The winning essay of the AVCAT Essay Prize 2020, ‘The 30th of April 1975’ by Jade Washbourne.
By Jade Washbourne
The 30th of April 1975, a distant memory to many but also an unforgettable one, its significance has lingered on despite the decades that have passed because for many it signified the end of an event that the world had never seen before, it signified the end of the Vietnam War. For some individuals however, the 30th of April 1975 holds a different significance, because for some, individuals like me, that historical date does not signify the end of the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War still rages on, a strong and permanent fixture in our everyday lives, a strong and permanent influence on our families and a strong and permanent impact on many Australian families.
It is difficult to explain quite the depth that the impact of the Vietnam War had and continues to have on the Australian family.
My perspective is in some ways inherently unique as I am the twenty-two-year-old, only daughter to a seventy-three-year-old veteran.
I was born twenty-two years, two hundred and seventy-two months or eight thousand two hundred and seventy-one days after the end of the Vietnam War.
I grew up in the early noughties, a time of Von Dutch hats, flip phones and low-rise jeans. When the prospect of war so heavily televised seemed unfathomable, despite international conflicts being fought in my lifetime at the time I was very unaware of them, however I was always aware of the Vietnam War, and its impact can be seen in every facet of my life.
Growing up without brothers and sisters I was the sole focus of my father’s love, but equally the negative symptoms of his post-traumatic stress disorder that he had developed as a result of his participation in the conflict in Vietnam. Unfortunately for me its onset was triggered by my birth so any knowledge of my father before his post-traumatic stress is limited to the anecdotal evidence of others.
I was always incredibly fond of my father, more so than anyone else in my life. Perhaps because his attention and praise were so much harder to receive and yet I spent the majority of my young life looking for them. Unfortunately, he and it never felt quite reachable as if his mind was always somewhere else. Reflecting upon this now I understand that he was in the intense throws of the height of his mental illness often times struggling to get out of bed let alone be a father to a small girl.
My home during this time was not the birthplace of happy memories and warm feelings. Rather, it was an unpredictable environment always loud with voluminous, enthusiastic arguments.
My volatile father had little patience for my antics, his flashbacks and outbursts ostracising not only myself but also driving various and eventually a permanent separation between him and my mother.
Conflict was normality for me and as a result I would strongly invest myself in its resolution, at five years old feeling confident enough to barricade the door and try to stop the screaming.
Often times however I would simply chose to avoid the harsh reality of it all, I would hoist myself up into the high branches of the apple tree in our backyard with a backpack full of novels offering escapism and enough food to last me several hours which it could take before anyone realised I was missing.
At 12 years old in the onset of the awkwardness of my adolescence, my parents separated. Their shared custody arrangement was a large source of anxiety for me. Raising an adolescent girl clashed so sharply with the routine that assisted in alleviating my father’s illness symptoms. After only a few days of constant disagreements we would have one particularly turbulent argument that would result in me running away until he calmed down enough to want me back.
Later in life as a young woman, I struggled with various issues such as my own mental illnesses, alcohol and drug dependence and a particular attraction to violent and abusive men in search for the intimacy and male closeness I’d lacked with my father, falling victim to domestic violence from as young as fourteen.
It wasn’t until my early twenties that I established some kind of stability in my life, although stability feels unnatural given my upbringing, I started intensive therapy and stopped looking for sanctum in others, began building more appropriate coping skills than substance abuse, changed my living situation and began a university degree.
The most important shift in my lifestyle came from establishing some sort of a relationship with my father, a task which took incredible discipline, compassion, understanding and still requires continual maintenance and upkeep.
Getting to know my father in my twenties, led me to make connections with other men he joined the Navy with and subsequently served alongside in Vietnam and it was through this that I was finally able to understand what he looked like before the war and build a greater picture than the unfeeling man I had perceived him to be thus far.
My father joined the Navy at fifteen to escape an abusive father and an emotionally immature mother, and he has a deep respect for the armed forces due to the solace it provided it him.
He was mischievous, full of dark humour, positive energy and musical talent and skills, personality traits that brought others comfort particularly during the war. He still has all of these qualities; however, he also has a severe case of post-traumatic stress which overrides many of these qualities. Its intensity and range of symptoms were so unique that he was used as a case study, presented internationally, to study and understand the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans who fought in Vietnam.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a disorder developed as a result of sustained exposure to a traumatic event. Its symptoms can involve recurrent reminders of the event, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, irritability, anger outbursts and changes in personality and behaviour.
My father experiences the full range of symptoms but the most notable are his nightmares, hypervigilance, outbursts, and changes in behaviour. In understanding how this influences his life you need look no further than his daily routine which consists of a rigid schedule, poor sleep, outbursts of agitation, extreme anxiety and agoraphobia, and little patience for the responsibilities of caring for others.
He has good and bad days, and the frequency of them can scarcely be anticipated unless you have an understanding of what events are happening and how they affect him. For example, April is the month I am most concerned about him, with Anzac Day looming he dreams frequently, he is more irritable, and he isolates himself more. This has occurred consistently for as long as I was aware of the shift in his behaviour. Due to the frequent changes in his behaviour, he is inconsistent in how much he can offer you in energy, love and care. He can be a very unstable person to have in your life, a challenge I have struggled with most deeply. This inconsistency also extends to his romantic life and he has significant trouble dating.
