Vietnam Veterans Job Link Program
My Personal Pages

In November 1990 I was working for the Vietnam Veterans Job Link Program (VVJLP) in Perth, Western Australia. For Remembrance Day, Sunday the 11th of November, we had organised a huge fund raising event at Leederville Oval, home of the West Perth Football Club. We called the event Fire Support Base Family Fun Day. It had been planned as a fund raiser for an idea I had been working on with the VVJLP president Denis Dillon, and co-coordinator Phil Stanwell. We wanted to use the VVJLP as the base to set up an Australian Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program (AVVLP), based on a similar organisation in the USA. When it was originally established by Tony Weaire, The VVJLP had actually been modelled on the American Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program, although on a much smaller scale. Denis and I had travelled to the US in 1989 to study the VVLP in Chicago and Washington, and we thought a similar model could work in Australia.

One of the biggest problems in the veteran community in Western Australia in the 1980s was the bitter rivalry between the state branch of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia (VVAA) and the RSL Vietnam Veterans Sub Branch. In the few short years the VVJLP had operated in Perth, some veterans saw it as a way of bypassing that rivalry. The VVJLP committee included VVAA members, RSL members, and members with no connection to either organisation. That neutrality, plus the fact that it was not a membership organisation, gave the VVJLP an advantage in fund raising and in service provision. An annual car raffle, plus some government funding enabled the VVJLP to employ a full-time co-coordinator, an office administrator, an administrative assistant, and in 1990 it expanded its paid staff to give me a job as a development officer. This full time staff was something most ex-service organisations could only imagine in their wildest dreams.

At this time I had been active in the veteran community for nearly ten years, mostly with the VVAA. I couldn't help noticing that most of the work in organisations like the VVAA was being done by people who had their own health issues. The majority of veterans, who were living normal, healthy lives, were not playing an active role in ex-service organisations. There was no lack of interest among this group of veterans, they simply did not have time to attend regular meetings, do welfare work, or take part in working bees and fund raising activities. In America the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program aims to tap into the knowledge and expertise of the more successful veterans in the community, without involving them in too much of the day to day running of organisations.

I came up with a model for Australia in which a group of successful veterans would be brought together as an advisory council, meeting no more than four times a year. The day to day work would be done by paid office staff, while policy would be set by the advisory council. With the expertise and contacts of the advisory council at its disposal, the Leadership Program should be able to fund more than just the VVJLP. The VVJLP was the managing organisation for the Vietnam Veterans Halfway House, and we envisioned the AVVLP providing funding for that project. We could even see the possibility of the AVVLP funding the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service, thereby making it independent of the DVA. Each organisation funded by the AVVLP would have its own managing committee.

Phil, Denis and I proceeded to sound out a number of Vietnam veterans who were prominent citizens in WA. Graham Edwards, patron of the VVJLP, was a member of the Western Australian government. He arranged for a meeting to be held in Parliament House. Normie Rowe came over from the eastern states to show his support, and Rick Eilert, from the Illinois VVLP, came out from Chicago for the meeting. We had veterans who were prominent in just about every sector of WA society, including law, politics, and a variety of businesses. It was an impressive group.

After the meeting, we decided we needed a fund raising event to get the show rolling, while the idea was still fresh in the minds of all who had attended the parliament house meeting and shown an interest in our idea. We came up with the Family Fun Day. One of our contacts was involved at a high level with the West Perth Football Club, and he suggested Leederville Oval as the venue. We had sponsorship contacts with the likes of Carlton and United Breweries, Houghton's Wines, Skipper Mitsubishi and other business organisations. The day itself was huge. The state premier, Carmen Lawrence, drew our car raffle, Normie Rowe and John Schumann led the entertainment, we had the RAAF do a fly over at the end of the minutes' silence, we had the army doing an infantry and armour assault across the oval, we had so many stalls, rides and bouncy castles that they covered the perimeter of the oval. People kept coming all day, and the money rolled in. What could possibly go wrong?

Before I relate what happened next, I should fill in a bit of history to explain how I came to be working for the VVJLP.

