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Once We Were Soldiers

 

 


Australian infantryman's combat badge
My Vietnam Experience
A LIFE AFTER TO NATIONAL SERVICE

© Ian McDougall
RAAMC
5RAR 1st Tour
Author: Ian McDougal


I was raised in a family in which war service was held in high regard. I can recall my father on many occasions talking about how the Australian soldier was superior to others in both World Wars because of the fact that they were all volunteers. My father had fought in WW2 in the Pacific, and grand-father in WW1 in France, both with the AIF.

I had a close group of friends with whom I enjoyed outings, going bush, dancing, etc. I consider I was happy at that time of my life, and was also a very sound sleeper, and seldom drank alcohol.

I was called up for National Service on 1 July 1965 - the first intake.

SERVICE WITHIN AUSTRALIA

I underwent Basic and Medical Corps training in Victoria, and was then posted to a medical unit in New South Wales. I applied for several courses, and was then sent on a six week Jungle Training/Battle Efficiency Course at Canungra in Queensland. As soon as I returned from this course, I was posted to a heavy artillery unit at Holsworthy as their medic ― a corporal’s posting. As such, I helped to medically prepare members of other batteries for Vietnam service.

I fronted superior officers on several occasions requesting transfer to a Vietnam bound unit to no avail. I then wrote (on 18 April 1966) personally to the Director of Army Medical Services requesting such transfer. The result ― I was suddenly transferred to the Fifth (infantry) Battalion (5RAR), also at Holsworthy. One of the first groups of the Battalion had been involved in a bus accident on their way to the airport for embarkation. One of the injured was a medic, so the authorities were searching for another urgently who had undertaken jungle training. I spent part of one day at 5RAR and was then sent on three days pre-embarkation leave. About a week later, I arrived in South Vietnam ― 12 May 1966.

SERVICE IN VIETNAM

Being a late joiner to the Battalion was a real culture shock. I quickly found that my training did not prepare me for how the infantry actually did things. I had never worked with infantry before. One example was that on the first occasion when I dug my overnight fighting pit, I sited it vertically to the unit’s perimeter, whereas it should have been parallel. Another example was when I accompanied a wounded soldier (rendering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to him) in a personnel carrier from my unit (on the move) to another area. I personally do not think he would have survived if I hadn't, but I received a severe dressing down from a major for leaving my group without permission. I initially knew very few of the 5RAR personnel, and experienced some confusion learning where I fitted in and what my duties were. Although I had done well during my corps training, I had had no actual experience, and had not been trained for many things I was later given to do, such as suturing minor wounds, administering morphine and blood albumin.

Even some of my basic equipment was not right. An example of this was that I had not been issued with the GP boots that were standard for the Vietnam Campaign. For the first couple of weeks, I wore the boots (with flat soles) and gaiters that I had used in Australia, and was then issued with canvas boots similar to those that had been used during the Malayan Emergency. I experienced several foot problems, including ingrowing toenails, and did not receive my first pair of GP boots, with their protective steel sole insert, until about my sixth week in country. I can recall great personal relief at this time as I had been somewhat worried about stepping onto a punji trap - my canvas boots would have provided no protection whatever.

As the junior medic (all others had been with 5RAR for some time, were somewhat older than me, and were substantive corporals - I was a private but started receiving corporals pay), I was initially attached to Battalion Headquarters (BHQ), usually assisting the Regimental Medical Officer (RMO), but for the first nine months I was treated as the relief medic transferring from Company to Company as the need arose, and I worked with every Company in the Battalion. Although I was the obvious choice for this task, I felt that I did not belong anywhere, and found it quite unsettling, and had no regular friends. Later when I went on my first five day period of leave to Hong Kong, I had no friends to go with and, apart from shopping, did not enjoy this leave at all. Also, from all the movement to and fro between the Companies, I probably experienced more time away from base than most of the infantry themselves (as did probably all the Company medics).

