with the Vietnam War. I feel uncomfortable and embarrassed by the sight of a veteran. It has to do with guilt. I participated in a lottery I didn’t want to enter and I won. It seemed unjust and irresponsible that some of my peer group should be arbitrarily chosen to fight the Viet Cong in the jungles of Vietnam while the rest of us were getting on with our lives in Australia.
The National Service Scheme operated from November 1964 to December 1972. It was based on a birthday ballot of 20-year-old men who had registered with the Department of Labour and National Service. Those chosen by ballot were called up to perform two years’ continuous full-time service in the Regular Army Supplement, followed by three years’ part-time service in the Regular Army Reserve. The scheme was designed to create an army strength of 40,000 full-time soldiers. Of the hundreds of thousands of twenty-year-olds who registered, 63,735 national servicemen served in the Army and 15,381 served in Vietnam. Some 200 national servicemen lost their lives in Vietnam.
I came across the story of Kevin Borger, born 1946. He served in Vietnam as a Forward Scout and a Rifleman between May 1966 and May 1967.
Here is something he wrote of the horror and uncertainty of war. He says,
The first day on patrol, Errol Noack was standing alongside me, asking about water sterilisation tablets. I heard this zip of rounds zinging through the air. My mate John O’Callaghan called out to me to hit the deck. I recall the thud as the bullet hit Errol. He was lying behind me, crying and saying his Hail Marys. He was the first National Serviceman to be killed in Vietnam.
Borger felt that he had drawn the fire as he had wrapped a sweat rag around his head after losing his hat, giving the appearance of a Viet Cong. The tragedy is that the shot was fired, not by the enemy, but by one of our own companies. It was a case of mistaken identity, a demonstration of the craziness of war.
On his return to Australia, Borger encountered further difficulties. He writes,
When I came home I struggled for quite a while. At night I sat up in bed; I think I was afraid of death. I always thought there was someone coming through my window. I was starting to have palpitations and there were days I couldn’t get out of bed. I had a problem of reconnecting with my old friends. I felt embarrassed about the war. The more I read about it, the more bitter I felt. It was devastating when we lost the war.
There was a real chance at that time of me committing suicide – I felt that bad about myself. I sought help from a mate in the Vietnam Veterans Federation and started to get some psychiatric treatment. That sort of changed my life.
The long-term health consequences of those who served in Vietnam have been enormous. Many veterans live with a physical disability, health problems related to the chemical exposure and varying degrees of psychological damage in the form of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Many of the men became emotionally detached from their lives. They felt they could not love or show affection to their wives and children, even years after the war was over.
Thus far there has been limited research into suicide mortality among individuals who have left the Australian Defence Force. What researchers have found is an increased risk of suicidality (i.e. thoughts about suicide, plans and attempts), among ex-serving personnel compared with the general population. But, death rates among veterans from suicide were not significantly higher when compared with those of non-veterans. A recent study by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs suggested this was trending upwards.
But, on average, between the years 1988 and 1997, children of Vietnam veterans committed suicide at a rate three times higher than children in the general population.
This tragic outcome may be explained by the fact that the physical and mental health problems experienced by veterans, coupled with the negative health consequences of service in Vietnam has a flow on effect, touching partners, children and even grandchildren.
Former Chief of Army Peter Leahy acknowledges the size of the problem. He says,
The number of suicides and the incidence of despair, depression and broken lives among our veteran community (and their families) is a national shame.