Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Howard returned to live in Vietnam about a decade ago. He could never really readjust to life in Australia after the war during which he fought as a member of the regular Australian infantry. Like many young volunteer soldiers in the 1960s, Howard had a pretty tough upbringing. He joined the army because, he said, ‘My mother was a bit mad.’ They were just kids, seventeen or eighteen years old, the army was their education. After the war, some soldiers, like Howard, felt let down by the Australian government and senior army officers because, as he said, the troops were told it was a war against an aggressive Communist north and it was a cause that needed to be fought.
But Howard soon realised, ‘There was this huge disconnect between what we were told about the downward thrust of Communist expansion and what really happened. And a big disconnect between what our leadership in the army told us and what was actually going on.’ Also back at home, there were many residual traumas for the war veterans to confront, most often alone, as they struggled to fit back into Australian society.
‘I really didn’t appreciate it but I’d been pretty badly affected by my Vietnam War experience all my life,’ Howard said. He told us about the night before he was wounded, when he was drinking in a bar at the Australian base of Nui Dat, north of Vung Tau. This is how he recalled what happened:
‘The bar normally closed about eight o’clock. We were all drinking and I was getting my shout. I was standing at the bar, waiting to be served and then this orderly corporal walked in and said, “Right, the bar’s closed.” I said, “Hang on, Corporal, I’ve been standing here for ten minutes and I just want to get one shout.”
And he says, “I said the fuckin’ bar’s closed and that’s it.”
‘So I said, “Well, you can get fucked, you bastard.” And those were the last words I said to him.
‘The next morning we get up, get ready, get in the “tracks” [troop carriers] and we go all the way down to an area (south of Nui Dat where we begin an operation). We walk into this lovely grove of trees and then—bang— the corporal’s dead. He was one of three people killed in the (landmine) explosion.’
The corporal, Alan Ryan (pseudonym), was Irish Catholic, had six children and was on his second tour of Vietnam. He had survived his first tour but, according to Howard, went back to Vietnam so that he could earn money for his family. His death shocked Howard to the core.
‘I thought, “Jesus, you can have all the plans in the world but it is so easy just to step over that line. And then your plans mean nothing. I mean, you can hold back from doing something now, thinking you can do it in the future, and then you can be dead tomorrow.’
It was these sort of traumas that continued to haunt Howard back in Australia after the war. ‘So I sort of went on this crazy lifestyle. You know, I lived a pretty edgy sort of life. The 80s in Sydney were bad enough as it was. Drugs and alcohol, broken relationships and all that shit. I jumped out of aircraft and did all this sort of stuff for kicks. And I was working shifts at the ABC, getting up at four, five o’clock in the morning, going to work, then going out at night...it was just terrible.
‘I was pretty dysfunctional. I didn’t make friends. I didn’t play with people well. I never got very close to anyone. I had no social skills because I had all these sort of weird things I’d learned in the army. Oh, you know, it was awful.’ Howard paused to chuckle, shake his head and look down at the table before continuing his story.
‘I was breaking down a bit physically. It took me a while to get the TPI [totally and permanently incapacitated] pension. I really didn’t want to retire...but I did anyway. And, well, it’s been the best thing that’s ever happened.’
Howard came back to Vietnam, married a Vietnamese woman and now has a young son—his only child—although he was previously married in Australia in the 1980s. He lives in a town of about 50,000 people north of Ho Chi Minh City (previously called Saigon), where he is the only foreigner. When he was in the army, he learnt to speak Vietnamese so he is not isolated by language.
‘It’s a country town. No condos. No foreigners. We built a house. It cost me about A$25,000. It’s basic but very convenient. It is 26 metres long and 5.5 metres wide. There are three bedrooms. It has a lounge room, a kitchen area and a utility area at the back. It’s surrounded by a fence and there are no security issues. I bought the land off my wife’s brother. She has eight siblings.’