Welcome Home

by Bob Whittaker

Editor’s Note:
This story is the second extract from the book ‘Jellybeans in the Jungle’ by Bob Whittaker.

The first article, ‘Call Up and Rookie Training’ can be viewed by clicking here.

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We boarded the Qantas 707 at Tan Son Nhut on December 10th to fly home. The atmosphere on board was electric with the tension generated by a hundred war-weary Diggers focused on getting out of the country as soon as possible.

Welcome Home -

Freedom Bird – VH-EAA City of Toowoomba

Travelling on my flight was a large group of my fellow 15th Intake39 Nashos, just as happy as I was to be heading home in one piece.

The aircraft was very different from the choppers and Caribou that comprised our routine transport in country. Coincidentally, it was called “City of Toowoomba” – the city of my birth – and had cabin crew (all male), and what seemed initially to be an endless supply of VB. We left the tarmac after an apparently interminable take-off run, and the coastline of South Vietnam quickly disappeared from view. This generated a round of applause from all on board, and the good-humoured cabin crew quickly passed around the beer.

Strangely, I didn’t feel much like drinking, as I preferred to savour the immense feeling of euphoria generated by the reality of leaving the army and South Vietnam behind. The majority of my comrades, many of whom became more than a little plastered before too long, didn’t appear to share my sentiments.

By the time we reached the coast north of Darwin hours later, most were sleeping.
The captain announced the arrival of the Australian coastline, and those sleeping awoke to loud applause. We refuelled in Darwin, where the atmosphere was just as humid as Vietnam. For me, it didn’t feel like home.

The Darwin-Sydney flight was long and boring, and the beer was no longer available. We were told that we had consumed every drop. Maybe the flight crew felt an obligation to deliver their passengers in a reasonable state on arrival, and the grog was cut off accordingly. As it was, we were a motley crew, dressed in civvies for the occasion.

It was easy to develop the perception that we were being brought home in secret, almost in shame, as we arrived at three in the morning with no fanfare at all. There was certainly no brass band.

Our landing in Sydney was one of the roughest I can recall in many years of air travel, but it was greeted with loud and prolonged cheering. I got the impression that even if we had come in undercarriage up, and had to slide down the escape chutes, the applause would have been just as vociferous.

There was a long delay through customs, as apparently one or two foolish Diggers tried to import disassembled AK47s40 with their luggage.

When we finally emerged, three of us hailed a cab and asked the driver to take us to the motel that I had booked through my parents. What followed was my first surprise – the cabbie simply refused to take us, saying it was out of his area. Appealing to his better nature by pointing out that we were soldiers returning from a tour of duty in South Vietnam cut absolutely no ice at all. He took us to a different motel, where he seemed to have some kind of enduring relationship with the proprietor.

This was my small introduction to the reality of how those at home viewed our service. To be honest, I had no illusions about how we would be received, but expected basic courtesy. Many of my mates, however, were expecting to be treated like conquering heroes.

This was the first of many incidents and left me initially nonplussed, but later with a feeling of anger. My parents lost their booking deposit, but this was the least of their worries – they were just happy to see me home.

The army had issued me with rail vouchers that would have seen me board the Brisbane Limited to get home, but I had to pay the extra for a flight to Brisbane.

It seemed ironic to me that they had been prepared to charter a flight to take me from Brisbane to Williamtown two years ago at the beginning of my army training, but were not prepared to pay for a flight home after twelve months of active service. Perhaps it was an accurate indication of our worth now we were no longer useful, so the least possible amount of money was going to be spent on us.
My brother met me at the airport and drove me straight to Texas, to be reunited with the rest of my family. That evening my father and brother took me to the local golf club for a celebratory drink.

The few locals present greeted me with indifference. Vietnam for them was on another planet. Discussing my experience was a complete waste of time, as the ignorance displayed made it almost impossible to remain civil. This was the beginning of a period when I began to deny the experience, and simply chose not to mention Vietnam. It lasted until 1987.

I had to report to Northern Command at Enoggera for my army discharge, although, to my way of thinking, I had left the army when I handed in my SLR at Nui Dat. In fact, not carrying a weapon made me feel uneasy, always looking for a non-existent rifle whenever I went out somewhere. I remember having a recurrent dream for years after getting home about getting into very serious trouble as a result of losing my rifle. Another intrusive dream that persisted for years had me called up a second time.