The story really starts with the death of Phill Thompson, national president of the VVAA, in November 1986. As national secretary, I worked with Tim McCombe to organise Phill's funeral and to deal as best we could with the shock waves Phill's death had sent through the veteran community. Next we had to hold a meeting to elect a new president. By that time it was nearly Christmas. My private life wasn't doing particularly well at this time. A relationship with a woman I had been with for 12 years was on the rocks. My health had also taken a strange downturn. If my symptoms had appeared a decade later, they would have been diagnosed as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It would take another 13 years for the culprit to be identified as a tumour on my pituitary gland. In 1986 however, it was a mystery. It had caused me to leave my job as a commonwealth public servant, and I had been living on sickness benefits for a couple of years (if you can call that living).

These were the circumstances in which I decided to get out of Sydney for a while, to clear my head and work out what the future might hold. I had decided not to stand for re-election in the VVAA, although I had only recently been elected as the secretary of a newly formed committee to organise a Welcome Home Parade for Australian Vietnam veterans, and that was a cause to which I was strongly committed.

I left Sydney in my bright red 1977 Leyland Mini, spent Christmas and New Year in Victoria with friends in Sale and Daylesford, and headed west, to visit an old friend in Perth. I arrived on the 6th of January. It was the summer of the America's Cup, and from the moment the Mini limped into Perth I felt right at home. I soon decided I would never go back to Sydney.

The low point of that summer in Perth came in February when my mother died, and I was too broke to get back to Sydney for her funeral. In that same month I had to accept that I would have to resign from the Welcome Home Parade committee. I had to put my own health first, and that meant staying in Perth, so I sent a letter of resignation to the committee back in Sydney.

After a few months in Perth, my health started to improve, and I decided it was time to get back to work. The VVJLP was a new innovation in the Western Australian veteran community at the time, and it was able to find me a job as a private investigator. It was around this time that I started writing poetry. I also started a new and promising relationship. In a new spirit of optimism I bought a house (little more than a holiday shack really) in Mandurah. On a sadder note, I lost another friend when John Wilson took his own life just six weeks before the Welcome Home Parade. John had been one of the stalwarts in the early days when there was so much work to do to get the idea of a Welcome Home Parade (WHP) accepted throughout the veteran community.

I was able to fly over to Sydney for the WHP thanks to Channel Nine, who paid my air fare so that I could appear on the Midday Show with Normie Rowe, Bob Gibson and Robert Dodds on the Monday before the Parade. Although I was no longer involved in the organisation of the WHP, I still had a great deal of emotional investment in it, and I was overwhelmed by its success. Things were looking up in my life, and it seemed that the decision to stay in Perth was the right one.

As my health improved, I started to get involved in the veteran community again, including joining the committee of the VVJLP. Then I started to get involved in politics outside of the veteran community as well. I led a “people power” movement to protest against rising home loan interest rates, and it soon spread nationally. By that time, home loan interest rates were at 17%, and the federal treasurer and future prime minister Paul Keating was forced to do a deal with the major banks to peg them at that rate, where they stayed for several months until they were able to come down again. By the middle of 1989 I was the state vice president of the Australian Democrats, and was also the endorsed Democrat candidate for the electorate of Stirling at the next election, due to be held some time in 1990.

Unfortunately, this political activity gave me a relatively high profile in Perth, and this meant I could no longer continue in my job as a private investigator. It is impossible to do discreet surveillance when your face is regularly appearing on TV and in the local newspaper. So I left my job and applied for an entry level position in the state public service. In the meantime, I was doing voluntary work most days in the office of Senator Jean Jenkins. After a while, Senator Jenkins decided to put me on the payroll, but then the public service job came through. So I was briefly a political staffer, but only long enough to get one pay cheque.

Life in the WA Health Department began badly when, on day one, I was ushered into my new boss's office only to see on his desk a copy of that day's West Australian newspaper with my face on the front page. It did not get much better after that. Clearly I was marked as a potential troublemaker. It didn't help that most of the incoming phone calls to my section were for me and had nothing to do with my work. But I feel particularly bitter about the way my employers treated me after the 1990 federal election. More on that later.

