Recently I heard the story of an American social worker whose job in the 1990s was to scour the mountains of Alaska, seeking the bolt-holes of Vietnam veterans who had decided to remove themselves from society, living off the land in isolated shacks. In the 20 years since the Vietnam War, more and more American vets had come to the grim realisation that they were now unable to coexist with their families and friends; to hold down jobs; to partake in society in any meaningful way.
Post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD.
The social worker’s task was to bring the vets into Anchorage to live in a halfway house and receive psychological therapy until they were willing and able to re-enter society. Of the degree of his success, I’m not sure.
In Australia, the ‘Anzac Spirit’ has found a firm place in our collective subconscious, especially in the last 20 years. Now an expression used to summon the sentiment of ANZAC troops in all wars since 1915, it brings to mind bravery, mateship, self-sacrifice – as if these concepts were unique to Australians and New Zealanders. In its jingoistic rally-cry, the long, lethal legacy of modern warfare is forgotten.
Australian Vietnam veterans are nearly 14 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. And it’s a measure of the downstream effects of PTSD that the wives of vets are six times more likely than their peers to attempt suicide, and their children three times more likely.
Sharing these stark statistics with us, on 5 August at the Bermagui Institute Public Dinner, was retired infantry company commander Graham Walker, AM. Graham spent 21 years in the Australian Defence Forces in Vietnam and other conflicts. He has spent the years since his retirement in 1981 advocating for the rights of returned Vietnam vets.
PTSD first came to attention after WWI. An epidemic of symptoms amongst returned servicemen, ranging from unfocused anxiety and loss of concentration to paralysis, blindness and convulsions, with no discernible physical cause, was labelled as shell shock and derided as cowardice by the military.
Even after WWII, when it was accepted that there was a psychological cause for the symptoms, it was claimed – again, by the military – that there was a genetic predisposition for the condition: “real men” would not be affected.
Not until 1980 was PTSD in soldiers identified as a consequence of a life-threatening experience on the battlefield – the fault of the war, not the soldier. Since then, almost half the Australian veterans repatriated from Vietnam have filed successful compensation claims for mental conditions. As Graham had said on ABC Local Radio on the morning of his talk, “The war doesn’t end, for very many veterans, when the shooting stops.”
I knew that Graham had been a rock of emotional and moral support for countless returned soldiers over the last 30 years and more. I had heard stories. Again I checked the notes I took on the night: no mention of any of that. But I wasn’t surprised. Like his career, Graham’s address was all about others.
Perhaps the most eloquent testament to Graham’s legacy was from former US Marine and fellow Vietnam veteran Bruce Olson, who’d travelled down from Tweed Heads to have the honour of introducing Graham to the capacity crowd in Bermagui that night. Bruce’s voice trembled as he recounted the public disdain for troops returning from Vietnam in the 70s, compounding the PTSD prevalent amongst soldiers in that messy war, and the blind eye the government turned to their invisible wounds. Graham Walker, he said, was “the first senior officer to put his head above the parapet” for the lower ranks. Bruce has been just one beneficiary of Graham’s staunch support over the years.
But my take on it is this: it wasn’t nerves that made his voice quaver, or the memories of those early betrayals. The clue was in the look exchanged between the two as they gripped hands when Graham rose to speak. It was a look of profound understanding, a decades-long dialogue between warriors. A conversation that had been to hell, turned around and made its tortured way back. The other side of Anzac, indeed.
First published in The Triangle community newspaper, September 2015