By Aiden Taylor
Richard Hewitson, 21-years-old in Vietnam.
Forest Lake resident Richard Hewitson got up to drinking 22 stubbies a day before he realised something was wrong.
A trip to the psychiatrist later found he was suffering from PTSD, stemming from his time as a conscripted soldier in the Vietnam War.
Last month marked 50 years since the first step was taken to end conscription in Australia.
On December 5, 1972, the Australian Government, under Gough Whitlam, suspended the National Service Scheme and terminated it the following year.
Mr Hewitson joined The Lake News to reflect on how this time changed his life.
He still remembers the day in 1969 when he was ordered to present for duty.
“I was on holidays, and the whole family had been to Sydney, and we were driving back, and on the 13th of January there was a letter in the mailbox for me, saying to present at Keswick Barracks in three days’ time,” he said.
“And on the 17th of September I was in Vietnam.”
Like most conscripted soldiers from that time, he entered the service as a 20-year-old, with his birth date selected at random in the national draft.
“We knew full well what we were getting ourselves into but there was bugger all we could do about it,” he said.
“I think the worst thing was the mates you left at home, they progressed with their jobs and the government had promised when you got back you’d all be given the position you would have been in.
“Of course, I got back and the company I’d been with was taken over by Repco, and I started off at the bottom.”
Upon returning home in 1970, he resorted to alcohol as a coping mechanism.
“You were, I’d say, almost forced to drink over there, and by the time I got out of Vietnam, I was consuming 22 full strength cans of beer in an hour,” he said.
“That continued on when you got back.”
The heavy drinking continued through to his 60s right up to when, in 2011, his psychiatrist diagnosed him with PTSD.
“Up until 2011, I was drinking six to 10 full strength beers a day when I got home, two bottles of red, finishing off with a bottle of scotch,” he said.
“I was forced to retire by the psychiatrist and he pronounced me with PTSD, and I’d never heard of PTSD in my life.”
Mr Hewitson applied for a gold card through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to help cover treatment costs.
The gold card covers all medical expenses.
He said the process was unnecessarily difficult, despite the defence force having his full military history on file.
“It took 18 months to get it, and they had to back-pay me, but some of the questions they asked were unbelievable, and then when it came through they had all the details in front of them,” he said.
HOPE FOR NASHOS
Mr Hewitson’s story is one of thousands across the country of former national servicemen, known as “nashos”, who have struggled to access medical support.
It is now the subject of a national campaign run by an association called Nasho Fair Go.
They represent the cohort of men conscripted from between 1964 and 1972.
Graham Parlour, who runs the Queensland branch, said they have one request.
“Our thrust is to get a gold card for all national servicemen from that era from the 60s through to the 70s,” he said.
Mr Parlour, himself a nasho, said many of them lost incomes after being forced to serve.
This has made it harder for them to cover mounting medical costs later in life.
“We’re all reaching an age now — the youngest is 70 — and that’s the least we believe they can do now after all these years,” he said.
“There was nothing for those diggers whatsoever, not even a welcome home, the RSL clubs didn’t want to know them, and as far as the army was concerned, your time was up and you had to go back to normal life and make up what you could.”
Mr Parlour said the gold card would help overcome the widespread issues with eligibility.
The main difficulties come from having to prove their service and medical records each time they ask the DVA for help.
The gold card currently caters for the nashos who served in Vietnam, which excludes many who served elsewhere.
According to the DVA, there were 63,735 nashos conscripted between 1964 and 1972. Up to 15,381 of them went to Vietnam.
The remaining men (more than 40,000) served elsewhere.
“A good majority of them went to places such as Malaya, Cambodia, Laos, New Guinea,” he said.
Mr Parlour said the government does not recognise their deployments to these regions in its criteria for the gold card.
For instance, Mr Parlour served in Malaya, now part of Malaysia, which was removed from the government’s list of operational areas four months before he got there in 1967.
He fought in combat and acquired PTSD yet cannot easily qualify for the gold card.
“We were conscripted at the same time as everyone else and we came back here and got nothing,” he said.
“I believe that was an injustice because we spent two years of our lives, the same as the blokes who went to Vietnam — now why weren’t we treated the same?”
Nashos can apply for the white card, which covers isolated injuries and mental health conditions.
Mr Parlour said getting medical claims lodged this way is difficult because it relies on them having accurate medical records, but theirs were not updated correctly in many cases.
“This is happening a lot where there is no record of what took place, so when these poor devils now want to claim anything there’s nothing written,” he said.
“That becomes a serious problem because they won’t take the digger’s word for it, they’ll say they’ll look at the records, well there’s nothing written in the records for what they are claiming for.”
It took Graham Parlour 50 years to realise he had PTSD. Catch up on his full story, along with that of Richard Hewitson and Nasho Fair Go, via the More To The Story podcast by Aiden Taylor – available on Spotify: http://bitly.ws/xtDU