Thursday, 25 April 2019

The Day When We Could Not March

Anzac Day 2019

The NZ Police has "instructed" the various Returned Services Associations (RSA) not to march this coming Anzac Day.  The reasons are understandable.  It is just a few weeks since a lone wolf killer murdered, at point blank range, fifty of our citizens--innocent men, women, and children.  The police fear copy cat murders.  Opening fire on a group of marching citizens--out in public, vulnerable, unprotected would be too easy.  And it is not as if the malignant have not had time to plan.  

We feel for the Police, since they are in a "damned if you do, and damned if you don't" situation.

We also feel for the various RSA groups around the country.  Not to march may feel like a form of weakness, of dishonour, even cowardice.  These are the very attributes which our armed forces, particularly our veterans and returned soldiers, despise.  Now they are being indirectly forced to act in what many will see as a dishonourable way towards their forbears and to the fallen.

Lest we forget, we are re-publishing an essay written by a lady whose father served in the Vietnam War.  It is a grim reminder of how post-traumatic stress can afflict families long after the battlefield.  It reminds us that our veterans and their families need particular care.  "She'll be right, mate" just does not cut it.

The background and introduction to the winning essay can be found here.  The actual essay is reproduced below.  In the year and the day when we may not march, republishing this profound essay is an alternative "march" if you will.

I loved my dad, even though he was hard to live with. Even to this day I never knew if that was who he had always been or if the Vietnam war had had such a profound effect on him that he’d changed forever. My mum told me that his sister had referred to him as a gentle giant before he’d gone to war. A giant he was, gentle I’m not so sure about.

A soft side would show through every now and then, but I mostly saw his hard exterior. He was a big, strong Maori man from the East Coast, with huge hands and an authority about him that no one messed with. He was a man of few words and as a kid, I was scared of him.

Mum and dad met not long after dad returned from Vietnam. Mum was also in the army and was introduced to dad through his sister Rebecca. I came along not long after and was born in Christchurch in 1970. We lived there until I was 4 then we moved to Singapore for 2 years. I remember a few things from that time, but mostly what involved me rather than dad. We moved back to NZ in 1977 to Waiouru and stayed there for 3 years until dad was posted to Tokoroa. He eventually retired from the army after 20 years while at that posting but continued in the territorial force for a few more years.

I arrived in Waiouru when I was 7 and we left when I was 10. I have lots of memories of my life in Waiouru. Many of them are great and I still talk about them to this day. School, the snow, climbing trees and riding horses at the local pony club. Other memories are not so good and up until recently the events that took place were part of defining who I became as an adult. These are memories of dad, a man who I remember as always being drunk. Like I said at the beginning, he was a big man and a big drunk man is a very scary person to a little child. There were moments that I feared for my family’s safety and on one occasion my brother and I were taken to the neighbour's house so we weren’t exposed to what was going on. I heard arguments and yelling at other houses, so I knew we weren’t the only family where this happened.

Like I said, my dad was big, Maori and scary, so in my child’s mind I categorised all Maori men to be this way. I distinctly remember not wanting to have anything to do with Maori if this was what they were like. Even to write this down makes me feel deeply ashamed because as an adult,  I am immensely proud of my culture and who I am. However, the forum I am writing this for and the effect of the Vietnam war on my family, I believe this was the start of it for me.

 After we moved to Tokoroa, this way of life continued. Dad drunk many nights, arguments, yelling and knots in my stomach continuously. I slept with a bible under my pillow because in some small way, I felt like this would keep me safe. When I turned 15, I decided I no longer wanted to live under his roof, so I left school, left home and started working. This was tough on my mum and when I was 16, my parents separated. The life with my dad had been hard enough for me, I can't imagine how tough it had been for my mother.

When I was 19, I moved to Australia and this is when my relationship with my dad started to improve. He visited me a couple of times and I got to know a little about who he actually was. He was more than the big, scary man I had grown up with. He was intelligent, he cared and I realised he worried about me. When my first child was born, my dad surprised me totally when he started singing nursery rhymes to her. I had no idea he even knew what a nursery rhyme was. Like I said previously, he was a man of few words so he never really talked to us much. I had two more children and dad spent time with them, teaching them games and playing with them in the back yard. This is the soft side of dad that we never experienced growing up as his children.

Between my first and second child, I had 3 miscarriages. Dad made comments about it being his fault, he thought that maybe the effect of Agent Orange had transferred through to me and this is what caused me to have the miscarriages. Through investigation, it was found I have antiphospholipid syndrome which can be caused by an autoimmune disorder. We will never know if this was in any way linked to Vietnam however, no one else in my family has this syndrome.

This was the first time we had heard dad talk about Vietnam. Throughout the following years, dad would make random comments during conversations that had nothing to do with Vietnam. It would catch us by surprise and often we asked him to repeat what he said, but he never really did. In the end, we learnt to tune in to when he would go off on another track of thought and voice it out loud. The comment that stands out to me the most was - ‘it was either Charlie or me, and I chose me’.

When Dad was in his 60’s he asked me to write down what life was like for us kids. He wondered if he had PTSD from Vietnam after he had seen a video on the subject.  At the bottom of this essay is the letter I wrote for him back then. I'm not sure if he had any counselling for this but he decided for his 65th birthday that he would invite all the men that had served with him in his section, so they could share their stories with us, and that we would have a better understanding of what had happened.

This ended up being a time of healing, laughter, tears by all and a connection to the men that dad had served with all those years ago. They told us their memories and stories of dad and who and what he had been to them back in those days. It was then that we realised that our dad held a lot of mana with these men. We were seeing our dad in a different light and an understanding started to develop for the reason he spent so many nights drunk when we were kids. I think he just wanted to block out all the thoughts that were going through his mind.

When dad was 70 years old, he was diagnosed with larynx cancer. My mother, brother and I cared for him during this time and after nine months of this disease, he died at the age of 71. Throughout these nine months, our family had a chance to be together and heal. Mum cared for dad in her own home after his treatment. A sacrifice she made for my brother and I. Once dad left the hospital, he needed full-time care, my brother ran a business and I was working supporting my family. One of us would have to give up work to look after him. As I mentioned, they separated when I was 16 but she took him back and cared for him so we could continue to work. We were all devastated by the loss of dad. In the end, he paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country. Not during the war but 42 years later by a cancer which is on the list of presumptive illnesses of Vietnam.

Nine years after dad passed away, my family attended a ceremony at Government house in Wellington, where we received on behalf of dad, an acknowledgement from the government for service. He was formally recognised for his Mention in Despatches award and we were given his citation. This was a proud yet humbling moment for our family.

The effect of the Vietnam war on our family took its toll, yet the price my dad paid was much bigger. In my grief after dad died, I wrote a letter to the then Prime Minister - John Key, asking him to remember my dad on ANZAC day and the sacrifice he had paid for his country.

Nga mihi Awhi B
Lest we forget. 

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