After some months, when our base at Nui Dat had been set up, I was promoted to corporal on the basis of my medical posting. As far as I am aware, I was the only national serviceman in the Battalion who did reach that rank. This really brought heat on me from a couple of regular army personnel at BHQ who obviously did not believe that anyone should be so promoted, and from then onwards I always felt uncomfortable when attached to BHQ. This factor became even worse when I attended a military law course for NCO'S at BHQ, and passed in second place, outscoring all of the BHQ members.

One of my first operational duties, after 5RAR left Vung Tau to open up our Nui Dat base area, was to dig up fresh graves found while on patrol (with an infantry section on guard around me) to ensure the bodies were not those of missing USA soldiers. This happened on several occasions, and nothing I had ever done prepared me for this experience. I can clearly recall the shock the first time when my shovel blade bit into rotting flesh, the smell when the head and torso was uncovered, and my bouts of dry retching.

Life out on patrol did not worry me unduly. I had always loved camping and outdoor life, and probably coped better in this regard than many of those about me. I was however petrified of mines and had several experiences where mines were found or I treated individuals injured by them. One thing I found rather difficult to cope with was the pitch black nights when the overhead canopy blocked out all star and moon light. This was a personal fear I never really overcame, and I had one really traumatic experience when I was performing sentry duty - what I took to be a person coming towards me smoking a cigarette turned out to be a fire fly.

During the first few months, we often had to stand-to for extended periods of time to ward of expected attacks which never came as such. On some of these earlier occasions, the stand-to was on a 50% basis, which meant we received little sleep. One real fear I had on these occasions was that I would go to sleep, the penalty for which was harsh. I was usually detailed during the night for either a period of machine gun or radio sentry duty. I would always try to get the former as I had never received any training on radio procedures or codes, and felt very uncomfortable undertaking this duty, even though it was always under cover and a far more comfortable duty than spending hours on a machine gun. During the Battle of Long Tan (then with C Company which was doing outpost duty at a village north of Nui Dat), I spent several hours that night on radio duty. I listened to some of that battle, absolutely petrified that I would somehow "cock-up" on the radio.

On several occasions I was in the vicinity of incoming small arms fire, and on one occasion underwent a short mortar attack, but the really traumatic experience of that kind for me occurred on another operation. I was with BHQ and the Battalion was assaulting the Nui Tai Vai hills. On our approach, the company in front took some casualties from mines. When we were part way up a track, a platoon in front came under fire from some caves overlooking the track. One soldier was killed and several wounded. Luckily we found one mine (wired mortar bomb) on the track right where we were waiting before anyone triggered it. Later that day, we proceeded up past the caves and camped above them near a pagoda.

Either the next day or the one after that, I was detailed to accompany an infantry assault (by the Battalion’s Assault Pioneers) on the caves. The section I was with took up position on high ground to the left of the caves (as I was moving into position, I found a hidden cache which later proved to be over 100lb of Chinese explosives). When everyone was in position, the assault was commenced with two soldiers armed with back-pack flame throwers. As they approached the caves, the front man tripped a mine, and both were wounded. Where I was, I heard the explosion and the subsequent screaming, but could not see the two men. With permission of the section leader, I left my position and moved down to render aid. I was terrified that I would also trip a mine or be shot from the caves as we were right below them with little cover. I saw the lead soldier was not badly hurt (injuries to back of legs), so concentrated on the other man (who I later learnt was Private Trevor Lynch). I never want to see such a mutilated human body again. He had various fractures, facial wounds including his eyes, and many other wounds with serious bleeding. I really had trouble trying to prioritise my actions, coupled with the fact that he was thrashing about and screaming in a demented manner. I remember I was crying in frustration, and thankful no one else came with me to see that. I worked on him for some time, and eventually had to tie his hands together to stop him injuring me or dislodging wound dressings. At some stage of treating him, I was joined by Captain Tony White, the RMO (who had apparently choppered down from the pagoda area). I have tried hard since to forget that incident, and have obviously partially succeeded, as I do not recall how or when my patient was evacuated, or what happened to the other soldier or even if I actually treated him. I remember that I later went back to my first position, and spent the rest of the day giving cover to engineers as they explored the cave system, going into some of the larger caves with them. Later that day, the RMO told me that the officer in charge of the assault had asked him to let me know I had done a good job.

