Veteran found healing by returning to Vietnam

Stan Whitford lays a wreath at the Ararat War Memorial.

Stan Whitford lays a wreath at the Ararat War Memorial.

VIETNAM veteran Stan Whitford was guest speaker at the Vietnam Veterans' Remembrance Day in Ararat last week and spoke about his experiences and the subsequent effects of the conflict.

Mr Whitford was conscripted into the 4th intake of National Service in April 1966 and after training joined the 7th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment based at Puckapunyal.

His Battalion arrived in Vung Tau, Vietnam on April 8, 1967 and was transported by helicopter to Nui Dat.

"Our role was to relieve the 5th Battalion who were due to return home. During changeover, the 5 RAR guys were still talking about 6 RAR's involvement in Operation Vendetta (Long Tan) eight months after the battle. They warned us that we were in for a hell of a time," he said.

Mr Whitford said that on August 16 1966, the Nui Dat base camp received a barrage of enemy mortar fire. Twenty four Australian soldiers were wounded and a number of vehicles and tents were destroyed. In response to this attack, B Company, 6 Battalion was sent out on patrol the next day to locate the enemy, which they failed to do.

The following morning, August 18, D Company was sent to relieve B Company and continue the search. At about 3pm, 11 Platoon, D Company made contact with a small group of seven or eight enemy soldiers in green uniform. In the ensuing firefight, the enemy 'ran like hell'.

11 Platoon requested and was granted permission to pursue the enemy and at 4.10 pm in the middle of a rubber plantation during an horrific monsoon downpour, 11 Platoon encountered the main force.

The battle lasted until 7.15pm that night. The result, 18 Australian soldiers killed and 24 wounded.

The next day, 245 enemy bodies were counted with signs of many more dead and wounded having been carried away, which was common practice for the enemy.

Documents captured later by the Americans showed the main force encountered by 11 Platoon consisted of 2,500 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers.

These same documents indicated that 800 enemy were killed and nearly 1000 wounded.

It was such a resounding victory by the Australians that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army chose not to engage the Australians in similar combat tactics again.

"I must mention that many others played a role in this battle including the New Zealand Artillery who contributed to the many dead and wounded enemy," Mr Whitford said.

Mr Whitford said the battle of Long Tan was not the largest or most protracted battle in Vietnam but perhaps the most significant.

On August 18 1969, three years after the battle of Long Tan, a cross was raised on the site by members of 6 RAR on the Battalion's 2nd tour of duty. The day was remembered by those that gathered to commemorate their fallen mates as Long Tan Day from then on.

The original cross was removed sometime after 1973 and used by the Vietnamese as a memorial for a deceased Catholic priest. It was then recovered and acquired by the Dong Nai Museum in 1984. This same cross was loaned to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and was on display from August 17 2012 to June 11 2013.

In 1989, the Long Dat District Peoples Committee erected a replica cross on the Long Tan site with an inscription recognising it as an historic place.

Over time all veterans respectfully adopted the day as their own; to honour the 520 men killed in action and 2400 wounded in Vietnam from 1962 to 1973.

After a long awaited Welcome Home parade in Sydney in 1987, 14 years after the end of the war, Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced that Long Tan Day would officially be known as Vietnam Veterans' Day.

"It is important to honour those who returned; many without visible scars. Many vets, like myself, came home wanting to get on with their lives and block out the experiences of their time in that previously unknown country," he said.

"Not many of us can do very much to alleviate the pain which some of our veterans feel to this day.

"All we can do is honour the memory of those who paid with their lives and support those who suffer with their health and peace of mind.

"It is pleasing to acknowledge the continued support provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the RSLs and the various veterans' associations. Without this support structure, I am sure we would find a lot more suffering amongst veterans."

Mr Whitford said the American Psychiatric Association has, in the last several years, completely changed its thinking in relation to the rehabilitation of sufferers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He said they believe that the individual's recovery is best begun by showing them how to identify and focus on a singular and positive feature from their experiences.

"I mention this, because as you and I try to preserve one or more redeeming feature of the Australian experience of Vietnam rather than the war itself, the motivation must be to identify that redeeming feature, then value it," he said.

"I attended the RSL State Conference last month and it was pleasing to hear an address by the Honourable Michael Ronaldson, Minister for Veterans' Affairs, speaking about the rehabilitation of veterans of conflicts after Vietnam.

"In his words 'The Department of Veterans' Affairs was not going to let veterans slip through the cracks as Vietnam veterans were allowed to do'.

"Another great help to veterans, I believe, is to revisit the site of conflict. The most healing thing for me was to go back to Vietnam and I have returned several times since.

"Today, we commemorate those lost at war fighting for a cause or principle the government believed in and we honour and thank them for their sacrifice.

"But to thank someone with just words, for having sacrificed their lives, hardly seems sufficient, does it? Few things cause us to question the meaning and value of life more than the prospect of death itself. Every death defying veteran would testify to that.

"It is said that 'a thought for the past is also a thought for the future - to forget the past is to risk the future'."

Mr Whitford said that whether those who attended the service in Ararat were there to remember mates, to show their respect or to help others appreciate the true significance of Vietnam Veterans' Day, all should give a thought to the future veterans of current conflicts and also remember their contribution.

"Veterans have a special bond and from one veteran to another, I feel honoured to have had the privilege to be your guest speaker today, on this the 48th Anniversary of Long Tan," Mr Whitford said.

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