By Maxine Brown
TO say Vietnam left its mark on Geof Irvin would be an understatement. This affable, larger-than-life warrior was in Vung Tau in 1971 as a newlywed, 9 Squadron helicopter crew chief whose aircraft was in the thick of it on a daily basis.
Insertions and extractions of SAS units were what the then-21 year old lived for. He took enormous pride in getting our elite forces in and out safely.
But “just doing our job” came with considerable risk. Transporting men to and from patrols, while also winching wounded and dead soldiers from the battlefield, made our Hueys a high-value target of the Viet Cong. The almost daily machinegun and RPG fire meant that on occasion, Aussie crew and aircraft were lost.
It’s exactly how Geof came to find himself witnessing something he will never unsee, something that haunts his very dreams to this day.
“I was in the air when an Albatross came under fire and went down, we were in an aircraft behind. My good mate was crewman, and I had worked with the pilot and co-pilot for quite some time. They were all killed.
“Incredibly, in the late ’80s I caught a taxi in Brisbane from my hotel and the driver said that his brother was killed in Vietnam. Upon further questioning, I learned that his brother was my mate, the one I’d seen die in the downed helicopter.
“Believe it or not, this chance meeting did provide me with a bit of peace. It was very emotional for both of us.”
It’s little wonder that this incredibly intense 12 months of Geof’s early adulthood was not something that he could simply walk away from, process and forget. He’s spent the years since wrestling many demons in an effort to make his peace.
He says: “Adding fuel to the fire has been the loss of many of Vietnam War survivor brothers to suicide – including one of our gunners, who was a great mate.
“Plenty more have been lost to the various cancers caused by the agent orange pesticide/defoliant we were constantly exposed to – including two of my closest friends in the last couple of years with forms of cancer.
“We sprayed the defoliant from our aircraft and were saturated in it every time.”
Every single one of these deaths have reinforced the big-hearted man’s dedication to the Veteran cause.
For Geof is President of the thriving Kalamunda RSL Sub-Branch, where he throws himself into ensuring the ongoing health and welfare of Veterans after service … while also devoting himself to teaching local schoolchildren about the ANZAC spirit, ensuring the baton is passed to countless future generations.
Those former servicemen and women waging a battle within are in strong, capable, understanding hands. Geof’s been there and the fight continues.
His own battle with alcohol saw him hit rock bottom and nearly lose the lot – including his beautiful wife of 50 years, Gaye, and children – before he had a reckoning and became teetotal 10 years ago.
It’s not been an easy journey, by any means. But he’s proud to have come out the other side and is speaking out here to honour those brothers who never made it home from Vietnam, those whose lives were claimed years, if not decades later … and to encourage those still struggling to reach out.
It’s never too late!
For those who didn’t make it, Geof will today wear his most treasured possession to commemorate Vietnam Veterans’ Day – the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry awarded to all 9 Squadron personnel – while also laying a wreath during a memorial service.
“My pride and joy is the 9 Squadron Gallantry Cross, which was recently awarded (in 2016) to the squadron after 46 years.
“I feel that it is dedicated to those that never came back, or didn’t last the distance. This for them.”
Lest we forget!