Third Prize in the AVCAT Essay Prize 2020, ‘Reflections’ by Jo Hagen.
By Jo Hagen
It seems fitting that I begin this story on 18 August 2020, National Vietnam Veterans’ Day.
It’s been five years. Five years since Dad’s first suicide attempt.
I’d been in a yoga class. Feeling serene, I emerged from class to find several missed calls from my Dad’s good friend Gary. Dad was over 2,000 kilometres away from my home in Adelaide. He’d escaped to Queensland over 20 years earlier, after leaving his second marriage.
I immediately called Gary. He informed me he’d done a welfare check on Dad and found him semi responsive in bed, with notes taped on his door not to enter and to call an ambulance. Gary had expressed concerns about Dad’s mental health over the preceding months and asked what we could do to help but I’d brushed them off, again. After years of living with not only my Dad’s mental health, trauma and PTSD but my brother’s, and my own, battles, my self-coping strategy was to bury my head in the sand.
Gary called an ambulance and advised me he’d found empty pill bottles, and a note to me. It felt so surreal.
After several days Dad woke up in Nambour Hospital in ICU. I was SO relieved to hear his voice. He apologised and said he’d made a mistake. I think the memories and loneliness he felt on National Vietnam Veterans’ Day led to a rash decision that day.
Within five months, Dad was gone forever.
My Dad, Mike, was an infantry soldier and machine gunner in the 7th Battalion in Vietnam between April 1967 and April 1968. I remember his years of service easily as his personalised number plates read NAM 678. Unlike many veterans, he was not conscripted. He was in the army and volunteered to go, to serve his country. Dad later quoted Weary Dunlop ‘As a young man it is an experience you may pay a million dollars to do, and having done it once you would pay a million dollars never to have to do it again’.
I didn’t realise the full impact that the Vietnam War had on Dad, and our family, until my 20s.
I was born in Adelaide in 1969, just over a year after Dad returned from Vietnam. I suffered from bad eczema as a baby and still do today, a possible outcome from Dad’s Agent Orange exposure.
Dad missed the birth of my older brother, Anthony, in 1967. I can’t imagine what it was like for a young Mum to be raising a newborn alone while her husband was fighting a war in Vietnam. Anthony was eight months old by the time Dad met him, home on a four-day visit before returning to Vietnam. I know it is something Dad always felt remorse about and is perhaps one of the reasons they never really formed a close bond.
My childhood was interspersed with moving house a lot. Dad just couldn’t settle in one place and always wanted to be on the move-running from his memories perhaps?
I came home from hospital to a modest house in suburban Adelaide. My Mum befriended a lady around the corner who was pregnant at the same time and I became friends with her daughter. We are still close friends to this day, over fifty years later.
When I was in primary school Dad decided to buy a house on stilts in a sleepy Adelaide beachside suburb 65 kilometres away. The house swayed in the wind when there was a storm. We did not stay in this house long, Anthony and I didn’t even attend school while we lived there. We were close as siblings at this stage of our childhood, only to drift apart when we were older.
We moved to a big house on a ten-acre fruit block over 290 kilometres away in the Riverland. Dad enrolled in a course at Roseworthy agricultural college and the family’s livelihood was selling grapes and oranges grown on the block. My brother and I were enrolled at the local country school, where to my bewilderment I was flashed at in the toilets by an older girl.
Mum was the typical suburban housewife, going along with whatever Dad wanted, to keep him quiet and happy I guess. She had an arts degree and taught home economics. We were always eating delicious home-cooked meals and she sewed me clothes. Dad was moody and withdrawn at home but in the public eye he was confident and charismatic. The whole family often felt we were walking on eggshells.
I was shocked, years later, when an off-the-cuff comment by Mum suggested there was domestic violence when Dad was in one of his ‘moods’. I don’t recall seeing any violence against my Mum, but I do remember him hitting Anthony with electrical flex cable as punishment for his perceived misbehaviour. I escaped this, but remember being frightened of Dad’s angry outbursts. At the time none of us had any idea that he was suffering from PTSD.
Our stay on the fruit block seemed short-lived. The final home we all lived in as a family of four was only 350 metres from my first childhood home. Anthony and I returned to our original primary school and reconnected with old friends from the neighbourhood.
There were quite a few discussions behind closed doors, and it was eventually announced to us kids that Mum and Dad were separating. Mum had endured a lot by this stage and the divorce rate for veterans was high. By this time, I was in the early years of high school, a tomboy, and fiercely independent. I barely reacted to the news and pretended to take it in my stride. Mum moved out to live in a unit and initially Anthony and I didn’t see her much.
Anthony left after a month or so and started living in the unit with Mum permanently. They both moved into my Uncle’s house in North Adelaide as he’d relocated overseas. Our family was well and truly broken.
Dad bought yet another house south of Adelaide for the two of us to move into and our last family home was sold. The new house was too far to commute to school; I was forced to change schools, which went horribly wrong. I had left a popular group of friends to be ‘new girl’ part way through the school year. I was bullied relentlessly and cannot remember making one single friend. The catalyst was when I defiantly rode my pushbike around a corner without giving way and collided head-on with an oncoming car.
After the accident I never returned to that school and decided to live with Mum and Anthony in North Adelaide and recommence at my old high school.
Neither Anthony nor I ever lived with Dad again. He always said one of his biggest regrets, apart from going to Vietnam, was selling the family home that prompted my move to a different school and culminated in him living alone.
Eventually Dad remarried a young woman he’d met in the Philippines. She wanted a baby, even though he’d told her he did not want any more children. Within only a few years he’d left her, packing up and driving to Queensland in 1993, where he lived for the rest of his life.
