At Your Service
Story Steve Meacham | Photos Natalie McComas | This story was originally published in the September 2019 issue of Reveille. It has been adapted for publication here.
By his own admission, Lieutenant Colonel Brian Vickery OAM was hardly a promising addition to Australia’s military forces when his name came up in the lottery for National Service in 1966.
He was, he says, “uneducated”, “naive” and content to spend the rest of his youth travelling northern NSW as a “postie”, leaving his weekends free for beachside adventures at Kingscliff Surf Life Saving Club.
He hoped he would be declared unfit, ruled out of military service like many others, so he could go back to the beach. But doctors knew he played rugby league so sent him to Singleton for recruit training. And that, Brian says, was the making of him.
Not one for reading the papers, 20-year-old Brian didn’t even know Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War was unpopular until he arrived in Sydney, saw the size of the protests and realised how divided the nation was about this war.
His military career deserves a book. It began with him requesting a transfer to the officer training course midway through initial training, despite having left school before his 15th birthday.
“I didn’t like all the yelling and marching,” he recalls. “One day I saw a dapper little fellow with a clipboard. He wasn’t yelling, so I thought, ‘I want to be one of those.’”
A year later, having passed the course despite the vast majority of his fellow officer trainees being university students, Brian requested a transfer from the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, so he could serve in Vietnam during his five-year short commission.
You Have to Prove Yourself
“1 RAR had just returned from Vietnam when I joined as a platoon commander, among the first group of National Service officers. I knew if I was going to make a career out of the infantry, I had to do a tour of Vietnam. Credibility and respect is always important in an officer. You have to prove yourself to the men, and to yourself.”
Newly married to Carole, with first daughter Nicole on the way, Brian arrived with his new South Australian-based battalion – 9 RAR – in Vietnam in November 1968. At the time, he was the battalion’s first “Nasho” officer. By then – six years after Australia had sent its first military advisors to Indochina – the war was going badly.
“Before Vietnam I was quite immature. I thought it would be a ‘boys’ own adventure’. Trust me, a tour of Vietnam made you mature very quickly.”
During the 13-month tour, based at Nui Dat, Brian’s platoon was involved in some serious patrolling. “One day, our company was involved in three separate battles. There was a lot of enemy around, and we kept bumping into them.”
I Was Spat at When I Landed at Sydney Airport
Brian didn’t see his newborn daughter for the first 10 weeks of her life, before returning to Sydney on R&R leave. Understandably, it was difficult for Brian to return to Vietnam after just four days. What made it worse was the reception 9 RAR received when they arrived back in Australia in December 1969. “I was spat at when I landed at Sydney Airport. The guys who went home by ship to Adelaide had paint thrown over them.”
Brian returned from Vietnam as a platoon commander but was soon promoted to lieutenant, then captain. After spells in Brisbane and Darwin, in 1975 Brian departed for another adventure to Hong Kong and Brunei, this time with his family (including second daughter, Lisa).
In Hong Kong (before the British handover in 1997) he was on secondment with the 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles.
“We patrolled the border between Hong Kong and China. There were illegal immigrants desperate to escape Communist China. We had to run them down in pretty hilly country. I was stabbed – a superficial wound.”
In Brunei, he was appointed training officer during the Gurkhas’ tropical warfare course. Despite his lack of formal education, his future postings were also largely in army training and education – including a year as senior instructor at Officer Cadet School in Portsea, Victoria.
I Remember How Proud I Felt
In his final year before he retired in 1988, Brian marched proudly in the Welcome Home Parade in Sydney on 3 October 1987.
“No-one had ever really welcomed home those who had fought in Vietnam before,” Brian recalls. Amazingly, Vietnam veterans often weren’t even allowed to join their RSL sub-Branches.
“Older veterans didn’t believe we’d fought in a war. They said it was a ‘police action’, with no understanding of the battles we’d been through. The Welcome Home Parade changed all that.” Then Prime Minister Bob Hawke attended that day, along with 100,000 people lining the streets.
“I remember how proud I felt,” Brian says. “We had finally been welcomed home.”
Brian and Carole moved to Kingscliff in 1998. Initially, Brian’s energies were with the surf club he’d left as a young man. But in 2003 he attended the local ANZAC Day service.
“It was a wet day, with perhaps 30 people. The following year there were 400, but with no seating, no shade apart from a single tree, and a service that was seriously outdated,” says Brian.
Brian means no disrespect: “The two guys running it were in their 80s and desperately wanted to hand it over to younger generations.”
Now 73, Brian has served in the senior vice-president’s role at the Kingscliff RSL sub-Branch since 2005. During this period he’s seen service numbers swell, with community members of all ages attending the sub-Branch’s ceremonies, services and events. Forging partnerships with other community organisations and building relationships with younger generations has paid off.
“Kingscliff RSL was collapsing. I didn’t want to be president, because I knew that would mean I would have to do everything on my own. As vice president I always kept the president on the right path, even if it meant occasionally poking him with a sharp stick.”
In November last year, “We held a beaut Remembrance Day service. I asked the new veterans – those who have served in Iraq, Timor-Leste and Afghanistan – if they’d like to take ownership of Remembrance Day. They agreed enthusiastically.”