I’ve watched him cycle through a large range of women over the 11 years he and my mother have been separated. Each relationship beginning with a stream of unhealthy infatuation and an unrealistic standard of providing acts of service as a way of expressing love to his partners. I watch him delve fully into each relationship but my father will never be able to devote the full range of emotional scope necessary for a full-time de facto relationship. A relationship model that would require giving up his carefully constructed routine and accommodating fully the emotional needs of others, a skill he is inept at now due to the consequences of his service in Vietnam.
In addition to the impacts on myself and my father, it is also important to detail the impacts of the Vietnam War on the remaining member of our fractured family: My mother. Nineteen years younger than my father, a free-spirited, bubbly and vivacious woman, upon meeting my father she took great pride in his war service. Although prior to my arrival in this world and the onset of his post-traumatic stress she had known a very different man to the one who exists now.
At the end of her labour and delivery as they both admired what they had created, he turned to her and uttered a sentence riddled with red flags indicating a shift in his mental state. “But how can I protect you both now?”
The next thirteen years of their relationship were a trying time for her and her mental well-being. He had flashback episodes, struggled with alcoholism, struggled to raise me and care for her after she received an epilepsy diagnosis and three large life-altering seizures, losing her licence for two years as a result and essentially her ability to gain financial and literal freedom outside from his illness and needs.
There was a two-year period in my life when she was asleep when I went to school and when I returned, and my father’s attempt at co-parenting consisted of sending me to school with jam and cheese sandwiches instead of butter, and pig tails that were so tight they gave me tension headaches.
Just as I coped in my own individual way during this time so did she, she turned to me for support which only increased the strain on my small shoulders, and as my father got sicker and our safety grew more into question she reached out to the same psychologist who assessed my father for his case study on post-traumatic stress disorder.
Several years of couples and family therapy were all concluded with the same assessment, my father was not going to return to the man he was before his disorder was triggered, and as a result they had become fundamentally incompatible. What followed was, after a trying seventeen years total of relationship, she left my father despite the close bond they did and still do share.
The previous accounts detail, as concisely as possible the impact the Vietnam War has had on my family, and as for the impacts on others although I cannot speak for them, what I can say is that our perspectives are very similar. Individuals like myself have their own stories to tell but they all share a common theme, a tale of adversity and heartache. Regardless of the age of the families, and the member who speaks, each individual with a connection to the Vietnam War will have a life that shares a common element with a member from a completely different family and it is in this commonality you can understand one part of the impact of the Vietnam War on the Australian family.
In understanding the other part, although it is clearly apparent that I undeniably feel the Vietnam War negatively impacted myself and my family. As I have grown so has my perspective on the Vietnam War. In this growing perspective I have found that there are elements to the impact of the Vietnam War that can be looked at through a different lens.
The war for me has been an enduring adversity and it unquestionably still is. In my own life I have felt the weight of the Vietnam War every single day, but without it I would not have become the person I am today.
It is through the challenges it has posed in my life that I have been forced to grow into the resilient person I am, a young woman who is capable of handling anything life throws at her and has proven this resilience in the challenges I have overcome thus far. I have also learnt incredible patience, understanding and genuine empathy, particularly through the facilitation of a strong bond with my father. I have a stronger relationship with my father than most people and this is even more impressive given what I’ve been through to get there.
In addition to this, the challenges I have faced as a result of the Vietnam War have also inspired me to want to create a positive legacy.
I was inspired to study psychology at university because I want to support others, as I finish my second year of university, I look forward to finishing and gaining accreditation with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in the future so I can assist in the rehabilitation and support of veterans and their families.
I’ve also gotten to know others as a result of my connection to the Vietnam War, I’ve been fortunate enough to connect with many children of Vietnam Veterans and share my experiences and insights in assisting others within their own impacts and assisting in their emotional rehabilitation, in the process joining amazing communities exclusively for children of Vietnam Veterans and making lasting friends one of whom is even making a documentary about the war of which I’ve been fortunate enough to be interviewed for the promotional video.
My father, although saddled with the impacts of the Vietnam War far more deeply than either of us, has successfully learnt to manage his mental illness. He has gone from having frequent periods of disassociation and violent behaviour when I was young to being able to self soothe and cope successfully living alone. He is the poster child, for the most impressive effects of cognitive behavioural therapy that I have ever seen and regularly seeks out other veterans to assist them with the symptoms of their own post-traumatic stress.
In summary, it is difficult to explain quite the depth of the impact that the Vietnam War had and continues to have on the Australian family. Although The 30th of April 1975, seems like a distant memory for many, a historical marker of the end of the Vietnam war it is not. The war did not end in 1975. The fire of the Vietnam War still rages on, in the hearts, minds and lives of the men women and children that are impacted by it. The individuals who feel the impact are not only those alive in 1975, but those whose lives started eight thousand two hundred and seventy-one days after, those like me. But it also impacts everyone I am able to help with my experiences, every relationship I successfully navigate as a result of my increased understanding. It will impact every individual I help when I am a clinical psychologist and eventually it will impact my own children as I utilise my knowledge and experiences to try to be the most well-rounded, supportive and emotionally available parent I can. It is the war that never ended and will never end, its impact will be felt within many families both directly and indirectly connected to the war for many years to come, for many years after 1975.