Life After Vietnam: Jenny’s story

Jenny Ross-Henry is the longstanding Secretary of the Tea Gardens RSL sub-Branch.

 

WHILE the rest of the country celebrated Australia Day on January 27, 1969, Jennefer Ross-Henry was farewelling her husband, Brian Geoffrey Walker, as he left to fight in Vietnam with 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (5RAR).

Tragically, Brian was killed less than three months later, aged only 21.

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“He was killed by gunshot wounds from the South Vietnamese on 9 March 1969,” Jenny said.

“It was an accident, but he was killed in action.

“I still relive it.

“It was 53 years ago and could have been yesterday sometimes,” she said.

The couple’s newborn child Joanne was just six months old when Brian died.

In fact, Brian was meant to join the war effort a year earlier with 1RAR, but a broken shoulder obtained while playing squash kept him in Australia long enough to meet his daughter.

After Brian’s death, Jenny reached out to veteran’s organisation Legacy for assistance.

“There was no support at all at that time,” Jenny said.

“Legacy came to the house and said, ‘We are terribly sorry, but we are absolutely inundated with World War Two and Korean War widows and their children, we can’t help you at all’.”

Legacy told Jenny to contact the War Widows Guild for some “moral support”.

“Only a few months after Brian was killed, I pushed the pram all the way up the hill from mum and dad’s place at Coogee to the RSL, where the War Widows Guild was meeting.

“I knocked on the door and walked in to see all these ladies sitting around the table.”

Jenny addressed the group, detailing the tragedy of Brian’s recent death in Vietnam.

“I said, ‘Good morning, my name is Jennifer Walker and I have recently been widowed’.

“This old woman sitting at the table looked at me and said, ‘We don’t acknowledge Vietnam as a war, it is only a conflict, you cannot be a War Widow!’

“It was wicked.”

Jenny said her treatment was indicative of the general feeling within Australia towards war in Vietnam at the time.

“Blokes coming back from Vietnam couldn’t join the RSL!

“The old blokes didn’t consider it a war, but people were dying just the same,” she said.

When her husband’s regiment, 5RAR, returned to Australian shores in March 1970, Jenny travelled to Garden Island to welcome the boys home.

When the soldiers got off the ship, Jenny walked with them up Elizabeth Street into a pub they loved on Bathurst Street.

“I was with two young men in uniform, both 21 years old.

“We were told to leave.

“They wouldn’t serve anyone who was wearing a uniform.

“That’s the way it was.

“They did a welcome home march at that time, and they were spat on, eggs were thrown on them, rotten tomatoes, you name it,” she said.

Nearly two decades later, on 3 October 1987, Vietnam veterans were properly recognised when the first Welcome Home march was held in Sydney, and then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke renamed Long Tan Day, Vietnam Veterans Day.

“I am telling you, it was the greatest parade and march that Sydney had ever seen, maybe except the peace march after the Second World War,” Jenny said.

“Before that Welcome Home parade, some of those boys had never been in contact with the mates they had met in Vietnam.

“They finally came out of the woodwork and joined their mates.

“It was the most blessed day, I tell you, it was just amazing.

“Then they decided to build the Vietnam Memorial in Canberra in 1992, and they had a parade to open it, and that was even bigger.”

Jenny said the public and government response to the war exacerbated the horrific effects many service personnel had experienced in action.

““Eventually the government finally acknowledged that the Vietnam veterans had been treated despicably for years and years.

“They felt it too.

“They had PTSD, back in the First and Second World War they called it shellshock, but the circumstances of a jungle war are so different to the Battle of the Somme etc.

“They were left with foot rot, malaria, and all sorts of things that impacted them for a long time.”

Jenny describes those days of anti-veteran sentiment as “the saddest of times”.

“It was such a pity that the majority of Australians rejected them, and rejected people like me.”

These days, RSL Clubs across the country are run and supported by Vietnam War veterans, widows, and their families.

Jenny is currently the Secretary of the Tea Gardens RSL sub-Branch.

“I have been the secretary for years, but 50 years ago they wouldn’t have let me in the door,” she said.

Five decades later, Jenny keeps in contact with many of her husband’s friends from 5RAR.

“The camaraderie of those men who served with my husband is still as strong as if they were all over there together.

“His batman Ron Mitchell lives at Townsville, and his sniper is a bloke who lives at Corryong.

“They virtually adopted Joanne as her grandfathers.

“They keep in touch with us all the time.

“Even though I remarried, it never mattered.

“I was still their Skippers’ widow.”

Normally marching each year at the Tea Gardens ANZAC Day commemorations, this year Jenny will travel to a memorial service for her father at Matraville, Sydney, before heading into the city to join the parades.

Her father served in the Navy on minesweepers.

Keen to follow in her father’s footsteps, Jenny joined the Women’s Royal Australian Army Corp as an Officer Cadet in her youth.

“By graduation time I was engaged to be married and had the choice to stay in the Army or get out.

“I chose to get out, thank heavens.

“I mean I loved it, but circumstances intervened, and just as well, because I would never have had that time with Brian or have had Joanne,” Jenny said.

Brian now has an eighteen-month-old great granddaughter called Brianna, who will march in Sydney with her mum Joanne and her great grandfather’s regiment this ANZAC Day.

“Life goes on,” Jenny said.

 

By Doug CONNOR

 

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