On this page I will tell the story of my years of
activism in the veteran community, starting when I joined the Vietnam Veterans Action Association in 1980. That organisation
later became the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia. I was elected as National Secretary of the VVAA in 1983, and re-elected
for several more years. Later I became active in a number of other organisations, including the committee that organised the
Welcome Home Parade in 1986-87, the Vietnam Veterans Job Link Program in Perth, the Vietnam Veterans Federation of Australia
in Canberra, Legacy, Australian Veterans and Defence Services Council, and others.
Sometimes I feel a bit like the Forrest Gump of
veterans' politics. I haven't achieved much myself, but I seem to have been there, somewhere in the background, while a lot
of important achievements have been won by people I have worked with.
This is me when I was National Secretary of the Vietnam Veterans Association
of Australia (VVAA) in the mid 1980s, when the late Phill Thompson (pictured below) was National President. This was during
the "Agent Orange" Royal Commission, when the VVAA was presenting the case for Australian veterans.
Click on either
of these pictures to go to the VVAA website.
You'll find my personal tribute to Phill in my poetry pages.
In the 1980s I became a major player in the politics of the veteran community. This was not something I planned, or ever intended
to happen. It was not something I ever felt comfortable about. In fact, I felt hopelessly out of my depth the entire time.
Some time in late 1979 or early 1980, I heard the term "Agent Orange" for the first time. The issue of herbicides
and pesticides used in the Vietnam War and their effects on veterans and their children had become a major controversy in
the USA and had crossed the Pacific Ocean and been noticed by Australian veterans. When no interest was shown in this issue
by mainstream veterans' organisations, particularly the RSL, Australian veterans who wanted to know what effect Agent Orange
might have on them and their families formed the Vietnam Veterans Action Association (VVAA), in order to provide each other
with support and be at the vanguard of research and lobbying on this issue.
I don't remember exactly when I joined the VVAA. As mentioned in a previous chapter I had allowed my RSL membership to lapse
after being denied entry to Liverpool RSL Club (in the south-west of Sydney) because my hair was deemed to be too long, despite
being a newly returned Vietnam veteran and a member of the nearby Ingleburn RSL Club. I had inquired about joining the Korea
and South-East Asia Forces Association, but their membership form asked veterans to declare whether they had ever been a Communist.
I had no desire to join any organisation that thought it had a right to ask that question. But there was something about this
new organisation, this VVAA, and the way they presented themselves in the media, that made me think that maybe this was a
veterans' organisation I could join.
At first I was a passive member, paying my dues, reading my newsletter, trying to keep up with the information coming out
in the media and the stubborn resistance being shown by the dominant conservative establishment in Australian politics and
the veteran community. I remember going to a national VVAA meeting at Rooty Hill RSL, where Phill Thompson was elected as
National President of the VVAA. Around this time the Association changed its name to the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia,
retaining the initials VVAA. At that national meeting I was comfortable being in the audience, and had no desire to join the
leaders at the top table. Their world of political activism was something I admired but did not aspire to be a part of.
In 1982 the VVAA held a meeting at Hurstville, which was part of a national campaign to make Agent Orange an issue in marginal
seats at the 1983 federal election. It was at this meeting that the leadership announced that a VVAA badge had been designed
and would soon be available at the national office in Granville.
At that time I was a Customs Officer, checking international incoming parcels at the Redfern Mail Exchange, and one afternoon
after work I decided to drop in to the VVAA office and buy a badge. What I saw at the office that day changed my life. I saw
veterans giving freely of their time and limited energy to serve the needs of others, even though every one of them was suffering
some kind of health or psychological or personal issue. In the following weeks I could not get those people or their selfless
service ethic out of my mind. I was fit and healthy, in my early 30s with a full time job, and the work of the VVAA that I
had admired so much over the previous couple of years was being done by volunteers who were much less physically able than
myself. I decided that I would visit the office again, and this time I would offer my services after work, a couple of afternoons
per week, to do whatever job they could give me.
