Going home. Luggage on the tarmac at Vung Tau, 1971. [Image courtesy of Leon Pavich]
Anecdotal evidence holds that most men returned from Vietnam in the dead of night, hidden from the public. In fact, large numbers actually returned on HMAS Sydney, to a welcome by dignitaries and a parade. The manner of their homecoming affected the way in which veterans recovered from the war, those who did arrive late at night to no fanfare and the seeming indifference of the military had more trouble adjusting to life at home than did those whose return was more public and who had had the benefit of a couple of weeks unwinding on board Sydney before reaching Australia.
But the return home was only the beginning of a long period of readjustment. For a long time after the war large numbers of Vietnam veterans felt that many in Australia blamed them, rather than politicians, for the war and the way it had been conducted. Images of the war, many still familiar, of children burned by napalm, of the dead of My Lai, of a South Vietnamese general summarily executing a member of the Viet Cong in the streets of Saigon, had an effect on public opinion and public understanding. The fact that these images related more to the American/Vietnamese experience in Vietnam was less remarked upon. People associated the role of Australians in the war with that of the Americans in a way that failed to recognise the two countries’ different approaches to fighting in Vietnam.
Some veterans recall being abused as baby killers, rapists and murderers on their return. For men who regarded themselves as generally having fought with more humanity and professionalism than their American counterparts, this was a bitter blow. Veterans who had lost friends in combat, who had seen death and who had killed, as is the lot of soldiers in war, were appalled at the way in which their having done the job asked of them by their government was, in some cases, used against them.
Even the RSL proved less than welcoming. Remarks by returned soldiers from earlier conflicts suggesting that Vietnam was not a real war hurt men seeking the comradeship and understanding of fellow veterans. This experience was not universal – rural RSL clubs in particular did welcome men returned from Vietnam – but it happened often enough for some veterans to harbour a life-long resentment of an organisation from which they expected much more.
In 1980 some veterans formed the Vietnam Veterans’ Action Association which later became the Vietnam Veterans’ Association of Australia (VVAA). Established partly as a crisis counselling service and as a vehicle through which to prosecute a case for veterans claiming to suffer from the effects of herbicides and defoliants used in Vietnam, the VVAA has played an important role in the lives of some veterans. Its membership has been cited at somewhere between 5,000 – 7,000 out of some 60,000 Australians who served in Vietnam.
By 1987 attitudes to the war had changed: Vietnam veterans were given a welcome home parade in Sydney. Some 25,000 veterans marched to the cheers of several hundred thousand onlookers. Five years later, in 1992, a National Memorial for the Vietnam War was unveiled on Canberra’s Anzac Parade. These gestures meant a great deal to veterans and they signalled an acceptance of Vietnam veterans that some who returned from that war had not felt before.
In the early 1990s veterans began making pilgrimages to Vietnam. For many it was a time to pay respects to friends who had been killed in the war, for others a chance to meet the former enemy and make their peace, or simply make gestures of friendship with men and women who shared a common experience and for whom there was no ill-will.
The many stories of disturbed veterans, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and continuing to suffer from their time in Vietnam suggest that this was almost a universal experience. It wasn’t. Many Vietnam veterans simply returned to Australia and settled back into the routines and habits of civilian life. For every veteran who remains haunted by the experience of Vietnam there are others who have left it behind. Many who served in Vietnam have gone on to achieve success in the military, in politics, in business or in charitable work. No one story is typical, but the widespread perception of veterans being abused and ostracised, while true for some, was not the case for all.