It Never Leaves You: For Australia’s Vietnam Veterans, The War Never Truly Ended

Harry Ledger

The Vietnam War was a historical global event of enormous historical and political proportions. Though we’ve seen the horror that our veterans faces depicted on our television screens, rarely do we get the chance to listen to their stories.

Uncertain. Uncertain of where the gunfire was coming from; even from who it was coming from. Uncertain whether you were breathing your last breath. Almost 60,000 Australian personnel lived their lives in the deepest jungles of the South Pacific in complete uncertainty; and while few bodies came out unscathed, fewer souls came out unscarred. In the midst of intolerable humidity, surrounded by blood-soaked bamboo trees, mighty battles ensued- deafening gunfire disturbed by terrifying moments of silence. 

As Sgt., Gary Mckay of the 4th Platoon recounted, “When you kill somebody, it never leaves you. You put it in that box and you shove it away at the back”. 

Such a burden is persistent, fortunately for our forgotten heroes, so is their spirit. 

Of course, though mateship reigned true in both Gallipoli and Vietnam, the circumstances of Australian involvement were completely different. In 1965, the first Battalion was deployed by PM Robert Menzies to fight with the Americans against the Communist Viet Minh- with involvement escalating until Australia’s retreat from Vietnam in 1972. Nearly a quarter of those deployed were conscripted, with Gary McKay being one of them. 

Mckay, initially a young sportsman- substituting a football for a grenade- served in combat during 1971; not knowing “which side of the equator he was on”. Mckay saw “the best of men and the worst of circumstance” as he gallantly led his men into one of the final battles of Australian involvement; the Battle of Nui Le. As the men navigated their way through “reasonably thick bush”, the group became increasingly paranoid- leading to a fatal mistake that cost a young soldier his life. 

“We hadn’t gone more than 150 meters downhill when firing broke out at the front of the floor…I immediately yelled ‘contact front’ to my signaller as it struck me what was happening. I sprinted forward screaming out for everyone to cease firing”.

Yet it was too late- two Australian platoons had mistaken each other for the enemy, shooting and killing a soldier. As Gary mournfully asserted, “I knew how they must have felt having lost a mate at my expense because of a mistake on my part.”  

After days on end of walking, gunfire erupted- almost out of nowhere- in a tragic battle where Mckay was forced to run to the front line after his gunmen were killed, to fight off a formidable and resourceful enemy. 

“It took me almost twenty years to accept the fact that I’d had to use my own men as cover from fire. And I got the machine gun going… and between us, we thwarted the enemy assault.”

Gary, now a prolific writer on the war, was not alone; for many veterans, the war never truly ended- it’s frontier merely changed. 

As an infantryman in 1968, Barry Heard stood on the frontline of Australia’s bloodiest war- witnessing humanity at it’s worst. The resourceful and suspenseful nature of the enemy, the brutality of the unforgiving jungle, and the sheer amount of blood has tortured Barry for years; as it has for nearly 45% of Vietnam Veterans according to an alarming medical survey. 

Years after his service, Barry was diagnosed with PTSD- a condition too prevalent amongst Vietnam Veterans.

“Came out of the hospital; wetting myself and soiling myself… for about six months I wasn’t game to go outside. I was just so frightened of everything. My poor wife…has to look after me, this dribbling, bloody, fragile, old man”.

Fortunately for Barry, the comradery that he saw out in the jungle stayed here at home through RSL reunions, fundraising, and book signings;

“It’s brought us together my mates and I… We’ve learned that to give is the best thing to heal our soul and our spirit”.

They went through hell together, and for many, they came back injured, bruised, broken. For all the horrors that our veterans faced out in the jungle, and for all the horrors that they still face today, they deserve our support. And it is through their bravery, their humility, and their mateship- that the ANZAC spirit remains alive. 

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