As a youngster I used to wonder why my stoic, kind, father held so much sadness in his heart. The rare occasions he dusted off his Hanimex projector and loaded the carousel with slides of his tour of duty in Vietnam gave me a visual and emotional insight. Fireworks were off the agenda, and visits from 'old mates' were met with a combination of warmth and anxiety. John Schumann's song 'I was only 19' allowed me in just four minutes and nineteen seconds to briefly walk in his shoes and see through his eyes. I played the cassette over and over until it wore thin! When the two of us walked out of the cinema after seeing 'Platoon'he simply said 'That's how it was'.
For many years the word 'Vietnam' was like an enigma. A distant place and time far away and long ago, yet through Dad still entrenched in every facet of my daily life. Through my teenage years I embarked on a decade of research beginning with his personnel file, battalion record book, letters, stories and images. In my twenties I found the key to unlock the mystery once and for all. His battalion commanding officer diaries had been declassified and made readily available through the Australian War Memorial. Intricate details of his home base layout at Nui Dat, routine orders, operational plans, after action reports and field radio logs containing minute-by-minute and metre-by-metre records sent between his platoon and company commanders and battalion HQ, complete with map grid references and descriptions of what Dad and his mates were doing and seeing somewhere out in the jungle, rice paddies, plantations and villages.
At times I'd be reading through the encoded script feeling as through I was a fly on the wall watching over Dad's shoulder as he patrolled endlessly though the terrain, set up ambushes by night, suddenly found himself in short, sharp firefights or became entrenched in prolonged battles. I could almost hear the crack of rifle fire, the mortar primaries popping before the enemy flares signalled an assault or mortars rained down around him, the artillery screaming overhead, the whistling of RPG's before they smashed into the masonry above him spraying shrapnel all around. I could feel the sense of relief as the distinctive whop-whop sound appeared in the distance, en route to extract him from weeks of stress and strain in the scrub.
I began sharing this all with Dad and he his memories with me. I provided him perspective from a military intelligence perspective and he filled in the gaps between the lines with raw emotions and stories. As I approached him with what I knew to be the more significant events I would always ask if he wanted to avoid or discontinue the conversation. But he never flinched, knowing full well that it would reopen the hidden wounds beneath the surface. We laughed, we cried and at times just sat in silent reflection. He told me he was incredibly proud that I'd gone to so much trouble to uncover the details of the most significant time in his life, and that had I not done so the memories would have gone with him to the grave, and what a waste that would be. After completing the study I just stood in awe of what he'd been through, what as an individual soldier he'd faced, achieved, succeeded in and all he'd survived through. I told him that without doubt I knew him to be a true warrior, and in my eyes a hero.
I spent the proceeding decade using the information I'd amassed travelling to Vietnam and following in his footsteps, relocating his platoon lines at Nui Dat and pinpointing the very ground he'd operated and fought through his entire tour of duty. I travelled by motorbike, alone, deep into the recesses of the modern Vietnamese landscape. Armed only with information, memories and a camera. Mostly the people I encountered spoke no English so, day by day, I self-learned Vietnamese and began engaging the locals in a very different way than Dad. I found friends, peace, incredible hospitality and a warmth and happiness I'd never before encountered. I developed a love for the culture, cuisine, stunning geography, language and proud, long Vietnamese history. In essence when Dad came to Vietnam it turned his happy life upside down and left him with a lifetime of bitter, painful memories. My own experiences turned around a generally negative period of my life and gave it meaning, purpose and and happiness.
In the following years I realised the research skills I'd garnered proved useful to others. A very good friend who had independently been doing similar research and on-ground investigations for even longer than I had already begun assisting veterans and family members to visit places of significant personal events in Vietnam. We decided to promote our skills and build on mutual plans to extend our services. At the end of a recent tour assisting a Kiwi digger and his son to return to such places I was overawed by the immediate feedback the digger gave me. It was so simple yet intensely powerful. He told me that for the first time in his life he had perspective on his tour of South Vietnam, in particular the scope and scale of his far reaching operations. And that for the first time in the fifty years since being in Vietnam, powerfully, he felt a sense of closure. The very same adjectives describe precisely what I was able to provide for Dad.
In subsequent correspondence with the vet's son I understand that an incredible dialogue has opened up between the two and perhaps the ghosts of the past may now finally be able to rest. This is among the most powerful gifts I can ever provide to anyone. Trauma and post-traumatic stress dictated much of Dad's life but through my passionate research and time spent delving deep into the Vietnamese countryside where his trauma was seeded and overwriting the past with wonderful new tales was an incredible healing process. To be able to do the same for others is an unexpected blessing I hadn't anticipated. And to be rewarded with those two words, perspective and closure is the icing on the cake. For veterans, but also importantly for those who have lived as I once did with the mystery their whole lives.
Luke Johnston. Son of David C Johnston, 3790670, 2Pl Alpha Coy, 3RAR 1967-68