Conscript recalls the turmoil during and after the Vietnam War

PAUL Coffey was 21 when he was conscripted in 1971 to head to the longest 20th century conflict in which Australia participated, the Vietnam War.

The now father of two fought in Vietnam in one of three battalions, each comprising 600 to 700 conscripts and soldiers.

“When we were called up, we were called up out of our everyday lives and thrown into the deep end. We came straight out of that and were thrown into a disciplined world,” Mr Coffey said.

“We were the cream of the crop, the young people. We were fit, healthy, young people who were trained up and changed.”

Mr Coffey was a telecommunications technician when he was forced into the “disciplined world”.

The Seven Hills RSL sub-branch member was deployed in Phuoc Tuy with the main base in the province’s central region, Nui Dat.

Fighting at such a young age meant the young Australian men were strongly reliant on their training.

“It was a fight or flight reaction. You stay there and fight rather than run away from it and that was what the discipline (training) was all about,” Mr Coffey said.

“Your brain was rewired so that it was reactive to violence instead of walking away from it.”

Almost 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam; 521 were killed and more than 3000 were wounded.

“We, the Australians, are the best jungle fighters in the world,’’ Mr Coffey said. “It’s what our enemies, our opponents, have said about us.

“We were well respected by the Vietcong and the Vietnamese Army … they were known to say, ‘we don’t like fighting against the Australian Army’.”

The struggle to identify the enemy made the Vietnam War “horrifying”, Mr Coffey said.

“ The First World War and the Second World War, you knew who you were fighting, but in Vietnam they were ordinary farmers and peasants during the day and then they’re out there playing soldier and causing havoc.”

Mr Coffey said soldiers were mistreated by Australia upon their return home.

“It wasn’t very nice — we weren’t accepted. We were told we didn’t go to war, we were ratified by the Labor government … we were spat at, paint was thrown at us, pigs’ blood. You name it, we got it. There was a lot of anti-war sentiment at that stage.’’

The now 67-year-old battles post-traumatic stress disorder, a product of the war that surfaced and “bit him in the neck” about 15 years after his return home.

However, Mr Coffey said ignorance of what occurred during the Vietnam War no longer existed and the Anzac spirit was alive and well.

“There’s no ignorance of the Anzac spirit anymore. People might not have taken it on board initially but schools are teaching it now and there is awareness of it,” he said.

Mr Coffey plans on meeting fellow Anzacs at the Anzac Day march through the Sydney city for the annual day of remembrance.

Written by Martha Azzi, Blacktown Advocate