• "My number came up. I was conscripted" Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Warrung elder, Uncle Graham Atkinson (Ali MC)Source: Ali MC
At 20-years-old, Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Warrung man Graham Atkinson was conscripted in the deeply controversial Vietnam War. Thrust into army training and sent to a foreign land, leaving his home in country Victoria.
Ali MC

24 Apr 2018 - 4:32 PM  UPDATED 25 Apr 2018 - 10:54 AM

It was the fear of many young Australian men in the late 60s: to have 'your number come up' in the National Service lottery, the random selection of army conscription that was broadcast on national television.

The war in Vietnam was raging, and Australia was becoming increasingly involved, with Prime Minister Harold Holt claimed the country would go 'all the way with LBJ' (US President Lyndon B Johnson).

It was a war which would claim the lives of over 500 Australian soldiers, leave over 3000 wounded, and leave scars of all kinds on the more than 60 000 service men and women who served between 1962 and 1972.

Like the United States, the Australian government conscripted young civilian men to fight in the controversial conflict.

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One of the 'nashos' (National Servicemen) who's number came up was proud Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung elder Graham Atkinson.

"My number came up," he says simply. "I was conscripted."

Coming from a working class family in rural Echuca, Graham was just 20-years-old when in 1968 he found himself thrust into the army, training for service in Vietnam.

"I didn't think about Vietnam that much, but felt curious about it. In the sense that it made me want to see what it was it was all about. As a young man at that time, I didn't have a broad worldview of things."

Graham was sent to Puckapunyal, where along with many other 'nashos' he would complete his recruit training with the Australian Army.

"Our training was all around preparing for Vietnam. And that intrigued us. What was it all about? What would it be like seeing it firsthand?"

"So when they told me I had to go, it upset my mother but I didn't kick up a stink about it. I saw it as an opportunity to broaden my knowledge and to get firsthand experience. It was a little bit of an adventure going to another country."

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It was an adventure that sits readily in the forefront of Graham's memory.

"I can recall in an instant the sounds and the smells as we touched down at Tan Son Nhut airbase in Saigon. We landed there, it was stinking hot; we disembarked from the plane, and assembled on the tarmac."

"I was thinking 'what have I got myself into?' There was no way of going back."

"It was hot, humid, helicopters flying overhead, jets taking off and the smell of aircraft fumes, thick in the air. I was thinking 'what have I got myself into?' There was no way of going back."

"We then flew to Nui Dat. I was taken to the First Army Regiment, got lumped in with the rest of the soldiers who were already there."

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Because Graham already had a trade as a fitter and turner, his role in the army was as an armament fitter. He took care of the armoury, including the 20-pound guns in the Centurion tanks.

"I was a craftsman with the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical engineers. I already had a trade as a fitter and turner, so you were streamed into a field you already had skills in."

According to the Australian War Memorial and Indigenous veteran's groups, around 500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men served in Vietnam, at a time in which the protests for civil rights raged in both the United States and Australia.

Graham says that he came from a very proud Aboriginal family, but at the time, he encountered a great deal of racism in the army, despite the success of the 1967 referendum only the year before.

"From day one, the issue of my Aboriginality came up. I was pretty olive skinned, pretty dark, and people noticed that. I had officers ask me if I was Aboriginal, and I identified very strongly then as Aboriginal, and there'd be that sort of snide remark and racist undertone, largely based on ignorance."

"I was the only Aboriginal recruit in my unit, there were a few other Aboriginal recruits, but I could probably only count on one hand the number of other Aboriginal soldiers I ran into during that time. Ironically I ran into my first cousin, he had been conscripted as well, earlier than me."

Graham says that he identified with the Vietnamese, who were also subjected to racism by the Australian and American soldiers.

"As you started your training you soon found out about the war. Some of the guys who were training us used to brag about having been over there, but in a really racist way."

"They saw the Vietnamese as inferior, second rate. They would use racist language to describe the Vietnamese, they didn't see them as equals."

