War widow’s wish for ANZAC Day

IT'S the time of year for war stories. Bron Drinkwater has heard a few in her time; her late husband and two sons all served in overseas conflicts and she's dedicated years of her life to supporting war veterans and their wives.

But, for her, the stories didn't come straight away. Her husband Graham was a Vietnam veteran and returned a different man, his stories only leaking out over the course of years. She probably never heard all of them.

"You can't go to war and come back the same person," Bron says. "No one can do that. We'd never heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in those days. We didn't know what it was.

Gold Coast South branch War Widows Guild president Bron Drinkwater holding a photo of her late husband who died from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Picture Glenn Hampson
Gold Coast South branch War Widows Guild president Bron Drinkwater holding a photo of her late husband who died from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Picture Glenn Hampson

Graham died 12 years ago as many Vietnam veterans have - of a rare cancer possibly linked to his exposure to Agent Orange. He was 67 and spent the last years of his life suffering from the legacy of his war service.

"He was on a walking stick from 60 and couldn't go too far," she says. "We couldn't do much together and he died too young."

War Widows South Coast president Bron Drinkwater and her late Vietnam veteran husband Graham in their days with the Scout movement.
War Widows South Coast president Bron Drinkwater and her late Vietnam veteran husband Graham in their days with the Scout movement.

After Graham's death, Bron moved from Perth to the Gold Coast and began working as a welfare officer at Currumbin RSL's Veteran Support Centre, eventually taking over as its co-ordinator.

It was through her work she got involved with the local branch of the Australian War Widows. She's been president of the South Coast sub-branch for the last six years.

"When I moved here I never expected to do what I ended up doing," she says. "But I've loved it, meeting the people I have, the friendships I've made, the work I've done. I've really loved it."

Bron met Graham at an open day at the RAAF base at Richmond outside Sydney where he was an aircraft fitter.

They married and had their first son, Steve, who was 13 months old when Graham was sent to Vietnam in 1964.

"He was a serviceman and that was his job," Bron says. "They were probably all a bit gung-ho about it at the time.

"We were both so young. We didn't know what it was going to mean, no one did.

"I didn't know it at the time but I was pregnant and on the day Graham left for Vietnam, I had a miscarriage.

"He didn't know about that for some time. It wasn't like today. We could only write letters and then they had to get through. You just didn't have the same communication as you would now."

 

Vietnam veteran, the late Graham Drinkwater, during his service with the RAAF.
Vietnam veteran, the late Graham Drinkwater, during his service with the RAAF.

Graham was in Vietnam for 11 months. In that time he was shot off the wing of aircraft when he was refuelling it and was later in a plane crash.

"He only told me years later that after their plane went down, they were stranded and hungry. They caught a monkey and got the fur off it but none of them could eat it because it looked too much like a baby," she says.

"I've kept all the letters he wrote me from Vietnam but there were a lot of things that weren't in them."

When Graham returned from Vietnam, Bron says he was much moodier but he hadn't been a moody man before.

"He was a bit more withdrawn in certain things and sometimes he could be really rude and abrupt in speaking.

"You were walking on egg shells. You learned when to shut up and when to speak."

They are, of course, some of the classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress although she says many service personnel and their spouses suffered far worse.

"The World War Two widows particularly had a really hard time," Bron says. "The men came back to find their jobs were gone and there was no real place for them.

"They didn't talk about what went on. They suffered in silence and their wives did too. There was no support in place for them. It was a different time."

Graham eventually left the RAAF in 1971, working as an engineer on oil rigs that took the family around the world.

It was later in life he started having vivid nightmares and flashbacks, further symptoms of PTSD.

"He'd wake up in the night screaming out the names of some of his old mates and yelling out 'incoming, incoming'," Bron says. "Even after all that time."

Vietnam vets from the RAAF who served between 1964-1972 in the Welcome Home march in Sydney in 1987, 25 years after the last troops returned.
Vietnam vets from the RAAF who served between 1964-1972 in the Welcome Home march in Sydney in 1987, 25 years after the last troops returned.

Sadly, it wasn't to be the family's last experience with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Both their sons were to join the RAAF. Graham, she says, didn't discourage them.

Steve served for 20 years, doing a stint in Timor, with the youngest Tim sent to the Middle East, a conflict that saw him return a broken man.

"He wasn't on the front line but when he came home, he was full of anxiety," Bron says. "I get emotional about it even now.

"He was on a walking stick at 48 and was under a psychiatrist for a couple of years.

"He was in the RAAF for 30 years and they eventually discharged him medically unfit. He was so hurt about how they did it, he didn't take up any of the options they offered him.

"It would have been one thing to offer him an office job - he could have done that - but to discharge him as medically unfit, he has really struggled with that."

Bron says she knows some of the things Tim saw during his time in the Middle East but it's probably best she doesn't know all of it, just as she didn't know all of what Graham experienced.

"I don't have grandchildren but I've got nephews who're going into the services," she says.

"I don't understand why they want to do it, but that's just my personal opinion."

Bron Drinkwater has found a friendship network in her work with Gold Coast South War Widows Guild. She is pictured (right) with Jenny Gregory (left) in 2015. Photo: Kit Wise
Bron Drinkwater has found a friendship network in her work with Gold Coast South War Widows Guild. She is pictured (right) with Jenny Gregory (left) in 2015. Photo: Kit Wise

It's a surprising view perhaps from someone who's been involved with the military all her life.

Bron has supported many service personnel and their families through cases of PTSD in her work and says everyone deals with the effects differently.

"Some people turn to drugs; some become homeless," she says. "There is so much paperwork and bureaucracy that they've got to watch for the people who fall through the cracks.

"Some hurt more than others but everyone is changed by being at war."

She says she'll always remember the long-delayed welcome home march for Vietnam veterans in Sydney in 1987.

"A chopper came overhead and the amount of men that just dropped to the ground from that sound, I'll never forget it," she says. "It hadn't left them."

Bron says war widows and their families have lived quietly with their own challenges and have historically received scant recognition from the Department of Veterans Affairs, something her organisation is hoping to change for the next generation.

"You hear about veterans and their challenges but not very much about their widows and partners and what they go through," Bron says. "We think that needs to change."

But Bron's motivations aren't political. She sees her role as providing support and friendship to women who've been through the same thing she has.

"When we get together, we don't talk about being war widows," she says. "We just enjoy each other's company and give each other support and friendship.

"I organise get-togethers and outings. It's such a good feeling to see people happy. That makes me happy too."

 

Two The Soldier's Wife musicians Roz Pappalardo (left) and Deb Suckling (right) with Althea Constant-Towers (War Widows Gold Coast South) and Jenny Gregory (Australian War Widows Queensland president) in Townsville in August, 2018. Photo: Cam Laird
Two The Soldier's Wife musicians Roz Pappalardo (left) and Deb Suckling (right) with Althea Constant-Towers (War Widows Gold Coast South) and Jenny Gregory (Australian War Widows Queensland president) in Townsville in August, 2018. Photo: Cam Laird

Bron's story will be among those told in song in The Soldier's Wife, a performance based on the stories of local war widows and service wives as part of Bleach* festival.

Five Queensland songwriters spent many hours hearing the stories of more than 160 women, inspiring songs dealing with the recurring themes of love, loss and resilience.

The musicians will perform with the HOTA choir at Currumbin RSL Soundlounge on Tuesday, 23 April starting at 6:30pm in a ticketed event.

A stripped back acoustic version will be performed for free on ANZAC Day at Bleach*'s Burleigh hub in Justin Park starting at 4pm.