Being bombed, shot at, flown over enemy territory in a helicopter gunship, and performing on a stage where Australian Cathy Wayne had been shot dead just days earlier. These are lasting memories of my time as a singer during the Vietnam war.
I recall my wartime experiences each ANZAC Day, as Australia pauses to honour the men and women who’ve served in all theatres of conflict, and to remember those who died in them. Across the nation dawn services are conducted, followed by parades where flags flutter, bands play, and crowds cheer in streets lined with grateful citizens – young and old.
Although the many service personnel who march on ANZAC Day hold their heads high, there’s a darker side to this time of commemoration. Many who served in the Vietnam War, returned home with major psychological trauma, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression, as well as alcohol and drug problems. This has sometimes led to instances of suicide. The profound personal crisis of many of the soldiers involved in the war has been vividly represented in films like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter.
While physical battle scars are visible for all to see, it’s the mental ones that can be the hardest to combat. Vietnam was a politically unpopular war, exacerbated by the fact that young men were conscripted to fight. Many who returned as veterans of this conflict were despised and shunned, treated with indifference, and sometimes even with open hostility. There was no praise or glory for them. Sadly they’d participated in a war that many in the general community simply wanted to forget.
According to Professor David Dunt , Founding Director of the Centre for Health Policy, Programs and Economics, Melbourne School of Population Health, The University of Melbourne, “It wasn’t until the Vietnam Veterans “Welcome Home” March of 1987 that public sentiment started to change but by then it was too late. A half generation of young men were psychologically scarred not only in the medical sense…, but also through a loss of direction in life and embitterment.”
Dunt states that the high levels of mental disorders amongst veterans were linked with a massive absence of help for those returning. However, “after Vietnam, we became much more aware of the psychological impact of war than previously. This awareness has led to changes in attitude and a greater understanding of veterans’ mental health. …The failure to properly treat Vietnam veterans, should remind us of our obligation to help returning soldiers to get the support they need.”
Most of us would agree with professor Dunt. I certainly do. In 1969, I participated in a rigorous singing tour in Vietnam – 133 shows in 120 days. Based in a Vietnamese village in Da Nang, our show travelled all over South Vietnam performing on the back of trucks, open air stages such as Freedom Hill, and at American military and fire bases.
On my return to Australia, I was underweight, exhausted, and struggling mentally to process all that I’d seen and done. For the first two weeks, I simply lay on my mother’s couch, unable to get up. There was nothing “left in the tank”. It had been my first trip away from life in the peaceful suburbs of Melbourne. I’d known nothing about war, racial tension, the Black Power political movement, or ‘culture shock’ before this experience.
What helped me get through the mental trauma and physical exertion was the support and prayers of my family, as well as the faith-teachings of my church which include the 91st Psalm. Prayer can be restorative – as recent studies are showing. It has a beneficial effect on one’s mental and bodily wellbeing by reducing stress and producing calm.
In her book, The SuperStress Solution, Dr. Roberta Lee writes that “Research shows that people who are more religious or spiritual use their spirituality to cope with life…They’re better able to cope with stress, they heal faster from illness, and they experience increased benefits to their health and well-being. On an intellectual level, spirituality connects you to the world, which in turn enables you to stop trying to control things all by yourself. When you feel part of a greater whole, it’s easy to understand that you aren’t responsible for everything that happens in life.”
Faith, say experts, gives us hope, and this is the ultimate stress reducer. Some doctors even believe that hope is about the best thing you can do for your body. Perhaps knowing that there is a way out of dark experiences, will give all our returned veterans hope for achieving a normal and fulfilling life. After all, they deserve it.