Each one deserves to be recognised

Vietnam veteran Gary McKay. Picture: GEORGIA MATTS

Vietnam veteran Gary McKay. Picture: GEORGIA MATTS

MORE than 40 years on, a Kiama Downs Vietnam veteran vividly recalls an environment of "the quick or the dead", while aiming to preserve the legacy of Australia's involvement in the conflict.

Former Army officer, historian and author Gary McKay, 66, served in Vietnam with the 4th Battalion, an Anzac Battalion.

He was a second lieutenant and a rifle platoon commander, serving a seven-month tour of duty in 1971.

He was severely wounded in battle in September 1971, taking two bullets through the left shoulder.

He spent the next 12 months in and out of hospital, and was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry.

The Kiama Independent spoke to Mr McKay in the lead up to Vietnam Veterans Day (August 18) to discuss the upcoming 50th anniversary of the deployment of the first Australian battle group to Vietnam. Next year is not just the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli - it is also the 50th anniversary of the first Australian troops to be sent to the Vietnam War.

Mr McKay said it was important to recognise any Australians in uniform and serving overseas in combat, regardless of when and where.

Mr McKay spent 30 years as an Army officer after being conscripted for national service in 1968.

He has vivid memories of being part of the last infantry battalion to serve in Vietnam.

"It was a mixture of excitement, apprehension, a little bit of uncertainty, but feeling, as you do when you're 22 years of age, you're 10-foot tall and bulletproof," he said.

Mr McKay arrived in Vietnam after the Tet Offensive launched by the north Vietnamese, which he said had been a "military disaster" for them.

"Everyone thought that the war had been basically sorted out, and it hadn't … the withdrawal had been talked about.

"So we weren't going there to win the war, we were going to help the south Vietnamese try and win the war.

"The way we saw it with our 35 men, [it] was our job was to bring them home alive, that was it.

"Kill the bad guys if we have to, but bring as many people home alive as we could.

"We did fairly well, until late September 1971, when we lost four men killed in one day. They were our only deaths during the tour of duty for our platoon."

Vietnam was hot and humid - a "hard slog".

"You might go days without seeing, hearing or smelling anything. Then all of a sudden you'd have a contact, and this relative calm would explode into frenzied, violent, noisy activity.

"It was a case of the quick or the dead; not and the dead - or the dead."

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