I was later told that Trevor had received more than 100 wounds. I also recall someone from BHQ telling me I should have let the “poor bugger die in peace”, which gave me very negative feelings. (In July 1967, during convalescence in the Repatriation Hospital (Adelaide), I was in the same ward as Trevor. He was totally blind, but seemed to be coping with his other injuries. I spent some time telling him what happened that day in Vietnam as he wanted to know, but I could not tell him everything as even at that early stage, I had forgotten what transpired later that day with him).

On a positive side, I have always been interested in wildlife, and the many creatures met or seen in the jungle, paddy fields, and rubber plantations fascinated me. Flying lizards, monkeys, wild deer and pigs, the huge scorpions and centipedes – all interested me. The most fascinating of all were the numerous snakes. We often saw the smallish green tree pit vipers coiled in branches at face level. On one occasion at night, prior to a dawn cordon and sweep operation, I felt something move under the nylon sheet I slept on. Being a medic, I carried a torch with a hooded red filter which did not throw the light very far. When I carefully pulled the groundsheet back, I saw a small brightly coloured, very venomous, krait lying there. I eased the groundsheet back, and pounded the snake to death with my hand. The huge king cobras had to be seen to be believed – I remember on one occasion one was shot in a weapon pit, and when it was pulled out, one of the guys held it aloft with his arm stretched above his head about half way along its length - the snake’s head and tail were still on the ground, and the soldier was at least six feet tall – that snake was about 14 feet long.

About February 1967, I was posted to D Company as their medic, and for the first time in Vietnam, began an existence where I felt as though I belonged. I joined them on Nui Dat, a small hill which gave the Task Force base its name. Some days after joining D Company, I moved with them out to The Horseshoe, a small circular hill (possibly an ancient volcano) some kilometres east of our main base. Although I did not drink beer, I was introduced to rum which was sent out with re-supplies. From what I saw, few soldiers seemed to drink rum, and there was often a bottle or so about with few to drink it. I found I liked the taste, it certainly helped me settle in, and I started swapping my beer ration (which I had previously not requested) for coke from others, then every so often a small group of us would drink any bottles of rum there were with whatever coke we had. These light sessions later on occasionally became fairly heavy binges. I experimented with other alcoholic drinks, and even on one occasion got very drunk/sick drinking Benadryl expectorant (a cough medicine) with two others.

One interesting experience was an evening I spent entertaining two military police who came out to the Horseshoe to take custody of a couple of prisoners captured during a patrol that day. The three of us were sitting near my hutchie area in the dark quietly talking when we saw a small animal moving through small trees above us – it was outlined against the sky. We managed to persuade it to climb onto the end of a collapsible ambulance type stretcher I had beside my bed, dropped it to the ground and threw a spare hutchie over it. We bundled the creature up, and shook it into an empty wooden ammunition crate. The lid was shut and clipped, and we put a full crate of ammunition on top of that. We had no idea of what the creature was, but assumed it was either a small monkey or a large squirrel. The next morning when we went to see what we had captured, we found the full crate of munitions lying next to the empty crate that had had its clipped down lid torn off. I never did find out what the creature was, but assumed it had been rescued by a parent, and I was very glad that mum or dad “whatever” did not come seeking revenge. This had all happened close where the Company CSM and I slept, and even closer to where the two MPs camped, and none of us heard a thing.

It was during this last quarter of my overseas service (at the Horseshoe) that I sustained a heavy blow to my nose, which has been responsible for much later misery in my life. It was caused when I tripped over something as I was running to a Medivac helicopter as the lead man on a stretcher team, and my face ploughed the ground.

In May 1967, I returned to Australia with 5RAR on HMAS Sydney, and took part in the ticker tape parade through Sydney. I was at that time as proud as punch. I had fought overseas for my country (as a volunteer as I saw it) with an infantry battalion, possibly as one of the very few national service medics who did during the whole Vietnam conflict. I was proud of the good name 5RAR had achieved, and that I had been part of that record, albeit a minor part.

AFTERMATH

The first fact I discovered on return to Australia was that the Vietnam War had become a very topical issue, and as time progressed a very unpopular war.

