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A light in the dark: an Australian army doctor in wartime Vietnam

By Heather Stone - posted Tuesday, 19 March 2013


About a year ago, I went to the funeral of someone I had met briefly with a friend a few times over coffee. At the graveside funeral were just my friend, his wife, a couple of interstate relatives and the 'compulsory' Returned & Services League (RSL) officiate. Dead much too soon with no fanfare, no tears, and only the Last Post for his epitaph; something I found indescribably sad. Like the author himself, I was forcibly reminded of the Redgum song he quotes: "I was Only Nineteen". Tony White, in this unique and intimate view of Australians in the Vietnam conflict, uses the skills of a true raconteur, combining wry, classically Australian humour with graphic word pictures, to alternatively inform, amuse and horrify the reader.

Tony White was born in Perth, but grew up in Kenya. He went on to Cambridge first to study medicine, and completed his training at Sydney University, under the auspices of the Australian Army, in exchange for their sole ownership of the following four years of his life. Right on the heels of his internship, he had barely arrived at the indoctrination course, when he was quite literally whisked directly to Vietnam (1966-1967), accompanying the 5th Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) in setting up the primary Australian base at Nhui Dat. The title of the book, Starlight, has as its inspiration the radio call sign for army doctors and medics.

What follows is extraordinary in its ability as a non fiction story to hold the reader's attention. It is a recipe based on a mixture of his diaries, his extremely frank letters home to his family, and his personal recollections - flavoured by politics, napalm, digger humour, and the aftermath of what later became a vastly unpopular war.

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Like the "nashos" of my youth, Tony arrived in "Sufferers' Paradise" quite unprepared for what he was going to encounter. In his case he even missed out on the preliminary preparation of boot camp. He travelled with a mental concept of traditional warfare and deeds of heroism. What he found was scorching sunshine, drenching rain, mosquitos, sand, mud, landmines and a nebulous enemy undifferentiated from friends. Not all the work he took on entailed the type of drama TV audiences came to expect from the life or death scenarios of Mash. The war wounded were usually flown directly to field hospitals whereas the regimental medics had to treat colds, skin infections, diarrhoea, accidental wounds (including sporting injuries), STIs, parasite infestations and bites, psychological trauma and a host of other less than dramatic conditions. In Tony's case though, remaining in base became a relative luxury as a great deal of his time was spent directly in the field, either at 'Medcaps' (treating the villagers), or accompanying the soldiers on missions and experiencing exactly the same risk, discomfort and fear experienced by the ordinary digger. During his tour he provided front line treatment to almost 80% of casualties and was frequently in direct line of fire.

With his peers, by the end of that year he truly had enough and there were many times he seriously questioned what on earth Australians were even doing sweltering on a beach or in a rubber plantation in Vietnam. Despite the growing exhaustion, homesickness, and disillusionment, Tony's letters and anecdotes continued to paint a graphic and often blackly humorous portrait of characters and events until the end of their tour of duty and wild welcome back in Sydney. Throughout, he pays an extraordinary tribute to mateship and the decency of the ordinary Aussie soldier.

He was deeply affected himself by his service in the field and writes movingly of the effect of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on returned soldiers that never actually goes away. As a means of fighting back, as well as marriage, family and faith, he became deeply involved in working with remote communities and Pacific Islanders in countering a range of skin diseases, making Dermatology his life's work in medicine.

I would commend this book to anybody as a warm, heartening, oft- times funny, and thoughtful read, but it would be of particular interest to anybody with an interest in Vietnam, in Asia, in military history and especially for those of us who lived through this period either as "patriots" or "pacifists". It should also be compulsory reading for medical students. The book, in common with all I have yet seen from Copyright Publishing, is beautifully bound, a perfect print size and layout, and enhanced with excellent descriptive photos. It would be a credit to any bookshelf.

 

A Goodbye to Paul

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Paul Christopher Harrington
They laid you in a hole today
Put you to rest.
In reading your obituary I see
That you were only one month younger
Still than me.
A bugler played but Vietnam was
Oh so long ago
A piper piped
But you
Still had it with you we both know.
I hope you didn’t think
Back then,
When I marched with other sisters, mothers, lovers
That I felt any less of you
Or scorned what you yourself had tried to do.
Depression slays as sure as any foe
A bullet evil, insidious and slow.
You feel no more but more I feel for you
Regret for what you had, for what you cannot see.
They laid you in a hole today and
You were only one month younger
Still than me.

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This is a review of Starlight- An Australian army doctor in Vietnam, Tony White (Copywright Publishing, 2011).



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About the Author

Heather Stone lives and writes in Melbourne. Raised on a farm in Tasmania, and having worked and lived around Australia, with Terry Pratchett she believes : ‘Them as can do, has to do for them as can't. And someone has to speak up for them as has no voices.’

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All articles by Heather Stone

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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