LEST WE FORGET
It's more than 50 years since Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war began, and the effects of the war are still keenly felt by veterans who fought in what became an incredibly unpopular conflict.
Thankfully, Vietnam veterans now take their rightful place in Anzac marches and memorials which also extends to those who fought in Korean, Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Indeed, Dee Why RSL has a Veteran Advisory Unit where any veteran from recent conflicts can get advice and support.
Northern Beaches resident, Sean Rout, who fought in Vietnam and is now on the Harbord RSL Sub Branch committee and is the lead organiser of the Soldiers Ave stakeholder group in Freshwater, is very involved in Anzac Day ceremonies.
Returning to Vietnam a few years ago was a watershed moment for Mr Rout, "I got the guts to go back to Vietnam in 2014," he said. I went to Hanoi to visit a friend who helped me go back to both North and South Vietnam. By chance I met a son of a South Vietnam soldier we fought with, he's now dead, and we had a good reception; especially in the South.
"I couldn't talk like this if I hadn't done that.”
Mr Rout was called up as a National Serviceman in mid-1970. He went through his three months' training then was allocated to the Third Battalion RAR as a rifleman. His battalion was deployed to Vietnam from Adelaide on the HMAS Sydney. Mr Rout remembers this as a good boat trip: "There were about 800 soldiers on board and we enjoyed our daily exercises and had good food. I was lucky because I didn't get seasick like a few others, so when we were offered our one beer ration each night I'd be able to get more than just the one can from mates that were too sick to drink theirs," he says.
"We arrived at Vung Tau Harbour Vietnam in early February of 1971. The whole battalion was flown from the ship in groups by helicopter to our base camp at Nui Dat, which was in a rubber plantation. You could hear the rain coming before it got to you.
"I was a rifleman and somehow ended up carrying a M79 gun, which is basically a shotgun using high explosive and smoke shells, which I was good at. We would go on patrols from Nui Dat mostly via helicopter in company or platoon strength to whichever place intelligence had determined the enemy were. The longest we were out on patrol, away from camp was seven weeks and this is when many casualties occurred.
"We'd have a couple of days' rest back at base betore we'd be sent out again," he says.
"The battalion suffered 27 wounded and four killed during the deployment. This haunts me to this day. And the guys before us had it much tougher than us," Mr Rout reflects. "One thing people don't realise is when we were out on patrol we'd receive food re-supplies and letters from home, via helicopter. In order to protect ourselves, and our families back at home, we'd need to quickly read our letters and gather our supplies then burn and bury our letters and move hurriedly from the helicopter landing zone. I remember this vividly as one minute you'd be reading news from home and the next you'd have to burn it get away from the Landing Zone as quickly as we could."
On reflecting what it was like to return home, Mr Rout says, "During my service I made life-long friends and we meet up every ANZAC day."
"We went did our duty and really just found ourselves trying to survive. When we came back we were treated rather harshly, including by the RSL.The battalion marched in Adelaide when we came back from the war and we were booed and called many names.
"At first we'd just watch the ANZAC service on television for years after, but then a good friend from Adelaide said we should get Involved and so we did."
Thankfully the attitude of the RSL has now changed a lot. "A lot of the guys that didn't acknowledge us are no longer there. Now all veterans are acknowledged, Including those from the Korean, Afghanistan and Iraq wars; and they really need support, some of them have been on four or five tours," he says.
"This years ANZAC day will probably be a very busy day for me, I'll be involved in the march at Harbord Diggers and the Jacka Park service in Freshwater on Sunday 17 April. I'll meet a couple of old mates, have a chat and I'll make an effort to talk to the new, young veterans; both women and men. Mateship is the cornerstone.
When you're in the jungle, you're paired up with a buddy and you ensure you protect each other, you're constantly on the lookout for your mate and this continues when you're back home."
Another resident, Jim Slavin, who also fought in Vietnam, says it was very difficult returning to Australia because there was "no attempt" to help people re-adjust or provide counselling or coping mechanisms for the trauma many had gone through.
"I literally came from the jungle and in two weeks was back teaching in a classroom on the Northern Beaches..."
Mr Slavin says. "I think I still had the leech bites on my legs and many other service personnel had significant medical issues from their time away. You would go clown to the pub and people would say 'where have you been?' and you would be too afraid to tell anyone because you did not know how they would react.”
Mr Slavin says the government still may not have learnt from the experiences of the Vietnam veterans 50 years ago.
"The men and women coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq are still coming home and having a hard time with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," he says, adding that over the years, the Vietnam Veterans, Peacekeepers and Peacemakers Association has done a wonderful job supporting all the returning servicemen and women and helping them with personal and mental health issues