I started doing paperwork, sorting out filing and membership information, and getting acquainted with all of the other
volunteers. Phill Thompson started referring to me as "the airline pilot", because I would come in wearing my Customs
uniform, which did indeed make me look like an airline pilot. It was only a matter of weeks after I started helping out in
the office when I was invited to join the committee of the New South Wales state branch.
Around the time that I became a NSW Branch committee member, I was summoned to the office by Phill Thompson. Phill told me
"some bloke" was coming in to sing to us. This bloke had apparently written a song that was relevant to Vietnam
veterans, and he was coming to our office to play it to some of our members. Phill had agreed to arrange this because this
bloke had been recommended by one of our South Australian members, Mick Storan.
When I got to the office, I thought there was something familiar about the bloke with the reddish-brown beard. Then he
picked up his guitar and held it left-handed, and my first impression was confirmed: "Some bloke" was in fact John
Schumann of Redgum. Unlike the other veterans gathered at the Granville office that day, I was already a Redgum fan, having
bought their first two albums, "If You Don't fight, You Lose" and "Virgin Ground". I had also seen them
live on previous visits to Sydney.
John sang the song, which was, of course, I Was Only 19, to stunned silence. The first person to speak was the VVAA National
Secretary, Terry Loftus, who simply said "Play it again." John proceeded to play it again, by which time several
of the veterans had tears in their eyes, and we all assured him that his song was very good indeed. John told us that Redgum
intended to record the song and donate any artist's royalties to the VVAA. When we finished thanking him for his generosity,
John warned us "Don't get your hopes up too much, because Redgum don't sell many records." Of course, as any Australian
now knows, the song became a number one national hit.
John was engaged to Mick Storan's sister, the Denny mentioned in the first line of the song, and the story of the song
was Mick's experience in Vietnam with 6RAR. Frankie, who kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon in the song, was
one of the VVAA's regional leaders on the NSW South Coast, Frank Hunt. John and Denny were married between the recording and
the release of the record, and were honeymooning in Indonesia when it became a hit.
In 1983, with Redgum on top of the charts, I worked with their management to put on what would be their biggest concert
so far, at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. During the 1983 election campaign, the Labor opposition had committed to holding
a Royal Commission into the Agent Orange issue, and it was at this Redgum concert that the new Minister for Veterans' Affairs,
Arthur Gietzelt, made the announcement that the Hawke government would honour that commitment.
My activities expanded somewhat during this time. Most significantly I became a bingo caller. A weekly bingo game was the
main regular fundraising activity of the NSW Branch, and it was a very popular and well-attended event each week. I had never
done anything like this before, and was extremely shy about getting up in front of people and doing anything, let alone doing
something that made me the centre of attention for a room full of people. But I didn't like to say no, so I gave it a go,
and turned out to be quite good at it. It became a regular weekly gig for the next three years.
In 1983, the National Secretary of the VVAA, Terry Loftus, told me he was going to retire from the position, and that
he and Phill thought I should be his replacement. I said I'd do it, but I didn't want to get involved in politics. I saw the
secretary's job as being more administrative than activist. Terry assured me that this was correct, and I put my name forward
at the AGM and was duly elected.
Then came the federal election. The VVAA had campaigned to have a Royal Commission into the Agent Orange issue, and the
Opposition leader, Bob Hawke, made a commitment which he duly kept when he won the election. One of my first jobs as National
Secretary of the VVAA was to travel with Phill Thompson and the Association's lawyers to Canberra to negotiate a set of terms
of reference for the Royal Commission, opposed by the DVA, Defence Department, chemical companies and the RSL, and their banks
of lawyers. So much for not getting involved in politics!
..... more to come .....
In 1985, while I was National Secretary of the VVAA, I met one of my all-time musical heroes, Bruce Springsteen. Click
on the following link to find out how and why that happened.
Bruce Springsteen And Me
I have written another story from my activist years in
the veteran community. It comes from my time with the Vietnam Veterans Job Link Program in Perth, Western Australia. In particular,
I have written the story of an event the Program held on Remembrance Day, 1990, and how that event hastened my progress towards
"hitting the wall" and ending up on a TPI pension. To read this story, click on the following link.
Vietnam Veterans Job Link Program