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‘I’ll never hold another rifle or gun in my hand again’: Vietnam War veteran Peter Handy on the meaning of Anzac Day
Reaching out to veterans: Peter Handy is the president of the Veterans Support Centre. Photo: Mark Bowling
 

‘I’ll never hold another rifle or gun in my hand again’: Vietnam War veteran Peter Handy on the meaning of Anzac Day

Veterans Support Centre president Peter Handy

Reaching out to veterans: Peter Handy is the president of the Veterans Support Centre. Photo: Mark Bowling

PETER Handy finds nothing glorious about war.

His lips tighten and a tear forms when asked what Anzac Day means for him.

“It brings out every emotion,” Mr Handy, 67, recalling his own national service years spent with the 8th Field Ambulance during the Vietnam War, said.

As president of the Veterans Support Centre Queensland at Nerang, he is passionate about helping returned service personnel adjust to civilian life – just as others have helped him.

Mr Handy lost comrades, was disillusioned when he left the army and years later suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.

Raised in inner-city Brisbane, attending Marist Brothers Rosalie and even serving as an altar boy, Mr Handy enlisted as a 19-year-old private in the Australian army.

By 21 he was flying on helicopter medevac missions out of Nui Dat retrieving the wounded from jungle battlefields.

“I thought if I was a medic I could help people,” Mr Handy said.

“I soon found out we had our hands tied behind our backs.

“We weren’t there to win a war; we were just there to go through the procedure.

“I found that after a few months in those conditions you became mentally affected – you go troppo. People just did stupid things.

“I went troppo. I didn’t know anyone in our unit who wasn’t.”

The primary task of 8th Field Ambulance was to assist Australian battalions in battle, when their own medics were not available.

Mr Handy and his fellow medics did the “dust-offs” – medical evacuations from the field, sometimes flying with both United States and Australian airforce crews.

“The Americans flew with a big red cross on their medevac choppers. The Australians didn’t have crosses; instead they had guns,” he said.

“They (the Australian military) didn’t put any faith that a cross on the side of the chopper would stop bullets.

“I formed the opinion the safer choppers were the US  choppers. They took far less fire.

“Spiritualism is understanding and treating each other as brothers. I think we realise now the Viet Cong were a caring, considerate people.”

Horrific moments of war are etched in Mr Handy’s memory.

One is the death of a fellow medic during a “dust-off” medical evacuation.

As a helicopter hovered above ground the enemy opened fire.

The crew jumped for cover, but the young Australian medic became pinned under the helicopter as it burst into flames and rolled on top of him.

“He was a young bloke, married and his wife had just given birth,” Mr Handy said of the tragedy. He remembers the date – April 17, 1971.

“The real sufferers of war are the families. They are the forgotten ones,” he said.

Mr Handy said there was little reward for service after the publicly unpopular Vietnam War.

He remembers being flown home to Australia at night to avoid protesters, and on discharge from the army, his first act was to rip up his uniform and throw it away.

“Being away from 18 to 21 – it’s a lifetime. All your mates have been out doing other things … you come back and find yourself as a stranger,” Mr Handy said.

“I’ll never hold another rifle or gun in my hand again.”

Mr Handy said he tried to settle into a “normal” life.

He met Marilyn, his wife, started a family and built a successful career in Queensland Health, managing hospitals around Queensland.

But years later, when he was in his 40s, something triggered a breakdown.

“When I came back, I felt reasonably right … until the death of my father,” Mr Handy said.

His short-term memory collapsed and he became a recluse.

“I wasn’t game to go outside because my memory was so poor I couldn’t even remember the name of the street I lived in,” he said.

Eventually, unable to work, Mr Handy was forced to retire from the public service on medical grounds.

“Finally one day the phone rang, it was the RSL (Returned Services League), and I got to see a psychiatrist, and I’ve been going to see that same psychiatrist at least on a monthly basis ever since,” he said. “I’ve certainly improved a great deal, but every bit of improvement is so slight.”

It has been more than a dozen years since Mr Handy was first treated for PTSD. He said he knew there were many veterans facing the same diagnosis.

“It’s probably why I am here today,” he said of his role as president of the Veterans Support Group Queensland, with premises at Nerang including a large workshop and vegetable gardens, and which offers professional advice and assistance for about 300 members.

“I’m now capable of giving something back.”

Veterans Support Group Queensland was founded by the Vietnam Veterans Federation.

It aims to connect with younger ex-service people including those who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor and other peacekeeping operations.

Mr Handy said there was a need to support veterans and their families, and he encouraged them to seek help if they needed it.

“It’s like anything – you’ve got to seek help to be helped,” he said.

He said the Veteran Care Association, particularly with it’s Timor Awakening program – run by Catholic Deacon Gary Stone – offered an outstanding holistic healing approach for veterans.

Contact Veterans Support Group Queensland on (07) 5502 2836 or email admin@vietnamveterans.net.au

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