Collected in partnership with Perth Festival and The Empathy Museum, A Mile in My Shoes is an extraordinary collection of stories that give us a glimpse into the lives of Western Australians from all walks of life.
After losing his legs to a landmine in Vietnam, Graham returned to Australia and faced the challenge of living life after war.
Copyright © 2015 Graham Edwards.
This story was collected by the Centre for Stories for the Empathy Museum’s A Mile in my Shoes installation as part of Perth Festival 2015. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.
This story was originally published on May 25, 2017.
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G’day, my name’s Graham Edwards, I’m a Vietnam Veteran. I’m State President of the RSL, born in Kalgoorlie.
I’d always been a bit of a knock around bloke, left school, the year I turned 15. I registered for conscription; my number didn’t come out. So, like a mug, I went and joined up, and signed up for three years. I went over in the advanced party in 1970. I didn’t have a real good trip; I was only there a few weeks when we got mortared one night in an ambush position.
I got winched out in the dead of night, and I had some surgical work done. Had some shrapnel removed. I went back to the battalion. I wasn’t that keen about going back to the bush but we were there and we had a job to do. I was only back in the bush a few weeks. We were on patrol, when our commanding officer flying overhead the safety of his little bell helicopter ordered us off the tracks and into the … under the ground to search for the enemy we were looking for. We were a bit anxious. We knew this was an area where there had been landmines and we’d seen landmines sign. But we got out and we started our patrol on foot. I’d only taken about 30 or 40 spaces when bang.
The smell of an explosion rocked up from underneath me, knocked me off my feet. And I just sat there, stunned on the ground, not feeling anything except this incredible peace and tranquillity. And I felt that I was just drifting away somewhere up into that beautiful clear blue sky. And the next thing I just got hit with indescribable waves of pain which brought me right back to where I was, in the dirt of Vietnam.
Watching the soil turn red was my blood, looking at my legs which were just absolutely massacred. I remained conscious right up until the time I was wheeled into the operating theatre, and I remember looking into the eyes of this surgeon who was about to amputate my legs. I felt sorry for him. And I said to him, ‘Well, it’s been a lot of football training down to these legs. What a waste.’ And that was the last thing I remember.
I woke up the next morning. This doctor was sitting by my bedside. I knew that my legs were going to be amputated, and it was just a matter of looking down to see how high. We were flown back into Australia on a Hercules Air Force jet, and I guess exposing wounded, ill, returning soldiers to the public and the media wouldn’t have been a good thing. So, three o’clock in the morning, snuck back into Sydney.
The next day I was transferred to Melbourne, where I was reunited with my wife Noelene, and my very young five or six month old daughter Karen. It was an incredibly warm welcome, just to be back in the embrace of the family was great. But I might say that’s where the welcome really stopped for Vietnam veterans. I found I came back into a very indifferent world, ignorant world, indeed in some cases hostile. They really didn’t have any way to send blokes like myself. So, they put us into a hostel type day-care arrangement that ran various programs for young adolescent boys and girls, mainly with behavioural problems. After being there about a couple of months and just not being very confident about what was happening, or where I was going. I went to the bloke who managed that facility and I explained my situation I said ‘Look, I really don’t think that this is doing me much good in terms of rehabilitation.’ And this fella got really upset, uptight, angry and he said: ‘How dare you come in here and question what we’re doing for you. We know what’s good for you. And there’s a lot of taxpayer’s money going into this facility, get on with it.’
I couldn’t take it much longer and I went to the army and said ‘I’ve got to get out of here, I want to go back to Perth.’ Which was a real wrench for my wife. She was very close to her family. Perth was a million miles away. But come back to Perth we did. And I eventually took up a course at Leederville TAFE. It was still a really sort of difficult and demeaning time, I was in class with girls who were 14 or 15 years of age. Early summer, hot February. I’d walk up the stairs. The artificial legs I had were held on by suction. You’d be sitting in the classroom of a sudden the suction would break with a loud fart sounding noise. The girls would just look really askance at me. And whenever I sat in the classroom, there’s always a wide berth around me. When I look back, I just think how pathetic that period of rehabilitation was. And no, perhaps I can understand the dilemma. Vietnam veterans were coming home in dribs and drabs, those who were wounded were going to various places around Australia. It wasn’t like the Second World War and blokes came home in big units. The rehabilitation, the lack of acknowledgement on our return home, the lack of support from government, and all of these things, I think, are part of the reason why so many Vietnam veterans melted into the wilderness. They put a lid on their emotions, many of them never acknowledged that they were Vietnam veterans.
I very much wanted to be an active and contributing member of our community. By then we had two young daughters, Karen and Janey. And I was really determined to try to ensure that they didn’t grow up thinking that their dad was a cripple. So, I got involved in a local ratepayers Association. And I found from that I got drawn more and more into other community issues. During this time, though, I was not a member of a political party. I was approached to see if I would be interested in putting my hand up for a seat in the Legislative Council.
I went home and spoke to Noelene about it and I thought about it, and I decided to have a crack at the seat despite the fact that the swings required to win it were in the vicinity of about 17 or 18%. And no one was more surprised than I was to be elected.
I served in the Legislative Council for 14 years was a great experience and one of the things that I felt incredibly appreciative of, and grateful for, was the trust that my electors were able to put in a bloke in a wheelchair. I’d come home from work one day stinking hot day again. My stumps were red roar from the artificial legs, which were just incredibly cumbersome and difficult to use. And that was simply because of the height of my amputations. I went around the back and Noelene was out the back and she said, ‘We’ve got to do something about clearing the gutters. They’re just chock-a-block full of leaves.’
I went inside, took my legs off, came back out in my wheelchair and climbed the ladder, hand over hand, and found I got up there pretty easy. And I then proceeded to clean all of the gutter’s front, back and side. From that day on, I never wore my artificial legs again. They ended up down that side of the house somewhere.
I’d always had, right from the time I came home, a very strong interest and involvement in veteran’s issues, particularly the issues confronting Vietnam veterans, and I became the president of the RSL in 2012. The RSL is an incredibly iconic organisation. It does an immense amount of good work for veterans and their families. Most of that work you’ll never read about, you’ll never hear about. People often ask me how they think my life might have turned out if I hadn’t gone to Vietnam. Well, I guess it’s a question that’s impossible to answer. Might have stayed home, got hit by a truck, could have gone back prospecting with my dad and struck at reach.
But what I do know is that I went to Vietnam. I lost my legs, and I came home and I had to deal with what was. I remember sitting at a park one day, not long after I’d come home, watching some parents and their young kids out playing T ball and things like that. I got carried away thinking about how I’d really love to be out there doing that. The fact is that I couldn’t get out there to do those sorts of things. But there were so many other things that I could do. And I think I’ve concentrated a lot of my life on looking to do the things that I can and not spend too much time lamenting the things that I simply couldn’t.