In 1990 I enrolled as a part time student at the University of Western Australia. The academic year started in February, and that same month Prime Minister Hawke announced the date for the federal election. The timing was exquisite. One of my subjects at UWA was Politics 100. I had to call my tutor and tell him I couldn't make it to my first politics tutorial because I was too busy with actual politics!

As the federal election got underway, I had a full time job, I was a part time university student, I was state vice president of the Australian Democrats, I was the Democrat candidate for Stirling, I was on the committees of the VVAA and the VVJLP. I was also attending meetings as a representative of the VVAA on organisations such as the Australian Veterans and Defence Services Council and the Australian Vietnam War Veterans Trust, and I had my other political activities going on as well. I cannot imagine what forces were operating in my brain to make me think I could manage my life under those circumstances. I was clearly heading for a fall.

Although Stirling was unwinnable for the Democrats, my job as a candidate was to maximise the Senate vote in my electorate for Senator Jenkins. The average Democrat vote in Stirling was more than enough to receive public refunding of campaign expenses. I wanted to make sure I gave the campaign my best shot, so I went to the bank and took out a personal loan for a little more than the amount I expected to receive in public funding. If I didn't get the whole amount back after the election, at least I had a secure job and would have no difficulty repaying the loan.

There is a constitutional requirement that public servants who stand in federal elections have to resign from their jobs. If they do not win a seat, they are re-hired after the election. Months out from the election, I went to the personnel branch of my department to make sure there was no danger of anything going wrong with this process in my case. They assured me that it was a routine matter, and I would definitely get my job back. I made frequent visits to personnel right up until the day I resigned, just to make sure my job was secure, and every time I was assured that there would be no problem. Then, after the election, they sent me a letter informing me that, since I had been in the department less than a year and my employment had not yet been made substantive, they had no obligation to take me back. Cop that, troublemaker!

To make matters worse, one night while I was out campaigning in my electorate, the Democrats held a meeting without me, and decided that all electoral funding would be held by the state branch and distributed equally to local branches instead of going directly to the candidates who had earned the money. So, after the election I found myself unemployed, broke, and deep in debt. Furthermore, my political activism had put terminal strains on my relationship with the woman I had been with for the past three years, so I was also alone. It was the lowest point in my life. Even after the VVJLP came to my rescue and created the job of development officer for me, I was still in a financial mess. I had a mortgage and a personal loan, and several months with no income. My debts blew out to such an extent that there was a real possibility that I might have to declare myself bankrupt. That is the background to my employment with the VVJLP.

Now I will get back to the story of the VVJLP and its triumvirate of Denis Dillon, Phil Stanwell and myself, the Leadership Program project, and the Family Fun Day on the 11th of November 1990.

The 11th of November was a Sunday. A couple of weeks earlier, Denis Dillon's son went missing. On the Saturday of the week leading up to our Family Fun Day, he was found dead in his car. The VVJLP committee was also the managing committee for the Vietnam Veterans halfway house, Cypress Cottage. On the Wednesday leading up to the Family Fun Day, one of the residents committed suicide in the house. Meanwhile, I had moved out of my former girlfriend's house and into a small flat in Perth, and I had made my house in Mandurah available to a previously homeless veteran. Around the time that all of these other things were happening in the lead-up to the Family Fun Day, he decided to attack the back door of my house, from the inside, with my axe.

Although the Family Fun Day was an outstanding success, the stresses that had been building up came to a head when Denis Dillon and Phil Stanwell had a violent disagreement shortly after taking part in a ceremony to present certificates of appreciation to those who had contributed to the success of the event. They both resigned from their positions in the VVJLP. I arrived at work on the Monday after the Family Fun Day to find that the VVJLP had no coordinator and no president.

