Vietnam mates' post-war suicides


Roger, my staunch, dear friend

Roger — why did you choose to die that hot summer '84?
I have many sweeter memories than your too early death.

I look up as the wild geese fly over me in arrow formation
heralding the promise of an early spring.

Remember passion's chariot my wild geese companion
so huge and bright in steely blue with white-walled tyres
your soft fold-top, bull-wheeled Buick
silver spare strapped astride the door
happy charioteer — you drove her with tartan scarf wide-swept
flapping from your laughing neck in the slipstream of your joy.

Remember the secret we shared of slant-eyed Suzy
your inherited summer love, and the two campaigns
of sad and wasted souls
when you strode those two unrewarded wars with me.

Ideal-driven youngsters we followed a dream
to cleanse Malaya's steamy heart of Chinese Terrorists
instead, saddened by the premature death of your older
only brother, shared with heroes in that now forgotten war
that doomed him to die a lonely, jungle death in Vietnam
and John's far off dying broke your lonely mother's heart.

We proudly flew Australia's flag, we two
then laid him on it when he died.

I remember well your journey to purge your soul's
bitter-sweet memories. You sought a hero's death
to die — perhaps to live — once again like your brother
in the core of your distracted mother.

Later — on Africa's daily bloodstained sheets
you found no absolution
as a mercenary you found only heartache
in the crazed and raging war on Apartheid.

Lion-hearted — strong in so many ways — my heart
cries out, Mate, but I cannot absolve your pain
a hurt no-one has ever heard, nor will again
except in my brain, where your memory lingers on.

I hear your laughter in the freshening wind
your joy in simple things
fills the sails of each passing breeze
as it stirs and open the curtains of my soul.

We dreamed to make a better world
Mate, you should have waited
'cos then you could have created
a line of sturdy boys and winsome girls.

Instead — your family name ended with you
the Mother's love for which you yearned — was wasted
in the bands of time. For she — held by tightly tethered
bonds, wrapped John's soul in hers.

Your Mother's first-born hero son, ripped out your heart
on the altar-stone of her worship. You tried, my friend
but few others knew the tragic, heavy cross you bore
until living became too hard a grief.

In dying there is freedom, yet, I am still saddened
by the final way you chose
to die ... to sleep ... a slow encroaching death alone
in some quiet, filtered-sunlight, eucalypt-wooded glen
the exhaust pipe left running smoothly
slowly breathing soothing, smothering smoke
to drift away in dreams that would not survive.

Your over-heated, bloated, forlorn corpse
took three hot days to fill you full of maggots
birthed from frantic buzzing blowflies
to die, alone like this?
Is this the death you really wanted?

To fill some passing innocent with loathing
stuffing their the nostrils
with the stench of your slow decay.

But then, you and I know too well the smell of Death
__________— death is death
__________— to it we all succumb.

In memory's eye I still see you smile my friend
______________— showing off to God
I remember passion's chariot my wild geese companion
your soft fold-top, bull-wheeled Buick
silver spare strapped astride the door
you driving her, Mate with your tartan scarf wide-swept
flapping from your laughing neck in the slipstream of your joy.


tears hardly fall anymore

my dad and his RSL mates repeatedly told us
'Vietnam was a toy-boy war, only 501 died'
as though numbers are a marker of grief

I grieve for diggers murdered by land mines
sown in unpredictable rows by our sappers
then picked up at night by VC — then re-sown
camouflaged on tracks to kill or maim our own

my tears often fall in an unremitting flood for eight mates
who committed suicide soon after they arrived back home

________for Roger, who drowned in carbon-monoxide
________alone among the trees he loved in Toowoomba

________for Russ, when he parachuted off South Head
________his clothes laid military style on the cliff-top

________for John, my best mate, who died of a brain tumour
________caused by Agent Orange they claim was never used

________another — banished to the 'doghouse' — was found
________by his son — swinging slowly from a beam in his shed

________Craig took a long midnight swim — we were told
________'It must have been an accident' — but his dog tags
________lay on top of his neatly folded clothes

________Sandy — tired of being stuffed around by DVA
________blew his head off lounging in one of their chairs

________two of my diggers — drowned in an alcoholic haze
________from memories of their lost families — indifference
________and a falsely indoctrinated GUILT

a VVCS councillor in Tassie's early days made some believe
they'd fought in a 'filthy war' — in a place we had no right to be
as a brave ex-Moratorium hero reminded me — quite recently

it isn't fear of death that drives these brave officers
and men to take their lives — it's heartbreak

tears hardly fall anymore
for the fog of forgetfulness descends on those bold 501 'Young Ones'
killed during Vietnam's long ten-year war — but when desperate mates
suicide — all alone — the waste of good men's lives depresses me more

Karl Cameron-JacksonKarl Cameron-Jackson is 76 and lives in Adelaide with his wife Frances. He first attended Adelaide University in 1996 and in 2004 completed a PhD in creative writing. He has had poems published in a number of journals/anthologies on a wide range of topics.

