FROM Long Tan to a long-term vision of how to better support Veterans. It’s been quite the journey for RSLWA President Peter Aspinall AM.
Like anyone who has seen conflict and some narrow misses, Peter Aspinall knows that close encounters can be character building – while still leaving scars of service.
Now, the Veteran of the Battle of Long Tan is helping lead the campaign for a new dawn for Veterans after selfless service in the Australian Defence Force. By Maxine Brown
THEY say history is a great teacher. It taught Peter Aspinall resilience in times of adversity and fuelled a drive to make his world a better place.
Peter’s role in Vietnam as an in-demand artillery forward observer was career defining. He was part of the infantry relief force sent in during the Battle of Long Tan to rescue mates from D Company, who’d been outnumbered 20-to-one by Viet Cong in what could have been a complete annihilation.
Peter was aboard one of the Armoured Personnel Carriers of 3 Troop, 1 APC Squadron, which were perilously swum across the swift-flowing Suoi Da Bang River, before being driven into the Long Tan rubber plantation in blinding monsoonal rain. It was here they encountered the final attacking force of Viet Cong determined to overrun the severely outnumbered D Company.
While that legendary battle continues to live with Peter, the mission he has dedicated himself to as State President of the pre-eminent ex-service organisation in WA to secure better outcomes for Veterans and their families.
He is overseeing much-needed change for our Veteran community in the form of the game-changing ANZAC House Veteran Central facility – and the roll-out of smaller Veteran Hubs in the Greater Perth metro area and in regional centres throughout the State.
Veteran Central will be a one-stop-shop for Veterans seeking help and support – providing a home also to other Ex-Service organisations, along with government and corporate Veteran Service Providers. It’s an absolute game-changer and a project that is being closely watched by other States. (see full article on Pages 11 and 12).
Importantly, Veteran Central will deliver programs that directly respond to the great challenges of our times, including the tragic suicide rate among serving and ex-servicemen and women; the demands of transitioning from military life to civilian work, Veteran homelessness and more.
The leadership shown by Peter is reflected in a stable and successful organisation that is firmly focused on the future, while commemorating the past. Safe hands and a vision are hallmarks for success and RSLWA is leading the charge.
Not much for personal promotion, Peter says any leader needs solid support and is proud to have a great team behind him, with a Board of Directors comprising contemporary Veterans as well as specialist expertise.
While his counsel is sought after by many who come knocking, Peter handles each phone call or approach with grace and an unwavering focus on a position that requires a mix of diplomacy, tact and strategic thinking.
With the advent of new technologies and improvements in the tyranny of distance, Peter is able to still call Albany home while spending considerable time in Perth and visiting Sub-Branches around the State.
As a boy, Peter has called Albany home since 1951, growing up in a small family headed by a somewhat imposing WWII Veteran father. Fire in the belly with a desire to serve his country, Peter enlisted early and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, Royal Regiment of Australian Artillery in 1961, aged just 19.
Then followed nearly 30 years’ military service in a variety of postings here and overseas, including operational service in South Vietnam in 1966/67, having married in 1964 to his first love, Noelene Rutherford in 1964 – a self-assured, resilient and extremely independent nurse he met in service. Their journey together was anything but easy, marked by his long absences, the Vietnam War, and the loss of their second-born at just four months.
Peter resigned his commission in 1988 to take up an executive position with the AMP Society in its head office in Sydney for nine years, after which he took up a marketing role with the IMIA, an academic and consulting organisation that advised a number of major Australian corporations.
After the sad death of his wife in 2001 after a brave battle with cancer, Peter returned to Albany in retirement, where he now lives with his friend and wife, Carolyn.
RSLWA’s current banner slogan Putting Veterans and Families First is testament to his own experiences and the sacrifices made by those left behind when deployments called.
“I was not there for the birth of any of my three children,’’ Peter says. “In January of ’66, Noelene and I had a son and I think I saw him for a total of about five weeks before being posted to Vietnam at the beginning of May that year.
“In our first year of marriage we had a reasonable amount of time together but basically from the birth of my son onwards there was Vietnam, major exercises, major activities and things, I could be away for up to three months at a time. That went on for another 10-12 years.
“I was not there for the birth of any of my children or for major events in their early lives. For example, I was uncontactable for three days on a jungle-training course when my son fell ill with peritonitis, a condition of which can be, and was, very dire. I was just never around.’’