"They saw the Vietnamese as inferior, second rate. They would use racist language to describe the Vietnamese, they didn't see them as equals."

"And being an Aboriginal person, I could relate to that. And being in an all-white setting I could see that racism."

Because Graham could identify with the Vietnamese, he saw their culture in a far more positive light. He could also see the parallel with their struggle, and that of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples back home.

"I found the Vietnamese to be really clever, smart people that would not let anyone stand in their way. They would always find ways of dealing with issues, they were very industrious."

"That appealed to me, I found that to be a strength of the Vietnamese, their ingenuity."

The late 1960s were also a time of great social upheaval, and back in Australia, protests erupted over the conscription process and Australia's involvement in what was fast becoming an unpopular war.

"I was aware of the protests back then," says Graham, "but my attitude was that it was these bloody uni students protesting back then. Little did I know that I would end up becoming a uni student myself!" 

Upon returning to Australia after completing 10 months of service in Vietnam, he - like many other soldiers returning from Vietnam - was greeted with hostility.

"One thing that pissed me off was that a lot of my mates were spat on, were called baby killers and all that. I wasn't impressed with that. We were given a hard time. We came back loathed rather than loved. That stuck in my memory for a long time."

Another difficulty Graham faced was that there were no adequate supports provided to returned soldiers. Instead, they were left to fend for themselves, despite having experienced the horrors of war.

"I saw people wounded which was very confronting, and saw the effect of young 20 year old guys thrown into a war theatre and the psychological impact it had on them."

"We didn't get any support when we got back. I was discharged within a month to 6 weeks of coming back from Vietnam, you walk out the door and 'see you later.' No questions were asked whether you needed any help."

It has only been in recent times that Graham has been able to reconcile his experiences in Vietnam. In particular, he has visited Vietnam on two occasions, even meeting with his former enemies.

"30 years after being discharged, I went over by myself. Put some old memories to rest, and actually met some former Viet Cong (North Vietnamese). Their attitude was very positive, no grudges or resentment but one of reconciliation, we shook hands. It was an opportunity to bury the hatchet, and get with our lives, to let go."

With regards to the upcoming ANZAC Day, Graham says that it has only been in the last six years that he has marched in the parade, but says that he involves his family and also marches as a proud Indigenous man.

"My youngest and oldest sons have marched with me, that's been a great experience and will be doing the same this Wednesday. I also have 3 young grandchildren who I'd also like involve."

"I feel a sense of pride as an Indigenous soldier that did his time and represented his country, and I'm overwhelmed by the public response to it on the day it's an incredible experience to be acknowledged when walking on the parade, with people clapping and recognising the experience you went through, knowing at the same time they're not glorifying war, but acknowledging the predicament we found ourselves in. It gives you a sense of healing."

Graham says that his experiences in Vietnam also influenced his tireless work as an Aboriginal leader since the early 1970's.

"My experience in Vietnam politicised me, especially in the treatment of Indigenous people back in Australia. I could see a parallel with the treatment of the Vietnamese and Aboriginal people."

This politicisation has led to Graham being involved with many Aboriginal organisations including the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency and Native Title Services Victoria, as well as completing a Bachelor of Social Work and an MBA.

He has also chaired the Dja Dja Warrung Traditional Owner organisation, which recently won a significant Native Title claim.

After all of his experiences, Graham remains committed to social justice, and is passionate about passing on the torch to the next generation.

"My message for young Aboriginal people is persistence and determination and you are as good as and equal to the next person. Don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't achieve."

Ali MC (Alister McKeich) is a writer, photographer and legal professional who holds a Masters in Human Rights Law. His work documents global human rights issues, and he has had the privilege of working with a number of Aboriginal communities here and internationally. He currently works at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service. Follow @alimcphotos



Watch Black ANZAC, a documentary about a street artist's journey exploring Indigenous people in war service. Available On Demand