Dave's transition to civilian life

After a tough start, Dave reflects on his life as an Indigenous Vietnam veteran, serving proudly in the Navy, transitioning to civilian life and raising a family in the suburbs of Sydney.

Time to read: 9 minutes

Growing up in the country

I was always a mouthy kid, so I was always in for it. The schoolteachers in Casino used to let me out 10 minutes early so the gangs couldn’t get me.

Every now and then, the white boys cornered me and gave me a flogging. That happens.

When I was a young bloke I copped it from coppers and other Aboriginal mobs; from the whitefella, blackfella, you know, everyone. I never backed down. I certainly always knew they weren’t any better than me.

I was about four years old when my uncle drove a Garratt steam locomotive engine into Casino.

It was the most powerful steam engine in Australia, built for the wheat trade. My uncle, a black man, was in charge of that and he pulled me up on that engine and we drove into the marshalling yards. I swore that day I was going to be an engine driver. I did, too. The only difference was that the one I ended up with had a bloody big propeller hanging off the end of it.

Following the family service tradition

I loved the Navy. We were good and we were fit and we earned respect.

I’ve had twenty-three members of my family fight for the defence of this country, from the Lighthorse right through to the present day. My young nephew’s a petty officer in one of our submarines.

I had four goes at trying to leave the service and I finally discharged in 1993 after twenty-nine years.

I still haven’t cut the umbilical cord because all my life revolves around ex-servicemen, their families, welfare, pensions, community duties and all those sorts of things.

Basically, I’m just wearing civilian clothing.

I joined up in 1965 and went to Vietnam five months later. I was in engineering. We had escort duties, taking the troops up and back. It was my duty to stay below deck in the engine room and do whatever I could, provided I was still in one piece.

The Defence Force is easy. A lot of people don’t understand that. At the end of the day it comes down to this: you get up, do your job, go to bed and when you’re asleep, someone’s watching your back.

Back to Civvy Street

My wife thought I’d be normal when I left the service and I think she’s annoyed that I’m involved in a lot of Defence issues now.

That never happened when I was in the Navy because I was too busy. But now I’m out, people are coming to me to seek advice. I never learnt how to say 'no' to someone who asks for help, so now I’m a volunteer and I wear about 10 different hats.

I work on a lot of black issues now, too: black forums and those things. If I didn’t have all that, I don’t know where I’d be honestly, both in marriage and the community, in a whole lot of ways.

Being able to help other veterans, helping them deal with the frustrations, is how I survive.

We’ll never, ever fit 100% back into Civvy Street.

When I left the forces, I started my own business in property maintenance.

I saw there had to be more to life than just getting up, going down the club and talking to blokes which is all a lot of us did when we left.

In business, you’ve got to employ people and they’re never as passionate about the work as you are and they take any criticism to heart!

I had to have knee replacements and things got a little worse medically. In the end, it was time to give up the business. I went to the doctor about my knee and the fella said, "What else is wrong?"

So I got talking about different injuries and accidents, and by the time I came out of there, I had so much wrong with me I thought I’d have to be medivac’d home!

That’s how crook he thought I was: overweight, high blood pressure, bad back, knees, coughs, colds, sore holes. After that, I had a choice. I could go off and drink myself to death like so many of the other poor blokes have done, or I could keep busy. And that’s what I decided to do.

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I’m still healthy enough to do a fair bit so while ever I can, I’m going to continue on this road.

You know, I do a little bit, my mate over the road does a little bit and there’s another fellow down the road doing his little bit and it all works out. You can’t just sit on your backside and expect someone else to do it.

But my fuse is getting shorter.

The real world is so different

The longer we stay in the forces the more dangerous it is for us when we come out.

One day I’m in a position to help my submarine fire missiles and blow cities off the face of the earth and the next I’m on Civvy Street, listening to some individual complain about someone running into his car. Diddums, you know?

I try to be caring and sharing and understanding ... but it’s difficult.

And I feel challenged a lot.

Like when I get to the airport and I’ve got two blokes going over my body with a little electronic device. They're challenging my identity and I want to tell them: "This is me. Look, I’ve had a knee job." 

But they’re not interested in me or the doctor’s card and it feels like all they want to do is humiliate me. And so I get agitated. Very agitated.

But poor buggers, they’re just doing their job. I just want a pass to say, "Let this little blackfella through the gate!" That’s what I need.

It’s like that for a lot of us. That’s why so many blokes are up the river or gone off bush.

It’ll be hard for our young diggers coming home from Iraq, too.

They’ll come home to petrol prices going through the roof and some smart arse on a train who won’t stand up for someone else or there’ll be some bloke wanting to gob off at them.

Those young diggers’ll look around and see everyone’s happy, laughing and giggling and they’ll think to themselves, "What are you doing? Don’t you know what’s really going on?"

I was hard on my daughter growing up, I know that. But I wanted the best for her and she’s defiant. Like me.

She and her brother knew they had to perform; there was no question of that. They had to be accountable: you don’t leave the toothpaste top off, you always change the dunny roll, you fill the kettle after you’ve made a brew. I still expect it. Other people I can allow to slip but I expect them to do better.

A little outside help

Like a lot of veterans, I drink to excess.

I never used to drink. I started after a diving accident in Vung Tau. I nearly drowned.

It was one o’clock in the morning when they found me and after that it was, "Get these into you, son". Instead of getting first aid, you get two big cans of grog and a durry stuck in your bollard. I don’t smoke though, never have smoked, but I like drinking.

I like to be the last man standing: I like to show people. My nan used to say, "Someone is always watching you boy; they’re waiting for you to fail". And so I just like showing people that I can have a few beers and not fall over or want to fight. And I do it on a regular basis. That’s just me. If I get depressed, I go and get liquored and sleep it off.

I’ve been seeing a psychologist for a while so that’s pretty cool.

I’m supposed to be on all this medication and I know it does people good but, me…? I need some control.

I mean, I can take these antidepressants but I notice that my attitude changes and I’m saying, "She’ll be right mate", and I’m slack. That’s no good for me. If I don’t do something productive, after a few days I start getting really angry with myself. I have to do something and then when someone says "Thanks mate" at the end of it, like they do every single day, then that’s my medicine.

You never get reprogrammed to be a civilian when you leave the service: we’re taught 24/7 "Can do, can do". The older we get the more difficult it becomes to maintain standards, whatever that standard may have been. We’re saying, "Can do, can do, she’ll be right mate" until we drop dead but the thing is, it’s not all right; we’re not all right. We don’t even know that we’re broken.

See also

  • man hanging up army uniform

    Transitioning from the ADF

    Transitioning to civilian life can present unique challenges for even the most accomplished veteran - counselling and group programs can help.
  • women drinking beer

    Alcohol and substance use

    If your alcohol or drug use is becoming a problem for you or those around you, there are strategies and tools you can use to get it under control.
  • call us 1800 011 046


    Open Arms can provide individual, couple and family counselling to help improve your resilience, as well as enhance your mental health and wellbeing. Call 1800-011-046 for free and confidential 24/7 support.