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When the war is over…

Amanda Whitley

They are trained to go to war but not to come home.

My dad is a Vietnam veteran. He was just 21 years old when he left the family farm to serve as an ambulance driver in the Australian Army, bearing witness to indescribable horror. From all accounts, he was not the same man when he returned a couple of years later.

The 13 months that he spent in Vietnam would change the course of his life – and that of his fiancée, my mum, Margaret. As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli, I asked her to reflect on what happens ‘when the war is over’.

In the movie, Sliding Doors, the life of Gwyneth Paltrow’s character is determined by the closing of the sliding doors on a train; that single moment changing the course of her life.

I often wonder what would have happened had my husband’s ‘Sliding Doors’ moment turned out differently.

When that wooden National Service Ballot Ball marked ‘9.8’ came up in 1967, all medically fit 20 year old Australian-born males born on 9 August 1947 were assigned to two years of service, integrating with the Australian Regular Army to swell the depleted ranks to approximately 40,000 to allay the fears of the Menzies Government in regards to Communism in Asia.

If that marble had dropped to the bottom of the raffle machine, where would Mike be today?

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We met in the late ’60s. Mike was a happy-go-lucky kind of bloke, cricket mad with a lot of mates. Weekends were filled with dancing, dinners and picnics in the bush…the regular stuff. One wooden marble changed all that.

On 24 March 1969, I waved goodbye to my fiancé of four months at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith airport, not knowing if he would return from a tour of duty in South Vietnam.

We wrote often while he was away, sustaining a young romance. He shared the lighter moments: ‘Le Mans’ starts to the trucks, his ‘pet’ spider monkey, Rastus, who seemed to adopt him. When he did return, it was under the cover of darkness to avoid anti-war protesters at the airport; and he was not the man I’d farewelled 13 months before.

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Mike was listless and uninterested in any of the things he’d done before; Tarcutta RSL Club became his ‘home base’ and only social activity. We married too soon, and with no permanent paid work except for the life-saving peace and quiet of the family farm, he took on bar work at the Club. It enabled his fondness of drinking to relax and to perhaps dull the memories that were with him 24 hours a day. He had few real friends.

Back then, counselling was not as commonplace as it is today – and it certainly wasn’t something that country boys did. If only it had been.

The vivid nightmares, night sweats, Mike’s need for a radio next to him to keep him falling into a deep sleep; the hundreds of cigarettes per day; the many panic attacks; the lack of communication; the controlling behaviours…they were all telling signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Ours was not a happy marriage. Mike kept our daughters and I at arm’s length, and we all walked on eggshells, lest we somehow break the ‘rules’. He was never violent, but he was incredibly controlling, dictating how, what and when things should happen in the household. I saw our daughters breathe a sigh of relief when they each turned 18 and left the family home.

It wasn’t until the mid-90s when, having been diagnosed with MS and needing to be classified as a disabled veteran with the Department of Veterans Affairs, he was assessed by one of their psychiatrists and diagnosed with PTSD. The psychiatrist gave me a book to read on various stages of of the disorder, and I couldn’t believe it when Level 5 was typical of Mike’s behaviour, right down to the ’emotional wall between loved ones’.

Of course, he refused to accept the diagnosis, stridently telling the doctor, “I know who needs a psychiatrist and it’s NOT me!”

Today, Mike resides in a nursing home, where he has been since 2001 – since his early 50s – suffering with advanced Multiple Sclerosis. It’s a disease of the central nervous system that may also be traced back to his time in Vietnam, as there are possible links between it and Agent Orange, the defoliant rained on him and every other soldier in Nui Dat twice daily.

He is bedridden, having had both legs amputated, and his once-clever mind is but a simple version of itself. We have been separated for 17 years now, but I still visit a couple of days a week. Regardless of our marriage, no one deserves a life like this.

And so I think of those sliding doors. What would have happened if Mike’s number hadn’t come up? Instead of a life confined to a hospital bed, perhaps he would be walking the paddocks on his own farm; overlooking his beloved ‘Flat’, sown with swaying acres of oats, and looking forward to his children and grandchildren walking with him.

For Mike, the war is still waging.

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Amanda Whitley

Amanda Whitley is the founder and director of HerCanberra. In her ‘spare time’, she instructs zumba, loves to cook (and eat), and wrangles two gorgeous little girls. She’s done everything from present the tv news to operate a stop and go sign and is passionate about connecting Canberra women.

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  • Heather

    Margaret, thank you for sharing your story, I am overwhelmed by your grace and bravery. I cry for you and Mike and the life you didn’t have together, that was taken by war. I most sincerely wish you both the very best, and I hope Mike finds peace.

    Thank you for raising two wonderful daughters in such a difficult environment, Amanda has been such a strength and positive influence on me. Sharing your family’s story is a very special gift to all of us, thank you.

  • TrickyT

    Firstly, thank you for sharing something so personal with an aching authenticity. It is unfathomable to understand how hard it was for the Viet Vets, many like your Mike, returning with PTSD, no support services, vilified by some parts of the public and just lost. My father and two uncles were there and each came home different, some adjusting, but others turning to some sort of substance to dull their demons. I’m glad returning service men and women now have support services in place that recognise emotional trauma. I sense that despite the struggles, you’ve had flowers grow from the dark moments and I hope Mike finds some peace too.

  • Maureen Roberts

    My husband Alan Jack Roberts was in 8 Field Ambulance 67-68 ..

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