The impact of the war on Australian soldiers
The return home
After the war was over and the Australian troops came home, they were angry and confused by the reaction they met. They were not welcomed home as they had expected they would be. Many veterans felt like they were being blamed for the war - instead of the government. Soldiers did not receive an official 'Welcome Home' parade until 1987 - nearly 20 years after the last soldiers left Vietnam. Not surprisingly, many veterans felt their service to their country went unrecognised and un-thanked.
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The psychological effects of the war
The Vietnam War was unlike any other war Australian soldiers had fought in that no one really knew how to deal with the after effects of it. Vietnam was not a war fought on open fronts, with areas of safety to which soldiers could retreat. Soldiers were constantly on alert for the enemy. Soldiers did not always know who the enemy was. The enemy could be the women and children soldiers thought they were protecting. The result was that many Vietnam veterans suffered psychological damage in the form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
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Studies have proven that, compared with other men of that generation, Vietnam veterans have higher rates of psychiatric disorders, heart disease, alcoholism and a higher suicide rate among their families. Many Veterans could not cope with the things they had seen and the stress they had lived under for two years. Many veterans also could not understand why they were feeling the way they were. In many cases, PTSD was not diagnosed until years later. Many of the men became emotionally detached from their lives. They felt they could not love or show affection to their wives and children, even years after the war was over.
Another reason many veterans found it hard to settle into their lives in Australia was the selective nature of the National Service programme. Unlike the world wars where all the young men from an age group had gone to fight together, the National Service Act (1964) called up men selectively based on their birthday. This meant that while some men were fighting in Vietnam, the rest of their peer group was getting on with their lives in Australia. Vietnam veterans returned home to find that life had moved on without them and that they had lost two years of their lives. It also meant that only a small section of Australian society really understood what the Veterans had gone through. Not many people could, or tried to, understand the extreme circumstances those young men had lived through for two years.
By the late 1970s many soldiers believed they had also been poisoned while fighting in Vietnam. Between 1962 and 1971 over 17 million gallons of herbicide and insecticide were used in Vietnam to clear vegetation so the Viet Cong had nowhere to hide. Agent Orange was only one of many insecticides used but that name has come to represent them all. This action was known as Operation Ranch Hand. During Ranch Hand, American and Australian soldiers were exposed to the chemicals.
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In 1978 a report appeared linking Agent Orange with cancers of the soft tissues and blood, birth defects in children born to those exposed to the herbicide and toxic brain dysfunction. All three of these disorders were common enough among Vietnam veterans that the State Veterans Associations in Australia began to ask for a government inquiry to establish a link between Agent Orange and the large numbers of veterans with disabilities
The Royal Commission
A royal commission was finally set up in 1982 to investigate the claims made by the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia. It reported in 1985 and said that Australian exposure to chemicals had been very small, and that it had not affected the soldiers adversely. The commission's report said the chemicals had prevented health problems 'which may have otherwise been a problem in the Vietnam environment'.
The Vietnam Veterans Association rejected the royal commission report and fought to have the findings overturned. It was not until 1994 that the Labor Government acknowledged Agent Orange was responsible for the cancers and other illnesses suffered by Australian veterans of the Vietnam War. American veterans had to fight a similar battle for recognition of their symptoms - they eventually won a legal action against seven chemical companies and received a multi-million-dollar compensation payment. In Australia the government began a compensation scheme for those who had cancer caused by their service in Vietnam and for the widows of those who had died from cancer.
The Legacy of the Vietnam War
The legacy of the Vietnam War among Vietnam veterans and their families was long looked upon as something that should not be talked about. The higher rates of birth defects and miscarriages, depression, suicide, cancers, alcoholism and the many other physical effects of herbicide poisoning were ignored for a long time.
The song 'I Was Only Nineteen' was a huge hit in Australia in 1980. It was written by a band called Red Gum and is still a very popular song among veterans. The song talks about the lead singer, John Schuman's experiences in Vietnam and the effect it had on him. You can find the lyrics on the internet. Take time to read the words and try to relate them to what you have learned about the war and its aftermath for those who fought in it.
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