My brother the silent veteran


>'Anzac Day' by Chris JohnstonHe was handsome and sophisticated, that older brother of mine.

He was 20 but wore his slouch hat with the ease of a veteran. He was home briefly in Melbourne's north before heading off to jungle training in Queensland. The familiar jeans had been traded for khakis, and he crossed his legs and leaned casually against the Ford Falcon posing for what are now grainy and washed-out colour photos. He reached for his cigarettes with the air of someone who understood the world and his place in it.

It was a lottery. Numbers in a barrel that sent young men-boys to fight a foreign war. Foreign place, language, culture. Did he know why? Twenty years old and off to fight a war in a tropical jungle. From Pascoe Vale to Vung Tau. From war service weatherboard home to army tent. From home to battalion. What did he think?

My parents — his parents — knew about wars, but I didn't and my siblings didn't and now my children and their children don't.

I was 13 when he went to Vietnam. There was a kind of perverse status to be derived from having a brother called up for national service, and for him to head north of the equator was a further plus. That set this family apart from all those who had older brothers who were not called up and who continued to be plumbers and bank tellers and university students.

We drew a tacit distinction between those who battled, and those who serviced the battle. My brother was an army storeman and that put him in the latter category, and in our minds that absolved both him and us of guilt by association and enabled us to make light of his term of duty.

What did he see? What did he know? What did he understand? What did he rationalise? What did he manage to forget over his subsequent 34 years?

We'll never know because he never said.

He never said, but I knew that sending a 20-year-old to war was not good for him, or me, or his country. When I participated in a Moratorium March in Melbourne it remained my secret rather than betray our young boy-man and all the others. I knew that my brother's life and the lives of all the other brothers were worth more than forced service in a war they didn't want or understand.

My brother came back. He worked, he married, he farmed, he reared seven children, he ran small businesses. He never participated in Anzac Day. He skirmished with his demons in the form of phobias and health problems. He died a young man at 54 from leukaemia.

Another casualty of war.

Julie KeanJulie Kean has worked in the TAFE system for over 30 years and is currently a director at Kimberley TAFE Institute. Her brother John was a Vietnam conscript when he was just 18. He died in 2001 after contracting multiple myeloma, which in some literature has been associated with increased death rates in Vietnam veterans. Julie was a stem cell donor for John's treatment regime, but he succumbed to the illness two years after the transplant.

Topic tags: Julie Kean, Vietnam war, Anzac Day



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Existing comments

Thankyou Julie, you tell our brother's and lots of other sister's brother's stories beautifully.

Jacinta Fisher | 22 April 2014  

Beautifully written. I have seen less capable prose broken into lines of random length and called poetry. And what did we learn from Vietnam? Forty years from now, another sibling will write a similar story about John Howard's equally futile Iraq jaunt.

Frank | 23 April 2014  

I have never quite accepted the Anzac Day message. I am old enough to remember an Australia in which many of the Anzacs still lived. It was said of a significant number, back in those days, that they shirked their responsibilities as husbands and fathers to take off to a distant war that they saw as an escape and as an adventure they would normally never experience. That they underestimated the danger was not necessarily a sign of courage. This attitude was a strongly held belief in my childhood. Back then people may have had a better appreciation of what motivated our young men than the sanitised version which we are now asked to glorify .No one I know who served in any war takes part in the march or its associated functions. To them its just the beginning of round 6 as the AFL exploits the occasion for its own selfish ends.

grebo | 23 April 2014  

I cried for your brother and mine. his number did not come up and we celebrated as a family for my father had suffered enough in ww2. my brother was dead within 3 months from a car accident, we sometimes wondered if he had gone to Vietnam he may still be with us. My father also never marched on ANZAC Day.

juliana c. | 23 April 2014  

I can relate to grebo's comments because I also grew up in a time when many First World War veterans were still living. There was general awareness that some ANZACs signed up, as grebo states, for the adventure - to get away from the humdrum life on the farm or in the factory, and many more signed up to defend Britain, still regarded as "Home" by most of the ANZACs and their generation. The tragedy of the overkill commemoration by Australia (our First World War centenary commemorations will cost more than that of the UK) is that, while we appear obsessed with remembering those who fought, suffered and were killed in the two World Wars, we pay only scant attention to those who fought, suffered and were killed in subsequent wars - the Malay insurgency, the Korean war, confrontation with Indonesia, the Vietnam war, the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war. Apart from the particular occasions of repatriating the body of a dead soldier, those who fought in these later wars are almost forgotten. Meanwhile today's returned servicemen and servicewomen, many of whom suffer ongoing post traumatic stress disorders, seem not to be noticed in this modern Australia which lionises the ANZACs.

Ian Fraser | 23 April 2014  

A heartfelt and eloquent piece, Julie. Thank you.

Edward Fido | 28 April 2014  

Julie, I am almost an exact contemporary of your brother. My birthday was not selected. I didn't become a conscript - I never went to fight/service in Viet-Nam. But every time I read the statistics of my peers who were sent I feel a deep sense of sadness - and feel yet again the way in which our politicians do not properly care for our young people and their post-war lives. This is a moving remembrance of John. Thank-you.

Jim KABLE | 30 April 2014  

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