Just imagine coming home from an honest day’s work to face abuse and criticism from your family, friends and neighbours about what you have been doing.
I think that would be disturbing whether your job is in an office, a hospital, a supermarket, factory, construction site or school.
And what if you had been doing that job because the government had compelled you to do it? There was no choice in the matter.
What if that happened just as you had finished school, university, apprenticeship or other training. With life’s limitless possibilities ahead of you, suddenly it’s off overseas to ‘do your bit’ for Australia. That is your new job. Going to war for months on end.
Tens of thousands of men faced this situation in the 1960s. They were called up to do national service, sent to Vietnam and exposed to a style of warfare that was as horrific as it is clearly unforgettable.
Then they came home, perhaps expecting to be thanked, almost certainly looking for peace and sanctuary. What they received instead included being pelted with rotten eggs, spat on and called horrible names by strangers in the street.
At best these soldiers were ignored, more often they were abused and ostracised.
Added to the ongoing insult was the devastating news, delivered several years after they returned to their wives, that their children may be deformed due to the chemicals used in the fighting. ‘Agent Orange’ is a defoliant that was used to deprive guerrillas of cover in the jungles of Vietnam.
The leaves on the tropical plants withered and died, but the damage to the Australian troops and their families was not immediately visible.
Put simply, there is a cluster of men among us, now in their sixties and seventies, who did their job of serving the country as required by law and, as a result, suffered a lifetime of pain, confusion and bewilderment.
These soldiers never received the hero status awarded to those who served in other wars.
For me, the words Vietnam veteran were loaded with a mixture of sympathy, guilt, curiosity, fear, awe and pity. For many younger people, I suspect the term doesn’t have much meaning at all.
There is little doubt that the horrific post traumatic stress disorder suffered by most if not all soldiers who have seen war action was largely untreated in the critical years following Vietnam.
In talking with a leading Geelong psychiatrist who has a specialist interest in trauma treatment, he asked why I was focusing on Vietnam and not on those more recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan? This latter group is literally the walking wounded and he feels that, as a community, we have no idea of the extent of their injuries.
He spoke of the deep sense of alienation people feel when they return from a world of military service to the comfortable, relaxed approach to life that we are blessed with in Australia. Our relatively petty problems are completely at odds with the reality of their life in war zones.
The normality of fighting in other countries is a non-stop existence of highly disciplined, hyper-vigilant and extreme professionalism. In contrast, we seem soft, complacent and naively trusting. To say it must be infuriating is to vastly understate a complex set of emotions.
Obviously, I am neither a clinician nor a veteran so I cannot even begin to understand or properly empathise with our war heroes. I hesitated about raising this topic for that reason - I didn’t want to risk being patronising or inflammatory.
But I was assured by both veterans and doctors that having the conversation is important.
While my focus is Vietnam this time, this should be an ongoing and inclusive discussion. The last thing I want is to create a debate about the relative significance or impact of different wars.
For me, Vietnam is the starting point simply because I happened to strike up a conversation with a veteran and I was interested to know more. He commented that many Vietnam vets are now grandfathers but, given the significant numbers whose marriages broke down, many may not even know their grandchildren.
What struck me were his words, “We still have the chance to save a few grandfathers.”
This fellow clearly struggles and suffers many dark moments, but he wants other men to know they are not alone. He found things were easier once he decided to join in with clubs, communities and his family.
“We need to push ourselves to make up with family, to be part of things. It’s time to make peace with the rest of the world and enjoy what’s left.”
In just over a month, on 18 August, it is Vietnam Veterans Day. This year I will better appreciate these heroes who have overcome incredible injustice.