Welcome to WE WERE REOs Australian Infantry Reinforcements in Vietnam

Andrew Bigwood BA.Arts(Hons) & Barney Co Authors

ABOUT BARNEY

Now retired after a career in logistics stretching 36 years controlling distribution centres in the retail industry Rick or “Barney” to all his army comrades is secretary of the Royal Australian Regiment Association NSW , also a committeeman of the 9 RAR Association NSW and editor of its magazine “Roll Call. He had served in the Australian Army in 3 different Battalions as a REO in 1968-9 which was an experience unique to a few. With the help of those who trod the same path and his son Andrew he created this story.  .

ABOUT ANDREW

  

One of my earliest memories of my father’s ‘oddness’ is of squatting in the dirt in our backyard playing with some toy or other when Dad walked past and said, “You look like a Nog sitting like that. They shoot like that too you know?” This was followed by a brief demonstration. Of course as a five or six year old I had no clue what he was talking about. “What’s a Nog?” I idly wondered to myself as I went on with my game. Even though at the time I was unaware of it, as I look back now I recognise that even in my earliest recollections of the man, my father’s life was tied inextricably to the physical, (and much more potent) emotional and psychological damage he had carried back with him from the Vietnam War. 

I of course understood little (if any) of this ‘damage’ until much later in my own life. To me my father was just a ‘mean old bastard’ I didn’t like very much. Sure he took an interest in my life on occasion (notably my sporting achievements) but for the most part, even from a relatively young age, our interactions were matter-of-fact at best and more often than not, hostile. As a historian I now recognise just how cliché my life with a ‘damaged Vietnam Vet’ was; substance abuse, domestic violence, financial disasters, it all reads like the classic Vietnam Veteran story of popular history. Living through it though was quite frankly, Hell. I wanted so desperately to have a ‘normal’ life, a ‘normal’ family and ‘normal’ parents but it seemed denied me at every turn. I felt much like Odysseus must have done; cast upon a wild sea, wanting nothing more than to return home to a loving home and family, hounded by a vindictive ‘father-figure’ intent on denying me that which I so desperately sought and thus holding my desired Ithaca forever just beyond my reach. There were many, many heated arguments. Even the slightest request of the man was met with annoyance or outright anger. I was made to feel that I was more than a burden to my father, that the very act of communicating with me was a chore. Indeed by the time I had reached my later teenage years it would be fair to say I had developed a vehement hatred for the man.

I left school, fell almost by accident into a career in Nursing and grew ever more distant from the man that had born me. We rarely spoke and when we did it was stilted pleasantries exchanged in passing. Life continued in this way for some time. I met my wife whilst at university furthering the Nursing career that I already despised and with her moved away from the place that housed the hated Poseidon of my life’s Odyssey. 

It was Emma (my wife) who healed much of the hate I realised was within me; my own emotional and psychological damage. She pushed me to leave the career I despised and strive to achieve one I would enjoy. I left Nursing and began an Arts and Education degree at the University of NSW majoring in History and English. It was here that I really began to study the Vietnam War for the first time. As I hungrily devoured the information, I saw within those books my own life and my own experiences laid bare. I began to understand my father in a way I never had previously. Not condone mind you, but understand. I made the first attempts at reconcilement at this point and to my astonishment my father too had begun a journey of his own (towards an ultimate reconcilement with wartime past) and so returned my tentative approaches enthusiastically. For the first time in a long time I learned he had attended a reunion of Vietnam Veterans. He returned from this gathering a changed man. Having listened to the post-war stories and experiences of other veterans, he had been struck by the epiphany, ‘I’m not alone’. It was as though he had been given permission to get help. He started seeing a psychiatrist and quite literally his entire persona changed almost overnight.

As my studies progressed I made the decision to write a thesis on Australian and American troops and their relationships during the Vietnam War. Dad leapt at the chance to share this journey with me and (alongside a former Republic of Vietnam soldier who now worked for him) we journeyed back to the country that had caused so much pain for our family. There is an irony to be found here, as it was on this journey (my father’s first time back to the country of his nightmares) that our family relationships began to heal. Upon our return together my father and I began to record this story. I sat with my father for many nights and recorded his memories and recollections, faithfully transcribing them and putting together the skeleton of a book. It was an amazing and sometimes painful journey for both of us and today as I listen to my own children play and climb all over their smiling and laughing ‘Poppy’ I can’t help but wonder where that bitter, angry man of my youth (my Poseidon) has gone. Just like Odysseus, the journey was a long and painful one but I feel that as a result of these hardships and pain that I have, at last, reached my own personal Ithaca.

I continue to study currently completing a Master of Arts (MA) in Ancient History/Studies of Religion Major through the University of New England in NSW Australia.

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Barney & Andrew Bigwood

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