“Would you have the courage go to war?”
It’s a common question when ANZAC Day rolls around each year.
For Vietnam veteran Alan Christie, serving his country was something he couldn’t wait to do – but it has come at a cost.
Grappling with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, the ex-sapper did all he could to avoid the commemorations on the 25th of April for some time and now has a clear message to the “old boys club” operating under the moniker of “Returned Services League”.
As a 19-year-old, could you comprehend what was happening at the time?
As a 19-year-old in 1965, the Australian Army was made up of regular soldiers only. All the senior ranks had taken part in all or most of the following: the Second World War 1939-45, the Japanese occupation of 1945-50, the Korean War in 1950-53, and the Malaysian confrontation of 1956-64. So that deployment to Vietnam was no great deal, just another war for professional soldiers.
My attitude was then to get to a war as soon as possible and earn my status as a returned serviceman with all the accolades that went with it.
Can you recall your first days in service?
Rookie training at Kapooka, Wagga Wagga, lasted for three months and was very hard. The failure rate was only about 10% because everyone wanted to be there. When the call for volunteers came up for 68 engineers to go to Vietnam to support the 1st Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment, the response was overwhelming and I had to argue strong and hard to get into the troop.
What was it like when you arrived?
Nobody – including our officers – knew what to do, or what was expected of us. Our [commanding officer’s] orders were very open ended. He told us to “do what engineers were expected to do.”
The first couple of months after arriving in Vietnam, we were acclimatising and built our camp on the perimeter of the Bien Hoa airbase in the wet season. Long hours and no days off.
Can you tell me about your most memorable experiences?
Our first major operation saw us as part of the defensive perimeter of the battalion, doing standing patrols and ambush patrols at night, where we managed to take four prisoners.
This operation was followed, without a break, by operation Crimp, where we found and explored the Chu Chi tunnel complex. It’s now the number one tourist attraction in Vietnam.
My failure to rescue one of our engineers who became stuck underground still haunts me to this day, even though a thorough assessment of the situation has revealed that he was deceased by the time I actually got to him.
In the latter part of the operation I was assigned to an infantry patrol looking for a sniper who was causing heavy casualties on a daily basis. On the patrol, the infantry wounded him, and we followed his blood trail to a concealed tunnel entrance. Being the engineer, I went underground to chase him. I could hear him moving ahead of me in complete darkness. I was gaining on him when suddenly he took flight and scampered away out of hearing distance. I followed for about 150 metres and discovered his abandoned sniper rifle. At that stage I had been underground for about half an hour, which felt like two or three hours. Recovering the rifle, I returned to the surface.
The rifle ultimately ended up in the infantry museum at Singleton N.S.W. but was taken off display because of the terrorist alerts. It is only one of a dozen models left in the world still in full working order.
From then onwards, two engineers per infantry platoon operated in close support, mainly for tunnels, bunkers and booby traps. As part of the platoon, we were involved in every action that occurred including all night patrols and ambushes.
I can recall doing a cross river assault under enemy fire and using our rifle butts as paddles.
I remember the aftermath of the Long Tan battle where we went into the field chasing the withdrawing remains of the brigade that ran into D Company 6RAR.
I can also remember being part of the defence of an American Engineer Brigade who were building a major road when they were attacked by Army tank flame throwers. The next morning a large hole was dug and 285 bodies were buried en masse.
Do you recall the day your service ended?
In total I spent six years in the Army, with two years’ service in Malaysia and three months’ service in the Thai/Laos border area.
In 1970, all overseas deployments were being wound down. So, at the age of 24 years, I decided without any possibilities in near future of going overseas again, it was time to do something else.
What did you do in the days and weeks afterward?
In the days and weeks after I was discharged from the Army, I only worked in casual jobs and stayed on a boozy bender for about three months.
I sobered up and relocated to Queanbeyan, and got work running a bitumen spraying company. I then obtained a security clearance and became a public servant working for the Department of Foreign Affairs. It became very mundane after the fall of Saigon in 1974 when an engineer mate secured me a job in the Highlands of New Guinea building roads and spraying bitumen.
After 5 years there I was poached by the Shell Oil Company and set up and managed operations in the Solomon Islands building roads and spraying bitumen.
I returned to Australia in 1984 and worked for Shell spraying bitumen throughout Western Australia.
Eventually with a bad work accident I was forced to an early retirement and with so much idle time the depression and the effects of PTSD finally caught up with me.
I spent three months in rehab, then started volunteer work for the Sunshine Coast Vietnam Veterans Association as a pension’s officer and suicide prevention officer.
Did you find it difficult to settle in once you came home?
I think I was spared a lot of the Anti-Vietnam backlash because I worked overseas. However during my time in Canberra with the Public Service, socially I told everyone I was previously employed by the Commonwealth as an Engineer and had enjoyed a couple of overseas trips sponsored by the government but was now happy to stay permanently in Australia.
What are your thoughts on the Anzac Day services we see each year? Could more be done to acknowledge Vietnam veterans?
ANZAC Day remains a very emotional day for me.
After the onset of PTSD, for a few years I would admit myself into hospital for a couple of weeks to cover and avoid that period. These days I do not march or attend any ceremonies, because of the original 68 engineers I went to Vietnam with, only 23 are still alive today.
Even though Vietnam veterans had to fight to get any recognition for what they went through, I believe our time is over and now it is time to focus on the younger generation of our military services.
The lack of support for all PTSD sufferers is a national disgrace. Handing out lump sums of money will not help these young diggers in the long term.
The RSL movement should hang their heads in shame because they have become nothing more than a tax free money making enterprise run by an “Old Boy” network who are only interested in being awarded OAM’s for themselves.
My advice to younger Veterans today is to seek help and advice from their own associations who are more in step with their needs.