“With no mobile phones or email back then we were reliant on the good old mail system and turnaround time was about three months,’’ Peter said.
“Communication was very difficult. This was compounded by my posting as a forward observer, which meant my role was to go out with the infantry, responsible for calling in artillery fire and airstrikes. The problem was there was an insufficient number of forward observers so that relief from the constant patrolling was not possible. Consequently, I had no R&R the whole time in country and only two overnight R&Cs.”
“The frequency of platoon and company patrolling was very intense with my FO party, and me, constantly out with either a platoon or the whole company. In this early period, contact with the Viet Cong was almost daily. For the time I was there, my party and I spent almost three-quarters of our time out on patrol with the infantry.
“I arrived on the 4th of May, ‘66 and was immediately detached to 161 Field Battery RNZA, which was allocated in direct support of 6RAR. Amongst the first to go into Nui Dat, when there was nothing there, we would be in continual contact with the Viet Cong as they probed the extent of our position in the Nui Dat rubber and around the TAOR.
“One time during an operation out of Nui Dat, I came close to being blown up by a wayward “friendly” artillery shell which landed between my Company Commander, Peter Smeaton, and myself while we were only around 20m apart. With a lethal radius of around 50m, we were incredibly lucky to survive, although he was seriously wounded. Other incidents included a near-miss from a, fortunately, ill-sited VC claymore mine; and numerous episodes of small arms fire when my party and I were sent on section-level patrols, which, of course, were the everyday tasks of the great Diggers in the infantry battalions. ”
When asked if his experiences in Vietnam had made him philosophical, Peter replied with a simple ‘’Yep!” However, those experiences also fuelled his firm belief – then and now – that mental health and associated post-service challenges are key priorities. RSLWA Veteran Central is now being able to house no less than three specialist mental health services, including the Open Arms Veterans & Families Counselling Service.
“Over the years after I came home from Vietnam, I drifted into a pretty basic philosophical view of life, which is that the most important element in life is your mental and physical health. Other than that, I think most of the other stuff is quite trivial by comparison. It is hard when we live in such a material world; how can you feel that way? But I do. I don’t get uptight about it too much because it’s not worth it. I also work hard at the importance of relationship health. I guess the best way of summing it up is why worry yourself to death over something you can’t control so why waste your life sweating about it?
“At my stage in life, what’s important to me is my family, my wife Carolyn and our wellbeing. I now realise that, after my return from Vietnam and back in the peacetime Army, I was suffering PTSD. Looking back, I see now I did some pretty stupid things, made inappropriate decisions that I don’t believe I would normally have done and that’s what led me to now acknowledging I then had PTSD.
“I didn’t seek help for PTSD and that is still a problem for Veterans today. We tend to think ‘I’m tough, I don’t need any help’, and I guess, in my defence, I didn’t really know what PTSD was. People knew about shellshock and battle fatigue from WWI and II, but we didn’t look in the mirror and self-diagnose ourselves with it.
“I believe there is still that strong element of denial or an unwillingness to recognise that something is wrong; there has to be self-recognition that there are problems. And it’s no different today as young men in particular are not good, in my opinion, at self-diagnosis. And that of course is one of the problems with individuals leading with precursors to suicide. ‘’
“I think one of the ways is being able to get in contact with the men and women as they are getting out of the services and even if they don’t need the assistance right then, at least if you’re there and they know you’re there, to provide whatever assistance when they need it.
“If we can show Veterans and their families that we have a range of services and are there to help, efficiently and professionally, and with all the humanity that is required and deserved, they may well then say down the track that they will, in turn, come and join in helping their fellow Veterans.’’
Peter is also keen to address the naysayers who believe this new facility may be a waste of money.
“Yes, it’s going to be a building with architectural merit, but it’s what happens inside that building that counts. The money is being spent to house, and make available, a whole range of services and programs for Veterans and their families and, critically, to serve as the base for the extension of these services to regional veterans and their families.”
It is the mission of Peter Clive Aspinall to now see through this great change in how RSLWA repositions itself to be as relevant to new, contemporary (and much younger) Veterans, who will need the support that their military forebears were provided.
“That’s our job. It always will be. And to lead a great team is not only an honour, but a privilege.’’