Topic tags: Karl Cameron-Jackson, new Australian poems, Vietnam war



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Existing comments

More Australian Vietnam vets have committed suicide than killed in action. The US Iraq -Afghan vets attempt suicide every 80 minutes and more than 5000 succeed per year. Who says humans are naturally violent? What right or stupidity has a PM to send young people to wars that have nothing to do with the defence of our country?
Vacy Vlazna | 12 June 2012

A heart-felt tribute to the unknown number beyond the 501 who are counted and therefore recognised.
Ian Fraser | 12 June 2012

Dear Karl, your poems moved me into the blackness...I lost my daughter, suicide by train. But I know that when a person is in such deep despair and total pain there can be no other action. I think you understand that too, from the tenor of your poetry. Karl, please investigate "soldierOn", an excellent group, started in January, by young returned soldiers for the betterment of returned soldiers' lives. You would be good for them and they for you. The ones now returning from the middle east are not receiving the best mental health care...and so the suicides begin again.
Caroline Storm | 12 June 2012

As a younger veteran (Post Vietnam era) I as many other YV are indebted to our Vietnam brethren. Because of their suffering and fighting, we had access to a first class support service in VVCS and programs. However, the lack of recognition goes on. The Govt refuses to recognise 65 yrs of peacekeeping but recently announced its own operational medal without consultation with any group or Defence Honours and Awards. If a service person dies on a peacekeeping, humanitarian or post armistice operation overseas, their name doesn't go on the Roll of Honour at the Aust War Memorial. A service person can die in a vehicle crash in Afghanistan and another in Timor - one goes on the Roll - one doesn't! Until recently, Reservists serving overseas were treated the same as the national servicemen of the Vietnam era. Once their contract was up - out the door. If they had problems no one cared. As for the minefield of Veterans' Affairs, it is still very problematic and sadly younger veterans have suicided. For the Vietnam veterans, the Govt owes them one big favpur and that is to have the official history of the Vietnam war rewritten correctly and without malice. The Govt accepts this but then engaged the original author who created many issues around Agent Orange! Lest We Forget? Many already have
Phil Pyke | 12 June 2012

silent lines alone
the scars of war continue
forever present
john | 12 June 2012

I am now proud to say I am a Vietnam Vet though for years after my RTA I did not want to tell anyone.Yes I have lost three mates ( I know about) to suicide since the "Welcome Home" and in a way dread the emails from our group for fear another mate has gone.
I am now trying to get compensation though the VVCS as the aftermath is finally catching up with me.
I will always remember those of my mates who will not see old age and who are in pain yet the Pollies will never say "Sorry" to us.They just want us to "disappear"...Thanks Karl, what a lovely tribute.
Gavin | 12 June 2012

Forty two years after finishing my National Service (I was not chosen to go to Viet Nam) I still feel guilty for not having been as overtly sympathetic as I could have been to guys I knew who served overseas. When we were young and a couple related their stories to me, at the time, I don't think I reacted with the support that I have since come to believe, they needed. I laughed with them - at being stuck up a tree while the VC searched on the ground for the forward scout they knew to be there because the cannon fire had been misdirected - at the stories of what occurred when searching the tunnels - at the SAS member slowly and alone walking his way out of the jungle after 'attending' a VC meeting and leaving no witnesses. I haven't seen them since but I have always hoped they managed in the years since returning.

This is a beautiful poem.
Joe | 12 June 2012

'I liked your poem' doesn't seem adequate. Have you seen the book - Well Done Those Men by Barry Heard another Viet Vet. He was in the first subscription from Victoria. I Mourn that time for the Boys lost in death or through their experiences of the War and the stupidity of psuedo interlectuals who directed their rage at the war at the wrong people. Congratulations on your PhD.
Kathleen Garraway | 15 June 2012

How could the government of the day allow it's self to be caught up, "all the way with LBJ". I recall the body bags off loaded at the RAAF Base in the state I resided in. All those young lives lost on the battlefields and at home. The widows and loved ones and the indignities... Thank God they have now received the honour due them. Not scapegoats of the empire that time around, but scapegoats of the USA. Lest We Forget.
L Newington | 24 June 2012


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