Within days, I had had several arguments with my father who maintained that conscripts should certainly not have been sent there, and could not see that I saw myself as a volunteer, and a conscript.

Within several weeks of my return, I joined the local RSL Club (only Vietnam veteran at that time), where my father was a member. We attended several meetings together, and I felt comfortable with the group at that time, even though many of them also made no secret of their feelings on Australia sending conscripts to war, and that Australia should not be participating in Vietnam's internal problems. At one of these meetings, I was asked to put on a small show about Vietnam. I put a lot of work into organising a slide show, with many other displays which I thought might interest veterans from other conflicts, and their families and friends. On the Saturday night chosen, I put on a show which lasted probably 90 minutes to many more people than I had expected. When one of the members made a speech of thanks, he made a point of saying that Australia should never have participated in the Vietnam conflict. This statement, made to a large gathering really upset me, and this together with what various veterans including my father had previously said, caused me to leave the RSL. Only in recent years have I rejoined, and then only with the State Branch - I have never attended another meeting. Until about 2000, I never attended an Anzac Day Parade or Dawn Service. Several occurrences in the last four decades have not made me change my opinion on how Vietnam veterans are perceived by veterans of earlier conflicts.

Some weeks after my return, I received my Discharge Certificate. It recorded the fact that I had been awarded the two service medals that most other Vietnam veterans received, but it did not show my correct rank. I sent it back with a letter requesting that the rank be altered from private to corporal. When I received it back with the correct rank shown, it did not show the service medals. I did not bother to return it again.

After my discharge in 1967, I also applied for the Infantry Combat Badge (ICB) which was awarded to all members of an infantry unit who served in Vietnam, including (I understand) orderly room personnel, drivers, hygiene staff, etc. I received a letter back stating that as I was not actually a member of the Infantry Corps, I was not entitled to it. I was disappointed as I had been involved in more "combat" than many recipients, but accepted that ruling. In early 1995, I noted in an RSL newspaper a copy of the relevant award criteria which stated that persons who were attached to an infantry unit, although not members of that Corps, who performed duties indistinguishable with those of the infantry they served with, could be awarded the ICB providing their former commanding officer (CO) certified that service. I then wrote to the Department of Defence, Infantry Centre, and various other entities, but received no help. I eventually went though all the telephone books of Australia and traced one person who had the same initials and surname of my former CO (Lt Colonel J Warr), and wrote to him. I received a positive response, although he would not have known me from those other days. He sent me copies of several letters he wrote on my behalf, and after more letters and several telephone calls from myself, I eventually received a letter dated 11 April 1996 stating that I had been awarded the ICB, and where I could buy one.

Prior to my discharge, I was medically examined, and underwent an operation for my nose. Soon after my marriage in 1972, my wife started to complain of my bad breath and snoring, and oral hygiene became almost a fetish for me. My dentist assured me time and again that the problem was nothing to do with my teeth or gums. In July 1982, after my wife and I had separated, I made a claim for treatment in respect to my nose, and it was operated on (for the second time) in August that year. In more recent times, other partners have made an issue of my breath and snoring, and I have had a third nose operation. It seems to have made little difference. My nose remains bent to the right.

Another issue my wife first raised was my hearing, which had deteriorated since 1965. She would complain when I asked her to repeat things that I was not listening, when in fact I was not hearing some of what she said. This was particularly noticeable when I was driving with her, and I concluded that my left side was worse than the right. Prior to 1965, I had often been to dances and in fact was a member of a demonstration team for local square dances. After my marriage, when we went to dances, I found I could not hear/follow the beat properly. My hearing is now so bad that I cannot hear/contribute to a conversation if there is background noise, such as in a hotel or at a party. This loss of hearing has been accepted as due to war service.

After my return from Vietnam, usually about twice a year, I developed a small festering sore at the corner of my mouth (described by a doctor in January 1979 as "recurrent scaly pustular weeping lesions") which lasted for a week or so, and would slowly “creep” to cover a larger area. The first attack occurred in late 1967. I sought advice from various doctors and a dermatologist, but no treatment helped. I then discovered (in 1983) that by not shaving, the sore did not recur so on medical advice, I retained the beard, but my police career suffered because of it - I believe I was the first AFP officer to wear one.

