Remembering Vietnam – Lessons learned from War

Remembering Vietnam - Lessons learned from War

With ANZAC Day upon us, it seemed fitting to feature former Tasmanian Soldier, Michael Grey as our Person of the Tamar for April.  

Michael Grey was born in Scottsdale in 1947, he grew up around Lake Leak, not too far from the Campbell Town area in the Northern Midlands and had a relatively normal, rural upbringing.  

Mike was educated as a correspondent student, before finding his first job.  

‘I started working on the land for Benham out in Avoca for 7 pounds 10 a week for a 44-hour week and I thought bugger this and so when I turned 17 I went off and joined the army.’ Said Mike. 

His new position in the army took him to Kapooka near Wagga Wagga where he received basic training. It was quite a culture shock for the young man from Scottsdale. 

‘At 17 I was thrown in with a lot of older blokes who were 22-25 years of age, a lot of them had gone off the rails and were given the option, go to court for stealing a car or whatever and you’ll probably get 18 months in jail or join the force.’ 

‘I went to the RAE school of engineering in Liverpool, Sydney and did all my core training there, I was hopeless at algebra and geometry, so they put me into explosives. There was a good part about that, you only made one mistake!’ 

At age 19 Mike was posted in transit to Vietnam and served on the front line for 13 months as part of 1 Field Squadron in support of Infantry and Armoured Cavalry. 

Mike spoke of the many realities of life on the front line, one such story of a greeting he received from a young Vietnamese woman during a village search painted a visual picture of the situation.  

‘I was told what she did was the most disrespectful thing possible in their culture,’ said Mike, ‘It meant you are not welcome here.’  

That was one of the milder things Mike encountered, as a large portion of his time was working in the tunnel complexes and dealing with explosives on the front line in the dark jungle terrains where dodging bullets and avoiding deadly cobras were all part of daily life. 

‘How I actually served for a short time was part of an American regiment,’ said Mike, ‘I did 219 days jungle time and became a corporal at age 20, in charge of a group where we served the battalions, we were working with the Americans in a sticky area. We did all the mines, booby traps, blowing up tunnels, that kind of thing.’ 

‘I became a tunnel rat,’ said Mike. 

‘A lot of us put our heads together and if we found unarmed people underground like women, kids or men that had no weapons we left them alone, we weren’t into body count.’  

Mike was given a Citation for his courage at the Battle of Coral. 

Whilst on the front line, Mike also suffered a bout of malaria that put him out of action for about a month, and resulted in a stint in an American hospital, leading to a fleeting romance with a beautiful African American nurse! 

Mike did often see light amid the darkness of life on the battlefield. Noting that adversity breaks down barriers.  

‘I’ve been to America, and it doesn’t take you long to understand the class structure. In Vietnam it didn’t matter about your background or social status, you fought together shoulder to shoulder, and you drank together.’ 

Mike returned from Vietnam in July 1968, and remained on the mainland, working in other areas of the army before discharging in 1970. 

‘I came back, took leave that was due to me, before returning to Queensland, doing exercises with various groups, working with some wonderful people,’ said Mike.  

Stationed just north of Rockhampton, Mike continued to work on tactical training components, before working with engineers on a series of projects across the East Coast of Australia. Officially leaving the army with an honourable discharge at age 23. 

Mike now considers himself a humanist and a pacifist and wanted to put on record his anti-war stance. 

‘We should never have been in Vietnam’ said Mike ‘we were told that if we didn’t go the communists would take over but about 70% of them were Buddhists’ said Mike. ‘They weren’t communists, they just wanted their land back that’s all.’ 

‘I’ve been back twice and actually met with senior Viet Cong and had conversations with them.’   

‘We should avoid wars at all costs,’ said Mike, ‘Yes we’ll defend our country, we’ll defend our borders and if we have to, defend our neighbours if they are attacked, but try to avoid all conflict.’ said Mike. 

His next step was to move back to Tasmania, finding employment with Savage River Mines, near the West Coast where he worked for 6 years as an operator on various machinery whilst becoming head shop steward for the Federated Engine Drivers’ and Firemen’s Association (FEDFA) who later amalgamated with the CFMEU. 

At around age 30 Mike, a proud union man himself, found himself working full-time as a union organiser and later on as a union secretary for the FEDFA, a position that saw him based in Launceston but involving large amounts of travel across Australia and internationally, as well as rubbing shoulders with many senior politicians and dignitaries, describing himself as a ‘convenient drinking buddy’ of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke.  

‘My job was to look after the unions and protect them because they were rough times in those days.’ 

Mike has some strong views on wage increases, inflation, negative gearing, politics, and other social issues.  

‘Liberals are squeezing Labour, Labour are squeezing the Liberals, it’s all about seats it’s not about social justice.’ added Mike.  

Like many Diggers, Mike has had his fair share of demons over the years, attributing the breakdown of his first marriage to undiagnosed PTSD, his workload and ‘self-medication.’ 

‘I married my first wife in 1971 we stayed together for 24 years, I think my working and drinking probably drove her mad, but my wife now, we’ve been together nearly 30 years.’  

‘I self-treated myself for PTSD for 30 years not knowing I had it and my way of treating myself was to work about 70-90 hours a week and drink. In 2017 I was coming back from Vietnam, and I said to my wife, Jo that’s it, I’m off the turps.’  

‘I’m getting better.’ 

Mike finished his career working for the Forest Industry Council (FIC), this role took him down south where he worked in Hobart. 

‘I basically did quality assurance, going around and convincing people to look at the tree and figure out what they were going to do with it before they chopped it down, actually trying to get some better recovery out of forests.’ 

Mike now lives in Winkleigh with wife Joanne. 

‘We needed a warmer area, we were living at Allens Rivulet, which is just behind Margate, and I got sick of seeing wombats walking across the lawn covered in snow, they looked more like polar bears!’ 

Mike is still an active part of the military and veteran community here in Northern Tasmania. 

‘I’ve been a member of the RSL for many years and now I’m a member of the TPI Association.’ 

‘I go to the Dawn Service at Exeter, the grandson goes with me sometimes, his Great Grandfather, believe it or not was also in the military, and so my grandson wears his medals and I take him along to the Dawn Service.’ 

To conclude the article, I asked Mike if he had any final thoughts on the coming ANZAC Day events and if he felt we were doing enough for those brave men and woman who had served our country in battle.  

‘I see myself as being lucky.’ 

‘I’ve come back, I’ve had a fairly good life, but I think of those that never returned and those that returned minus limbs or mental incapacity. If you look at the first World War there wasn’t even a proper Department of Veterans Affairs system, there was no such thing as PTSD, they were shellshocked and all that, then you look at the people who were sacrificed, so many civilians suffered during the wars.’ 

On behalf of many grateful Australians, we express our sincere gratitude to Mike, and to the many other defence personal who have served and continue to serve our great country with such courage.  

If this story has raised any concerns for your mental health, you can call lifeline on 13 11 14, or current serving defence force members, veterans and their families can call Open Arms for free counselling and support on 1800 011 046.

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