Hosted by Ray Martin, the documentary An Australian Hero: Keith Payne VC takes a close look at how wartime trauma carries on long after the last shot is fired.
“Keith is a little bloke with a huge heart who’s made and continues to make a massive contribution to Australian society, without fanfare or fuss,” says Martin. “He’s a national treasure yet his searingly honest story still surprises.”
Fifty years ago, Australian soldier Keith Payne earned this country’s highest military honour. Attached to an American Special Forces unit engaged in training indigenous Vietnamese Montagnard tribesmen to fight the North Vietnamese, Payne risked his own life to save some 40 men while under heavy attack, repeatedly leaving cover to drag his wounded comrades back to safety.
His incredible act of courage was immortalised in a short 1970 documentary, but now Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent and documentarian Max Uechtritz has not only revisited Payne’s story but expanded it, looking at both his wartime experiences and how they have affected the now elderly digger’s entire life.
“It’s so much more than a war story,” Martin reflects, “because Keith’s tougher battles have been post Vietnam, with his own PTSD rupturing his own family and putting him in a seriously dark place for many years. Thankfully he overcame all that and now campaigns tirelessly for fellow veterans from his own era and from the current crop. To keep doing all this at 86 years old is a phenomenal achievement.”
The approach elevates Australian Hero from mere hagiography. Payne’s military achievements are unarguably impressive, and no less a light than former Liberal politician Brendan Nelson, now director of the Australian War Memorial, appears in the film to both contextualise and laud his actions, while former Green Beret medic Jerry Dellwo, who was in the field with Payne on the fateful day, is on hand to provide boots-on-the-ground commentary, and Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove speaks about Payne’s lasting legacy.
But Uechtritz makes sure to illustrate how Payne’s time in Vietnam has marked him. For years the veteran struggled with post traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, and his sons are candid about how they suffered being raised by a man who was, for a while at least, locked in combat with his own demons.
An Australian Hero: Keith Payne VC, then, is an admirably complex work of portraiture and Payne emerges as a complicated man who, in prevailing over his own trauma, has found himself in a position to help others. These days he spends his energies counselling other returned combat veterans, as well as advocating for better support systems for former servicemen.
As he says in Uechtritz’s film, “The poor buggers faced the battlefield, they’ve faced the enemy, for the nation and the nation is not responding by looking after them and that is an annoying factor as well, you know, that really gets me.” It seems that, even into his ninth decade, Payne isn’t finished fighting yet.
An Australian Hero: Keith Payne VC is now streaming at SBS On Demand: