Our Vietnam Veterans – The Nation’s Worst Welcome Home

Hasnain Aly

A Bushranger helicopter, over 3,000kg and 17m in length, descends onto a field of trodden grass. Five men climb on board and the helicopter immediately lifts off, leaving a circular imprint in the grass. The men, along with the two door gunners open fire at the target. There is a deafening roar of guns firing; even the pilot is firing his pistol out the window. Eventually, when every piece of ammunition has been expended, and there is just the sound of the rotors spinning; silence compared to the previous cacophony. Nobody says a word as the helicopter flies away from  extraction.

This is the story of Neville Wiggins, a door gunner on this helicopter. He was one of the approximately 60,000 Australian personnel that served in Vietnam from 1964-72. Nevil describes his surreal experience in a two minute video from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

While often overshadowed by WWI and WWII, The Vietnam War was an influential event in Australian history, the effects of which we are still experiencing today. The average age of Australians in Vietnam was 22, meaning that veterans are around 67 years old today. The ADF estimated that of 2018, there were approximately 641,000 Vietnam veterans alive in Australia. But why has the Vietnam War had such an effect on the country and its people?

“I got on the aircraft about seven o’clock, flew me to Saigon, Saigon to Sydney. I was home that night after being on patrol that morning. It was surreal, just surreal.” Neville Wiggins, RAAF Helicopter Gunner

One significant factor is the fact that Australia’s contribution to the war wasn’t necessary. Menzies had offered to provide troops to South Vietnam, but both the South Vietnam government, and the US ambassador in Saigon refused this offer. Menzies then went to announce to parliament that South Vietnam had requested that Australia send troops over, despite the fact that his offer had been declined. Luckily for him, the South Vietnam government made a formal request for support just before he made the announcement. The real reason why Menzies wanted to send troops was to ensure American support in the case of conflicts in Indonesia. 

This meant that Australian involvement in Vietnam was completely unnecessary, including the 521 deaths, and the over 15,000 conscripts who were forced to partake in this conflict.

We can see Australia’s response to this in the form of protests. These protests demonstrate the public’s opposition to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. If you look at photos from the day, you can see that all sorts of people took part in these protests. The Vietnam War politicized the entire nation. One thing they were opposing was the conscription of young men into the army. Another point of contention was the fact that Australia and America were getting involved in other nation’s businesses. However, one key idea was that opposing superpowers were fighting against each other on another nation’s land. Communist China and the USSR, who were supporting the north, and capitalist US who was sponsoring the south. Whoever won the war, Vietnam would be so badly affected by it that it would lose either way. 

Anti-war protests outside old parliament house, 1970, National Archives Australia

“Back home you don’t publicize the fact that you were in Vietnam, as, in discussing the war you could either be praised for keeping the ‘commies’ at bay or accused of being a baby killer. It’s a lot easier to avoid the subject. The anti-war movement is beginning to gain momentum.” David Clifton, Trooper

When the soldiers returned to Australia after their service, they didn’t receive the hero’s welcome of WWI and WWII soldiers. David Clifton, who served as a trooper in Vietnam from 1965-67, tells his experience of returning home from Vietnam. He, like many other veterans, found it easier to keep quiet about their experiences at war. Even other veterans were not welcoming, suggesting that Vietnam wasn’t a real war. Veterans were called baby killers, rapists and murderers. This was a crushing blow for servicemen who thought they were fighting to protect freedom and liberty.

While the Vietnam War may not have been as long as other wars, many veterans have still experienced severe trauma. As well as the experiences they faced on the battlefield, they were also mistreated back home.The veterans did not feel welcomed, and were seen as monsters. This was as a result of  the rising anti-war movement. As David Clifton said; “The ‘All the Way with LBJ’ sentiment of a few years earlier is turning sour.” More recently, attempts have been made to reconcile with Vietnam veterans and many have come out and told their stories. For example, David now works as a curator for a Vietnam War museum. He has also been the president of a veterans Our nation has realised its mistake of not welcoming back our own people, and making them feel at home.

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