Marching out from Enoggera was a non-event. We were given a basic medical, handed in our kit, and were out the gate in the space of one day.

My discharge certificate arrived months later in the mail. The political tide had turned, and we were left with the impression that we were an embarrassment to the country and the government.

Our use-by date had expired.

Whilst in Vietnam, my father had regularly sent me copies of the Education Office Gazette, mainly, I believe, to maintain my morale. I had seen an advertisement for teachers in special schools, and had applied whilst in country. I didn’t discover until my RTA that I had been successful, and had been appointed to the State School for Spastic Children in New Farm.

Welcome Home -

Some of my class at New Farm – 1971

My army DFRB41 had not come through at the time of my taking up duty in my new job. I had just bought a car, paid a bond on a flat, and was broke. To my dismay, my first pay cheque didn’t turn up, as the Education Department had temporarily lost my records. I phoned the Queensland Teachers Union, who weren’t at all interested in helping when they heard that I had just returned from Vietnam. Fortunately, my principal came to my aid, and pestered the central office pay section without mercy until a special manual cheque was made up which got me out of trouble.

Settling back into civilian life was not particularly difficult for me, as my new career working with students with disabilities presented me with daily challenges that concentrated my mind wonderfully.
Being thrown in at the deep end of teaching helped me to rehabilitate quickly from Vietnam. Later I discovered that many of my comrades weren’t so fortunate.

My new job occupied all my time and energy. I found the work fulfilling and enjoyable, and felt that I was doing something useful. I saw the previous two years in the army as precious time wasted.

Vietnam was best ignored, forgotten and left behind. I was lucky to have Geoffrey Swan OAM as my principal. He was passionate about students with disabilities, a great leader, and encouraging when I needed it. He led a team of dedicated and supportive teachers.

It was fortunate that I’d taken up teaching kids with disabilities. It was clearly possible to make a positive difference to their lives. The work provided an opportunity for me to return something useful to the community, in contrast to participating unwillingly in the doubtful and destructive enterprise of military service. In addition, the atmosphere at the school (one of compassion and caring) was so different from what I had experienced during the previous two years that I felt as if I had wandered into another world. As well as all of that, there were many attractive young women working at the school which added (a little) to the appeal.

Looking back, I understand now that I was subconsciously struggling to make sense of my sojourn in Vietnam, and was haunted by the notion that I had participated in a sad and absurd conflict, which was never likely to have a good outcome either for myself, or the country I had fought in. Part of my unease grew out of an idea that I had compromised my principles, by participating in an institutional act of evil. If I had been fair dinkum, I would have resisted call-up, and lived with the consequences but I had made a pragmatic, if unprincipled, decision to go along with it. I decided I would never again compromise my beliefs. To hell with pragmatism.

At that stage, my challenges in adapting to Civvie Street were relatively trivial. One of my biggest problems was giving up smoking. I had been a non-smoker on call-up, but took it up in-country as we were given cartons of cigarettes on resupply. We were even given time to smoke when on patrol – the accepted sign for a five-minute break was putting two fingers together holding an imaginary cigarette as if you were smoking.

Back in the real world I finally managed to quit by refusing to buy cigarettes, and making myself unpopular by smoking OPs (Other People’s cigarettes).

Eventually the social pressure did the trick.

Because the State School for Spastic Children had a deservedly great reputation and was using interesting methods, we often had visitors who were conducted through the school. On one of those visits, early in my first year at the school, a group of teachers undergoing in-service training came into my classroom. In discussion, one of the young women in the group asked me what I had been doing before I was appointed to the school. Without thinking, I told her that I had been fighting in South Vietnam. Her reaction floored me: She said, “You’ve gone from creating spastics to teaching them.”

That was very difficult to stomach. I walked away to avoid saying something that I would later regret. She had attacked me in a tender spot, and homed in on self-doubts about my participation in the war. Having said that, I couldn’t swallow her transfer of responsibility for the war on to the conscripts. The Australian community was happy to elect a government that sent nineteen year-olds to war. The electors had a choice with no real consequences, but as far as I was concerned, they fudged their choice out of indifference or disregard. We had the option of two year’s military service, or three years in jail – a stark example of Buckley s choice.

I did feel angry when I was faced with this kind of reaction from many who had opposed the war, but my anger was not directed towards them. They were, at least, honest in their convictions.

