By Eamon Hale
We tend to inherit our heroes. As a little boy in the 1990’s, I would sit in awe with my grandad’s friend Tom as he would tell me stories of being an anti-aircraft gunner in Tobruk. Of shooting down Stukas, that most feared dive bomber, like they were going out of fashion, and of only getting to wash every few weeks or months. I would sit there spellbound and I’ve no doubt Tom put a little bit of sauce on the stories. Even as a kid, a little bit of me wasn’t convinced he’d shot down 50 German planes single-handedly. Regardless, I would look forward to seeing him immensely and ask him to retell his Tobruk stories over and over.
Tom, along with most of his peers and mates who fought in the Second World War, have long since passed away. We miss them, as we miss the generation before them who served and fought in the First World War.
For me, that role of heroic elder statesmen has now been handed over to the Vietnam veterans. We look to them with reverence. They’ve become the encapsulation of the ANZAC Spirit. The grandfathers of the nation, and the giants in whose footsteps we follow.
In 2015, a group of Cavalry mates and I had somehow achieved the impossible. We’d managed to all get leave from Townsville to attend ANZAC Day in Melbourne.
We were in black berets; 3rd/4th Cavalry Regiment hat badges on and medals on our suits. Timor, Solomon Islands, Iraq, Afghanistan, Border Security, and domestic operations, between the ten or so of us there was a fair bit of operational experience.
As the various associations were forming up, we’d gravitated towards the Armoured Corps group, but weren’t quite sure where we fit within it. The RAAC Association, 1st Armoured Association, 3rd Cavalry Association, 4th/19th PWLH association; We were looking at esteemed and respected members of our Corps, and there were Vietnam medals aplenty. We were in the presence of greatness, but felt quite lost; unsure of our own position.
“Oi! Young fellers!” We looked over to a short, compact bloke with a black beret and Vietnam medals waving at us. He was standing under the 3 CAV Association banner.
“Are you blokes ‘Stingers’?”, he asked, the nickname for those that wear the scorpion hat badge of 3rd Cavalry regiment.
“Yeah, Sir. From Townsville”, I replied.
“Get over here then. You blokes march with us!”
Age Shall Not Weary Them
We were welcomed with their infectious energy and enthusiasm. They made us feel we were their equals, and that we were worthy of being there. They asked us about our deployments and marvelled at our medals. They put us on a pedestal and when it was time to march, they grabbed us and we were spread amongst them. Young and old stood shoulder to shoulder, sharing the same hat badge even if not the same experiences.
During the march, these gentlemen meandered up Swanston Street, only vaguely in step and formation. They waved to the public, accepted the cheers, and greeted friends and family in the crowds. You wouldn’t quite call it a march, more like a stroll.
When we hit the long mall at the Shrine of Remembrance though, something remarkable happened.
As that grand imposing structure loomed out in front of us and the cheering crowds & avenue of honour closed in alongside us, these men in their 70’s had decades taken off them. Without any word or order, their heads lifted and chins raised with pride. The old bodies straightened. Smoothly and on the move, they covered off with each other, got into step and the arm swing came back. Many of them hadn’t worn a uniform in almost half a century, but suddenly they were young men again.
All of us soldiers, all representing our mates, past and present who have served the nation, regardless the conflict or when it was.
My real welcome home from Afghanistan
It was an amazing experience and for me and my mates. To be welcomed in by the men we respected and looked up to, standing alongside them and marching together is still one of the proudest moments of my life.
It hasn’t been a universal experience; there is still some gatekeeping that seems to occur with every new generation, but every year since, wherever possible, I’ve marched alongside my Vietnam Veteran mates in the 3rd Cavalry Regiment Association. Because I think it’s important that we stand together, not as young and old veterans, but simply as veterans.
2022 marked the real return of the march in Melbourne after the COVID-induced two-year hiatus. This year’s was the first since the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and we commemorated the 60th anniversary of National Servicemen first deploying to Vietnam. Leading it in Melbourne were three Vietnam Veterans.
After a dawn service at my sub-branch, I made best speed to the corner where the Armoured associations gather. I met old mates and shook so many hands I worried I’d broken something.
As usual, I formed up with the old boys under the 3 CAV banner, saying my g’days and reintroducing each other. Tim from years past wasn’t there, but a couple of mates my age, one who’d I’d been in Afghanistan with at 3/4 CAV, joined us.
I was beaming.
The March returns
The march seemed smaller than it was pre-pandemic, and the ranks of veterans certainly seemed thinned. The crowds still lined the route though, and the clapping, cheering and waves from them filled me with pride. You feel ten feet tall as you march through the city.
The veteran beside me told us that he was the youngest there, “Only 71” he told me a few times. “Where’s Thomo*?”, he asked his mates. A silence followed. “Is he staying home this year? How about Jonesy*?” More silence. There was a lot unsaid in that silence.
As we reached the mall at the Shrine, that same transition as other years occurred. Age fell away, and the old bodies straightened; heads raised, and arms swung. But this year I had to hold one of the men, supporting his elbow and pushing him along. “Thanks mate, but I can’t do it” he mumbled, sweat running down his face and his breathing laboured, while were still 50m short of the steps up to the Shrine. Two of the Vietnam vets fell out there, unable to carry on.
The drum boomed to our front; the arms swung, and ranks were covered off, but the sharp, crisp stomp of feet had gone.
Instead, in that sacred place I heard a rhythmic shuffle of shoes. Left, right, left… the heels dragged along the concrete. Still filled with the honour and pride of representing themselves and their mates, age had caught up to many. They were dragging themselves forward as they headed up to that glorious cenotaph built for the 1st AIF; parents and grandparents to the men and women who went to Vietnam. Those they in turn had grown up viewing as their heroes.
Nor the years condemn
My mates from the 3CAV Association want to make sure the mistakes of the past won’t be repeated.
Many of Vietnam Veterans have stories of poor treatment by the First and Second World War Veterans on their return from Vietnam. People like Tim have made sure that me and my mates don’t experience that around them. And while gatekeeping certainly does exist elsewhere, I know of plenty of others from other corps, services and forces that have welcomed with open arms those who’ve come after them.
They are our heroes, but they won’t be able to march with us forever. Their legacy matters, and in 50 years, in our memories and in spirit that will still be marching alongside us. As I hope my spirit and legacy will still be marching with the next generations in 100 years after I’m gone.
When it’s my turn to welcome the next generation, I’ll think of Tim standing alongside me in 2015, and I’ll make sure the younger veterans know how welcome they are, like I was made to feel.
ANZAC Day and the march will continue.
We Will Remember Them
We climbed the stair to the Shrine, shaking the formation out again. From our head came the order,
“3rd CAVALRY REGIMENT! EYES… RIGHT!”
The heads, young and old, snapped across to the right as we passed the VIP tent and looked to the Eternal Flame. Hands rose to cover our medals; to show our respect to all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Time marches on. And sometimes, it shuffles.
Eamon Hale is the Vice President of the Hawthorn RSL Sub-branch in Victoria, having served in the Australian Army as a cavalryman for 16 years. Eamon is a regular contributor to Australian Veteran News.
Connect with Eamon on twitter: @eamhale