'The only way human beings can win a war is to prevent it.' General George C. Marshall
I am a veteran of 20 years service with the Australian Defence Force (ADF). While I now wear that title with pride it took me almost 20 years after I separated from the ADF before I felt comfortable doing so. In fact, I wondered if I even had the right to be called a veteran.
Australian troops were heavily committed to the Vietnam war when I joined the RAAF as a 16 year old apprentice in 1967 but that commitment ceased in early 1973 before my turn came. So most of my career was in the post Vietnam period and came to an end before Desert Storm.
I never fought the 'war within', not wanting to let my 'mates down' while knowing that 'each step could mean your last one on two legs.' My experience was not of 'mud and blood and tears', of seeing mates shot down, and living with the memory of 'Frankie, drinking tinnies in the Grand Hotel on a thirty six hour rec. leave in Vung Tau.'
Night for me is not 'a jungle dark and a barking M16.' The 'Channel 7 chopper' doesn't chill 'me to my feet', and I am not troubled by 'this rash that comes and goes'. No, neither I or my family live with the aftermath of the terror of war as do too many others.
How then can I call myself a veteran, join their fellowship and march beside them on Anzac Day? I was never tested and proved myself as they had.
After I left the Service I gradually lost contact with most of those I had served with. As time passed I missed the camaraderie and the mate ships, thinking I had lost these forever. I wondered if I could join the Anzac day march but then I reasoned it was for those 'real veterans', not for peace time wannabes like me. Eventually a phone call to the RSL confirmed my entitlement to march and to my reconnecting with what is a very important and significant part of my life.
It was at the 2005 march in Sydney – probably the first one I participated in - that I met another ex-apprentice from an earlier intake. He told me about a reunion my intake was holding later that year and put me in touch with an old mate in Melbourne who had the details. As a result of that contact I am back in touch with former mates. I have joined my local RSL sub-branch, the RAAF Association and the 77 Squadron Association. Now I attend reunions, sub-branch meetings and association functions. As well as renewing old friendships I am enjoying the fellowship of the wider ex-service community.
This, however, is not why I wear the title 'veteran' with pride. Rather, it is a recognition and acceptance of my service and that of others of my generation of service men and women for what it was and what it did.
I served five years with 75 Squadron at Butterworth Air Base in Penang, Malaysia in the 1970s. Throughout the 1970s and most of the 80s the RAAF maintained two fighter squadrons plus a maintenance and base squadron as part of Australia's treaty obligations to Malaysia and Singapore. The RAAF presence was maintained to act as a deterrent against external aggression and was established at a time of regional instability. At the time the Malaysian armed forces were engaged in an internal war against communist insurgents bent on overthrowing the Malaysian Government that only came to an end in 1989.
From 1947 to the present day Australian military personnel have been involved in peace keeping operations in different trouble spots around the globe – the Middle East, Africa, Kashmir, Korea, South East Asia and the Pacific. Australians were the first to participate in United Nations peace keeping operations anywhere in the world when they entered Indonesia in 1947 – a proud record.
In December 1974 I was serving on Caribous with 38 Squadron at Richmond when Cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin. In the aftermath of Tracy my mates who worked with the Hercules squadrons down the tarmac, including those with 486 Maintenance Squadron, worked tirelessly in support of the largest air lift this country has seen. The Australian Military have a long history of coming to the aid of their fellow Australians in times of natural disaster as well as responding to disasters in other countries in the Pacific region and beyond.
My generation of service men and women may not have endured the horrors and privation of Vietnam, Korea or Afghanistan. What we did do was maintain a strong and well-trained defence infrastructure which of itself was a strong deterrence to aggression and so contributed to the security of not only our fellow Australians, but to our region of the world. We saw the introduction of new technology and methods that improved Australia's defence capability. And we trained the next generation of women and men so that when the time came they were able to respond to the call of our Government, wherever that took them. Those of my generation can take pride in the accomplishments of today's service women and men knowing that if it were not for our service they would not be able to achieve the tasks they have been allotted, just as we acknowledge that we could not have performed ours without the service of those that came before us. In common with service men and women of all generations we committed ourselves to serve the citizens of Australia, even if that service took us to our death.
Like many Australians I have the greatest respect and admiration for those women and men who have served our nation in armed conflict. We must always remember their sacrifice and their mates who paid the ultimate price to safeguard our democratic freedoms and way of life. I cannot and do not compare my service to theirs.
I also take pride in the service and contribution of my generation of service men and women. We did all that was asked of us. There are no insignificant roles in the army, navy or air force. Each individual contributes to the success of the whole. We are all veterans and we can all wear that title with pride.
Redgum, 'I was only 19'
Written 27 December 2011