Any resentment was directed towards the politicians who sent us to war and then dropped us like hot potatoes when the tide of public opinion turned. Many Vietnam veterans felt this anger when they returned home, faced with indifference and hostility from a community they believed owed them gratitude. Many turned the anger and bitterness inward and destroyed themselves and their families in the process.

I was fortunate, as I had no illusions whatever about what we were doing. I understood the political realities, and was interested only in keeping my mates and myself alive. Getting home in one piece was reward enough for me. The only medal I coveted was the Returned from Active Service badge.

Partly driven by that anger, I became politically active, participating in the protests against the Springbok Rugby tour in 1971. I was in the crowd during the infamous police charge, but avoided arrest.

That activity was driven by my new found resolve to never again compromise my beliefs. In 1975, a federal election was held after Gough Whitlam’s dismissal. It was a bitter and divisive campaign, and echoes of the Vietnam era emerged. Saigon had fallen on April 30, 1975, which opened old wounds for many Vietnam veterans. In the eyes of many, we had now become “losers”, despite the fact that the Australian war had ended three years earlier, and Phuoc Tuy was more secure than it had been for years before the Australians arrived.

On December 13th, my father and I were queuing to vote at Newmarket State School in Brisbane. Approaching the booth we were met by a Liberal booth worker who shoved a “how-to-vote” card under my nose. My dad, who was never backward when it came to political opinion, looked this fellow in the eye and said, “You’re wasting your time with him, mate. He’s a Vietnam veteran and wouldn’t vote for your lot.”

The response was interesting. “He wasn’t fighting for me, and anyway, you Vietnam veterans are a bunch of losers.”

My dad looked as if he was about to punch him, so I grabbed his arm and moved him down the queue before any damage was done. We had obviously been abandoned when a worker belonging to the party that sent us to the war disowned that commitment.

Over the years, I was able to forge a career in the education of students with disabilities. In 1972, I took advantage of a rehabilitation fellowship to attend the University of Queensland full time for a year, which gave me a flying start to my academic career. Studying full-time at first year level with a bunch of eighteen-year-olds, generally lacking the life experience that I had gathered, was great fun.

I managed straight distinctions in all of my subjects because I treated the course as a full-time job and was disciplined and well-organised, something learned in the army. During the next ten years, I completed two degrees (Education and Arts) and a post-graduate qualification in Special Education which stood me in good stead in my career.

Decades later, in March 2003, the Coalition government of the day conducted presentations of the National Service medal in cities and towns across the country. At the time, I saw it as a cynical exercise in drumming up support for Australia s commitment of troops to Iraq. The notion of waiting until nearly forty years after the event to publicly present a medal to someone who had been conscripted to fight in an unpopular war had a particularly offensive side.

I had no choice in 1970 but I did now. It seemed hypocritical to me that my National Service had suddenly become important enough to be publicly recognized after it had been ignored for all those years. I determined to make sure that I wasn’t going to be used again.

I phoned the local paper (the Toowoomba Chronicle) and told them that I was prepared to publicly refuse my medal. They obliged by having a photographer in the right place at the right time, and the result was a story in the paper which to my satisfaction, overwhelmed the spin that the official press release provided. I was worried about causing offence to the other Nashos presented with their medals on the day, but received a number of phone calls congratulating me on my gesture, and the letters to the editor in the local paper ran three to one in my favour.

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Refusing National Service medal 2003. (Photo courtesy Toowoomba Chronicle).

Unfortunate pollie is Ian Macfarlane

I felt some sympathy for the local federal member, Ian McFarlane, who not long before this had presented my school with a new national flag which I had accepted from him as principal. He was surprised, I’m sure, to be left holding the medal, but managed it with good grace.

If we’d had an opportunity to chat, and of course we didn’t, I would have asked Ian to take a message to the Prime Minister from an ex-conscript. I would have suggested that before he committed to any future conflict, he should consult the victims of war, the soldiers who have returned and the relatives of any civilian casualties, and ask them for an opinion regarding the advisability of the exercise.

We could also have chatted about absurdity.

39. National service ballots generated intakes. I was in the 15th Intake
40. Automatic rifle used by the Viet Cong
41. Defence Force Retirement Benefit – military superannuation.

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Frank Cordingley
Frank Cordingley
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