Repatriation General Hospital

In Parliament - Thursday, 14 April 2016

Mr DULUK (Davenport) (12:44:32): I want to thank the Leader for moving this motion this morning. I am speaking on this very important motion to share a story with you: it is one man's story but it is a story that could be just as easily told by many other veterans.

In 1966, a 20-year-old South Australian man won a lottery. It was a unique lottery; not the kind that made you an instant millionaire but it was certainly a lottery that changed your life. I am talking of course about the national service scheme. The scheme required 20-year-old men to register with the department of labour and national service. They were then subject to a ballot.The ballot resembled a lottery draw: it was conducted using a lottery barrel and marbles, with the marbles representing birthdays. The final five ballots of the scheme were even televised, just as Powerball or SA Lottery draws are today. If your number—that is, your birth date—was drawn it did not mean the keys to a mansion, fast cars or a life of luxury; it meant the possibility of two years of continuous full-time service in the Regular Army. It also meant the possibility of special overseas service, including combat duties in Vietnam.

In this lottery this young man's number came up. He was forced to enlist for two years and sent to Puckapunyal to prepare for armed service, and then his battalion was deployed to Vietnam's Phuoc Tuy Province in Nui Dat. A 20-year-old man, at the start of his life, with a successful career beckoning, a beautiful young girlfriend and dreaming of his future, had his life turned upside down.

Without choice, without fault, this young man was plucked out of the western suburbs of South Australia and dropped into the Vietnamese jungle. I urge you to stop and think about that for a moment: one day in the western suburbs of Adelaide and the next day in the jungles of Vietnam. One minute you are a 20-year-old hanging out with your mates, playing cricket and footy and falling in love and the next the government tells you that you are to report for military service. Imagine yourself as a 20 year old, think about your sons and what their lives look like and how you would feel if this happened to them.

From the moment his birth date was drawn things moved quickly. A letter arrived telling him to complete a medical examination. He is then sent for an interview, followed by a security check and, finally, he is given a month's notice before having to report for full military service. In February 1967, he heads off for his first block of military training. Over the next 12 months he spends time at Army facilities at Puckapunyal, Singleton, Woodside, Yeppoon and Cultana. He is assigned to 3RAR.

One day on training exercises a guy brings a radio to training—that day was 18 October 1967. Back then they were not supposed to have a radio with them, let alone listen to it whilst on an exercise, but some of these exercises went on for a while and there was not much to do and they got bored. After all, they were young men and all young men like to break the rules every now and then.

They were listening to the radio when all of a sudden the program is interrupted. There is a special broadcast. The then prime minister Harold Holt had just announced that a third infantry battalion is to be deployed to Vietnam. That battalion is 3RAR. As the servicemen listen it takes a little while to understand but slowly they realise what has been said and they realise what it means: they are heading into a war zone.

This particular young man sits there stunned. He is just a normal guy. His friends are all normal guys but their birth date did not get drawn, they did not win the lottery, life for them is normal and nothing has changed. But not for this young man: the government compelled him into military service and now the government is deploying him to a war zone. They did not even have the decency to tell him first, he had to hear it on the radio. His parents and his girlfriend also heard the radio announcement—they are all affected, they are all scared, they all shed a tear.

On 16 December 1967, three RAR main body departs Port Adelaide on board HMAS Sydney. This young man is part of the rear detail, so he flies out 10 or so days later. Three RAR arrive in Vung Tau on 27 December for the first tour and deploy to Nui Dat. This young man joins them shortly after, after he spends New Year's Eve on picket duty in the South Vietnamese jungle. Over the next 12 months he sees a lot of action. There are operations, mine clearing, counter mortar rocket tasks and reconnaissance missions. He has the job of forward scout. That is the person at the head of the platoon who sends back the various hand signals, telling people what is up ahead and what is the situation. He frequently leads 30 to 100 men into the jungle.

He does not like to talk much about these 12 months in Vietnam, but he shared a couple of stories. There is the time he returned from home for five days of R&R. On his last day in Adelaide he enjoyed lunch with his wife and parents and then headed to the airport. He flew to Sydney and then Saigon, before arriving back at Nui Dat. Shortly after his arrival he was once again leading men into the jungle. This time it was a full battalion, that is, more than 500 men. Try to imagine this: try to comprehend one day sitting in your parents' kitchen enjoying a roast and then, only days later, you are forward scout for your battalion, responsible for the lives of over 400 men and heading into a jungle that acts as a veil for your armed enemy.

There are other stories. Card games were a popular pastime. During basic training the young men had become good mates with another conscript, and the two of them were always ready for card games. They played whenever and wherever, including whilst in the Vietnamese jungles on operations. For some reason they were always short on a pack of cards, though they only seemed to have one in their platoon. After playing a handful of games one afternoon his mates ended up with the cards for safekeeping. That night they were mortared. There was a direct hit on his mate's fighting pit; his mate was killed. Shrapnel shredded some of the cards. The next day he continued to play card games, but now some of the cards were marked. It was the only pack of cards, after all. Life went on, the war continued.

There are plenty of other stories: recovering bodies after a patrol was attacked and all members were killed; digging shallow fighting holes during operations, sometimes to lie in, sometimes to sleep in; and, visiting the morgue to ID yet another man lost too soon. After 12 long months deployed in Vietnam, he finally boards HMAS Sydney and heads home. He is relieved, anxious and full of expectation and enthusiasm. But returning home is not an end point to this terrible ordeal; it is instead the beginning of a long period of readjustment.

The public backlash to the Vietnam War is painful; as images of the Vietnam War light up TV sets in lounge rooms across the country, they also ignite public opinion and public understanding of the deadly and horrific nature of the war zone. The young man is left feeling like many in Australia blame him for the war and how it was conducted. He is a broken man, struggling to put himself back together. Alcoholism, depression, nightmares and violence are common vices for many veterans.

Thankfully, though, there is help, and that is the Repat. The Repatriation Hospital at Daw Park has provided a place of refuge for war veterans for 74 years. Not only has it provided a critical role in delivering vital healthcare services but also has provided veterans with a home, somewhere they can go and feel understood and somewhere they can feel safe. It has helped countless veterans deal with a variety of ailments, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

Considerable expertise has been built up over the years to help the veterans, to help them readjust back into civilian life. The Repat is their hospital. But, now, five decades since that young man was forced to register for national service and fight in a war, he is engaged in another battle. Now he is fighting to save the place that helped him rebuild his life, the place that continues to help him deal with a lifetime of flashbacks and nightmares. At a time when he deserves a simple, trouble-free life, this Labor state government is instead causing another round of stress and anxiety. Has he not suffered enough? I urge the government to show some compassion. I urge the government to support our veterans, and I urge the government to stand by its 2010 commitment to never close the Repat.