The VVJLP committee appointed me as acting coordinator, and in the days that followed, committee members and other interested members of the veteran community urged me to stand for the vacant presidency. I was having some difficulty deciding which position I wanted. The presidency would give me the opportunity to make important decisions about future VVJLP policy, while the coordinator's job would give me an ongoing income, which I desperately needed.. Soon however, people started urging me to do both. They wanted me to ignore the obvious conflict of interest and be both coordinator and president. The fact that I decided, against my better judgment, to take on both positions, says something about me, and about my state of mind at the time, that I am not proud of. I do not blame anybody for talking me into my decision, because the decision was mine, and I knew, even as I was making it, that it was wrong. So I became the paid coordinator, and at the same time I became the president of the organisation that paid me. It was an impossible situation, and it could not last.

After a couple of months it was a relatively trivial incident that brought about my downfall. The halfway house had a sponsorship arrangement with Skipper Mitsubishi, who provided us with an Mitsubishi Starwagon minibus. The agreement was due for renewal, and the manager of the halfway house came to me and put a case for downsizing the vehicle to a station wagon. I told him to talk to Skipper's and get back to me with a proposal that the committee could consider. Well, if I had cleaned out the VVJLP bank account and absconded to the Caribbean, I doubt if the outcry would have been any worse than what followed. Members of the committee were up in arms and gunning for my blood. How dare I take such decisions without consulting the committee! Never mind that I had not actually taken any decision. In their eyes I had become some kind of autocrat who had to be taken down a peg.

Even though this was a trivial situation, and one that could have been easily dealt with, I was at the end of my tether, and I just wanted out. I resigned as president and coordinator, went back to my little shack in Mandurah, and refused to have anything further to do with the veteran community. I wish I could dress it up as something more noble, but the fact is, it was a good, old fashioned dummy spit. Once again I was unemployed, broke, deep in debt and alone.

Several people tried to talk me in to coming back, but nobody put in more effort than the head of the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service (VVCS), who was also on the committee of the VVJLP. He spoke to me by phone for hours. Eventually he accepted that I would not come back, but he extracted from me a commitment that I would come in to the VVCS and talk to the doctor. The VVCS in Perth had a doctor who came in every Wednesday to deal with the medical needs of veterans. I spoke to the doctor, and he asked me a lot of questions. At one point he gave me a piece of paper and a pen, and asked me to write down a list of all of my jobs and all of my changes of address in the 22 years since I left the army. By the time both lists had exceeded 40 and were speeding towards 50, I noticed that the doctor was also writing. He passed across the desk the document he had been working on, and asked me to sign it. It was a DVA claim form for PTSD.

At that stage I was receiving a 40% disability pension for lumbar sacral disc degeneration (an occupational hazard for anyone who was an infantry sig in Vietnam). Within a few weeks of putting in this new claim, not only was PTSD accepted, but they put me straight on to a TPI and a service pension. This came as quite a shock. It was difficult to accept that at the age of 43 I had nothing further to offer in the work force. On the other hand, I had seen other veterans fight for years with the DVA to have PTSD accepted, or to reach the level of TPI. How crook would I have to be for DVA to have given me a TPI pension without a fight?

With me out of the way, there was nobody left from the core group that had hatched the plan for a leadership program, so all such expansionist ideas were scrapped, and the VVJLP committee decided to stick to its core purpose, which was to find jobs for veterans. I stayed right out of the picture. A few years later I ran into Denis Dillon in the cafe at the repat hospital, and he told me there had been some kind of financial scandal involving a committee member, but I don't know if that was anything more than a rumour.

I retreated to a solitary life in my Mandurah house, and tried to deal with my financial crisis. I practically lived on generic brand two minute noodles and whatever fruit and vegetables I was able to grow in my own garden. The one part of my life that was still going well was my part time studies at UWA, so I made that my main focus.

There is a happy ending to this story. Although 1991 was a pretty miserable year, towards the end of the year I met the woman who is still with me today. My university studies went well enough for me subsequently to complete a first class honours degree. Because of the knowledge and skills I gained through my studies, I have subsequently been able to make a contribution to the veteran community with my research and writing, while steering well clear of holding any elected office in ex-service organisations.

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