• Noel Pope and the secret unit. (Supplied)
A group of Vietnam veterans have gathered in central Queensland for the 45-year reunion of a unit that nobody knew existed.
By
Ella Archibald-Binge

25 Apr 2018 - 12:11 PM  UPDATED 25 Apr 2018 - 12:19 PM

In December 1972, Goreng Goreng man Steve Collins returned to his grandparents' farm in Eidsvold in central Queensland after a seven-month tour with the 4th Australian Infantry Battalion in Vietnam.

His grandparents, who raised him, were overjoyed at his return, but they had a question for him: where's your brother? 

Despite a pledge by then incoming Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to bring all Australian troops home by December 20, Steve's younger brother, Noel Pope, was still serving in Vietnam.

The 19-year-old was among 28 Australian soldiers who, unbeknown to the public, remained in Vietnam until May 1973. 

"I was very naive about why we were going, but when I got over there I found out that in my own mind it was more about protecting not only Australia, but my country," Noel, a Wulli Wulli man, tells NITV. 

"That was the motivation in the back of my mind. From a cultural side, mother earth, mother provider, drove me and I was going to do the best I could to protect her."

Originally known as the Australian Army Advisory Group Vietnam, the unit was renamed the Australian Embassy Guard and tasked with escorting embassy officials - at times even venturing to Cambodia for peace negotiations.

Noel and fellow soldier Alan Thorp are believed to be the last Indigenous men from the Australian Army to return home from the Vietnam War. 

“Isolated is the word I use, because no one really knew what was going on."

“We thought we still had a job to do. We didn’t know the politics of it, because next minute we’re all being given passports… had to go and open up accounts at the Shanghai bank in Saigon," says Alan, who remembers the last few months as a lonely period. 

“Isolated is the word I use, because no one really knew what was going on. And that’s proven by the fact that there was a couple of us married, and there was no mail getting to us at all.”

Forty-five years later, the pair have organised this reunion to bring together surviving veterans from the unit in Noel's home town of Theodore in central Queensland. 

Around 17 veterans travelled from across Australia for the week-long event. 

"Once you serve together, you’re like brothers," says Alan. 

"It doesn’t matter what unit you serve with, you’ve always got that mateship – they’re your best mates, you look after each other and you just want to make sure they’re going well."

Like so many soldiers, veterans from the Australian Embassy Guard have grappled with post traumatic stress in the decades following their tour. 

This suffering was a key driver behind the reunion, and also prompted Noel to set up five-day cultural camps to provide spiritual healing to veterans from all backgrounds. 

"I think we’re very lucky as Aboriginals that we have a spiritual side and a cultural side that helps us with our stress," he says.

"We always have something to reflect on, and we always have something to go back to that’s gonna get us through. Not only as we remember Anzac Day, we remember a lot of stuff that happened to our people, and as much as that’s traumatic, that can give you drive, that can make you excel.

"So I use that as motivation, I use the environment, I use our country to actually manage my mental side of things."

Surviving members of the Australian Embassy Guard will also mark this Anzac Day with a special service to honour five of their fellow soldiers who've passed away.

"Anzac Day is a time of reflection," says Alan.

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"It’s not a celebration. It’s a very poor word that we use that we celebrate Anzac Day because you don’t celebrate wars – all war is hardship, deprivation, death.

"It’s a time of commemoration to pay your respects, thank those who have served and those who have made the supreme sacrifice and praise those ones who are serving today."

They were once part of a unit that didn't exist, but Noel hopes that the reunion will help their legacy live on for many years to come.

"Whatever comes out of this, we’re gonna split up, we probably won’t see each other for years – at least there will be photos, there will be papers, there will be some history that people can pick up. And they can live in the now, but still remember the past."

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