Other skin conditions I have which are probably connected with Vietnam service are psoriasis (which at times covers the back of my hands), and spots that break out occasionally at the back of my neck – I do not recall that the latter have ever been identified, but they are readily dealt with by a prescribed crème. I have also had a very debilitating virus some years ago, which again was never identified, even after three blood tests.

About 1984 my ingrowing toenails began to trouble me, and I had the outside edge of the nails on both big toes operated on. In 1994 my toenails began to trouble me again, and I had the inside edge of the big toes operated on in hospital. The young doctor made such a mess of this procedure that the left side became infected. My local GP had several attempts to treat it and to remove more nail, but it made little difference. It became so bad, a surgeon operated on it in a private hospital. He told me I might eventually have to have both big toe nails right out. A sliver of the right hand nail still grows out, which means another operation that side is a certainty.

On my return from Vietnam, I still drank rum heavily. This habit slowly escalated until about 1970 when I could find myself on my third bottle at a party. Except for one occasion, I never seemed to have a hangover from rum, but I certainly became inebriated on it. Several years after my marriage, after constant nagging from my wife, I was able to wean myself off alcohol (about 1980), but I found I started eating more. I have always been on the heavy side, but was always fit being deeply involved in bushwalking and other outdoor pursuits. My weight slowly increased, but from about 1982 it escalated. I have now reached the ridiculous stage where I avoid all alcohol, but seem to unconsciously rely on food to transport me from reality.

I had a 31 year career as a police officer (Federal), which started soon after I was discharged from the army. For several years from 1968 I had to investigate breaches of the National Service Act, and initiate prosecution action against those who failed to register, etc. This caused me some inner turmoil and I hated this work and tried to avoid it if possible. In later years, with the upsurge of South-East Asian crime, my employer had many such major investigations involving Vietnamese suspects. Again I went to great lengths to avoid such work.

I married in 1972, was asked to leave in 1982 and she finally divorced me in 1987. Although I enjoyed married life and was comfortable in that environment, my wife became more and more critical of my drinking/eating habits, snoring, apparent bad breath, and my communication skills (inability to hear everything and respond appropriately). My marriage break-up hurt me deeply, particularly so when my son, asked in 1982 what he would like for Christmas, responded by asking for me to get back together with my wife.

After 1982 I dated approximately 50 different females. In some cases the relationships endured for several years, but it was usually me who broke off. Several of these women also made similar comments about my bad breath to those my wife made, and I now have reservations about kissing which of course causes further reaction. Although I still enjoy healthy sexual relationships, I now always prefer non face-to-face positions.

When I commenced military service, I had a special group of friends and our friendship endured after my discharge for some years, then I drifted apart from them, although I know the rest of the group have remained fairly intact. I now find that although I seem to get on with most people, I cannot make real friends and have become a relatively lonely person. I earned great respect from most of my police colleagues, but do not now seem to have many real friends at all.

I have been asked whether I react when vehicles backfire, and similar. I do not, but believe I have a marked awareness when helicopters fly anywhere nearby.

About 1991/2, I started to feel I was going through a change. I began to have a more erratic sleep problem, with more and more violent nightmares. This aspect developed to the extent that I was often tired, and occasionally on some nights did not sleep. In fact for the nights 11 and 12 November 1996, I did not sleep at all, despite a sleeping tablet on the latter. These episodes were not a regular occurrence, but when they did occur, I became very distressed, particularly as I was by then a fairly senior police officer. During one bizarre nightmare (about mid November 1996), I saw myself at an area NW of Baria in Vietnam where 5RAR secured a highway at one stage, and during one of those nights there was a pack of jackals (or other canines) outside our perimeter. I saw myself there, standing up beside a pile of lettuces, and throwing those vegetables at the animals then their faces changed to those of Vietnamese people. Occasionally when I awoke, I found I had been crying or sweating profusely as my pillow was damp, and I had a significantly higher pulse rate. There have been a number of occasions when I dreamt of incoming mortar fire, and I have woken trying to get under my bed. The nightmares became more frequent, more violent, and were frequently Vietnam related.