It was around this time he sent both of us kids a letter revealing that he was admitted to hospital every ANZAC Day as he just couldn’t handle the emotional trauma or the memories. He’d wake often from nightmares in a cold sweat, and once attacked a suit hanging on the back of his bedroom door, thinking it was a Viet Cong soldier. He had been diagnosed with PTSD and was having regular sessions with a psych. I was stunned by this news; I had no idea just how much he was affected by what he had experienced all those years earlier.
The effects became more apparent over time. Dad contracted prostate cancer, caused by Agent Orange, recognised by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. His prostate was removed and I took leave from my job to fly up to Queensland to provide post-operative care. Part of this care involved emptying his colostomy bag each morning and taking a swab from his infected wound to take to the GP to be tested. His cancer diagnosis scared both Anthony and me. The worse thing for Dad was the impotence that it caused, which he openly spoke about to us both, much to my embarrassment.
Dad was on a service pension by this time and was issued with a Gold Card. He used it a lot in the last years of his life to be treated for sleep apnoea, diabetes, early onset dementia, urology problems and many stints in hospital with mental health issues including anxiety and crippling depression. He was given a course of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which proved futile as the trauma he experienced in Vietnam was not something that could be cured with ECT. His doctor spoke to me on the phone beforehand with the worrying information that he may lose part of his memory after treatment.
It was heartbreaking watching Anthony sob as he was invited to lay a poppy on my grandfather’s coffin on behalf of Dad, as a serviceman. My grandfather was a Rat of Tobruk and Dad was just too unwell to travel from Queensland to Adelaide for his funeral. He also could not attend my grandmother’s funeral.
Anthony died suddenly at the age of only 39. It was a huge shock to us all. Once again, Dad was not mentally strong enough to attend his funeral in Adelaide. My partner and I flew up to Queensland with Anthony’s ashes and we scattered them in Dad’s garden. I don’t think he ever really recovered from losing his only son.
We had to wait six months for the coroner’s findings to determine the cause of Anthony’s death. During this time Dad became convinced it was suicide as Anthony had his problems, like a lot of veterans’ children. Dad repeatedly pointed out that the suicide rate for the children of veterans was three times higher than the general community. I tried to stay positive as I’d only had a telephone conversation with Anthony three days before he died where he’d expressed his desire to be healthier. The coroner’s findings showed that he died of ischaemic heart disease.
After Anthony’s death there was even more pressure on me to provide Dad with the family support, he needed which I struggled with right until the end. I did the best that I could and sought frequent counselling with the Vietnam Veterans’ Counselling Service (VVCS) to learn strategies to cope.
While I was pregnant Dad was admitted to a psychiatric hospital with delusional disorder. He told me that I had to secure all of his money as someone was trying to rob him. He warned me of higher incidents of cleft palate in grandchildren of veterans. Thankfully I gave birth to a beautiful healthy daughter, although she too suffers from eczema.
Before becoming parents, my partner and I travelled to Queensland several times a year to spend time with Dad. These weren’t always relaxing visits as I felt on edge around him, even though we had a close relationship. Dad was jumpy, we had to make sure we didn’t slam any doors by accident, or appear out of nowhere. He was always very generous, loaning us his car, taking us out to lunch and showing us around when he was feeling well enough. He was taking a lot of medication and at one stage was addicted to opiates.
Once our daughter was born I was unable to visit as often as I was struggling with the demands of caring for a young child coupled with postnatal and generalised anxiety. Dad found this hard to accept and asked often when we were going to visit. I went up a few times on my own once my daughter was older but sadly the last time I had seen him in person was over a year before his death.
Dad did manage to travel to Adelaide for my daughter’s 1st birthday. Unfortunately, he missed her party as his mental health deteriorated and he was admitted to Adelaide’s repatriation hospital for a month. I visited daily, my one year old in tow. I have wonderful memories of him attending her 2nd birthday party a year later.
On Christmas day 2015 I could not reach Dad by phone. I left several messages and was worried. We were in the country with my partner’s family for Christmas, where I received a call from one of Dad’s friends to advise he was in hospital. He had been found delirious and dehydrated by a neighbour. After arriving at hospital by ambulance it was discovered his kidneys were failing. Dad was put on dialysis for the first time in his life and hated it. He waited until the weekend to discharge himself, knowing there would be fewer senior doctors around to talk him out of it.
Our last phone conversation was on the night of Monday 6 January 2016. We’d spoken daily since Christmas which was unusual for us and something I am so grateful for now. Dad told me I had been a wonderful daughter and that he loved me.
The next morning a police officer appeared at my door to break the devastating news that Dad had passed away from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He left a note stating that after living with the nightmares of Vietnam for 50 years – the physical pain with more ahead, he’d had enough. I miss him terribly.
I can definitively say the impact of the Vietnam War fractured our family. Dad returned from Vietnam a different man, and I know his experience affected everything he did and the way he acted for the rest of his life. He blamed himself for his marriage with Mum breaking down. Mum hasn’t lived with another partner since their divorce and never mentions the past.
Dad often said having children was his greatest achievement and felt he failed us kids. By the end of his life Dad was a broken man with many regrets. He asked me later in life whether we needed to speak to a VVCS counsellor together, but I declined. On reflection now, I wish I did have the counselling with him to ease his perceived failure as a father.
Despite the psychological trauma Dad experienced as a young man in Vietnam, he achieved a lot in his life. He ran a marathon in his 40s, learnt how to fly a plane, and won the ABC Gardener of the year in 2003. He had wisdom and insight and taught me a lot about life, dealing with difficult people and how to use humour as a coping mechanism. I’m proud to be the daughter of a Vietnam Veteran.