From about 1995 or so, I became more and more emotional. I frequently cried. A sad scene in a film was more than enough to start me off. I also started chewing my fingernails again, a habit I initially shed in my early teens.

I have always read a lot, but over the past few years have started reading books about the Vietnam War, which I hadn't since 1967 (I now own about 10 books on the subject). I now agree and accept that the USA and her allies should never have become involved in that conflict, and I am greatly saddened by the suffering "our" presence caused, particularly to the then children of that country. I can read a book on another war, such as "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" and feel disgust etc, but a book on the Vietnam War will have much more affect on me. I feel as though I am somehow being drawn back to that era.

Since my early experience with the RSL, I have always had difficulty talking about Vietnam, but this has become worse in the last decade. Even my son, who is fascinated with military history, has seldom ever heard me talk about my experiences. If the topic comes up, I become more and more withdrawn, and change the subject.

I slowly became more impatient and it hurt when I was occasionally addressed as a "cranky old man" by my kids, who lived with me for at least 50% of the time after my marriage failure. I knew things were getting worse for me, and although I would like to have explained to them how I was feeling, I certainly did not want to burden them with my problems while they were progressing through high school and university.

From about the mid 90’s, I felt I was been loosing my ability to concentrate on things. My short term memory certainly worsened. I would often start to say something, then forget what I wanted to say part way through saying it. I sometimes had great trouble remembering people’s names, and this aspect was embarrassing for a police officer.

I started experiencing a form of panic attack, and these steadily worsened. Even today, they can start anywhere at any time, and within seconds I am drenched with sweat, and have to move from where I then was. Apart from regular insomnia, these panic attacks were the most difficult to deal with in my worsening condition.

Even today, I find I loose interest in things more readily, including activities I really used to enjoy and were heavily committed to and actively pursued. This in turn has contributed to my health problems.

In early 1966, I attended a small family gathering with my son. During conversation on tertiary education, my mother stated that the reason my second brother had not completed his first year of university was because he was too worried about me in Vietnam. This remark really shattered me, and my son raised the subject again on our way home asking why "Granny blames you" for my brothers decision to quit university while I was in Vietnam. I could not talk to him about it, and the next day was still choked up over it. I went to my GP with pain in the chest, and this resulted in a night in the Coronary Care Unit at Ashford Hospital. Even then I could not tell the various doctors what had happened - I put it down to having lain on my side watching television.

Although I loved my work (not the politics involved in it though), about 1967 I started applying to be made redundant which would have allowed me to retire with sufficient funds to exist. I felt my attitude was becoming less than professional, and that work was just another problem which I could do without. As I was not able to "take a package" like many others in the Force, I became frustrated at work. Earlier in 1997, I had a major confrontation with two incompetent senior officers over a large investigation, and ended up having two weeks off on stress (with the Force admitting liability). I was still required to be involved in that case (which had vast political ramifications) when I returned to work, even though I told my general manager that I wanted nothing more to do with it.

THE PRESENT

As far as I am concerned, service in Vietnam completed and totally cocked up my life.

Although I still maintain some inner pride with having served with an infantry unit in Vietnam, the whole issue has been so negative I very sincerely wish I had remained in Australia for the period of my National Service like probably all of the members of my medical unit in New South Wales (I spoke to one of them about 1988 and he told me that they had had a very easy time for their two years).

Both my children graduated from university, and are employed in rewarding positions, and I am very proud of their achievements. I remarried in 2000. Love from my wife and my children appear to be three of the very few positive factors in my life these days.

I am worried about my state of health, and am frustrated with myself for not being more positive about my weight. I am fully aware of the increasing risk I face being overweight. I have now been under the care of a psychiatrist for five years, and she has indicated I will be on “happy pills” for the rest of my life.

I am very ashamed at the state I appear to be in, but feel somewhat more tranquil having forced myself to think the issues through, and write this epistle.

I. A.  McDOUGALL
November 2002
 

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