When John Miles first walked into the RSL he was told he wasn’t welcome. He wasn’t one of them.
Some 50 years on, he is now the president of the Warrnambool sub-branch with a focus on welfare and support to ensure every veteran is given the welcome they deserve.
“To not be accepted by a lot of people was very hard and very hurtful,” Mr Miles said of his return from Vietnam.
“I was there at the RSL one night and said ‘do you want to play carpet bowls’ or something like that and I was told I wasn’t one of them.
“So I walked out of the RSL and I never had anything to do with the RSL for 20 years, I suppose. I wouldn’t go to Anzac marches.”
Things have turned around. Mr Miles was eventually talked into coming back and a major focus since has been to improve support for other veterans.
“Unfortunately the (younger veterans) heard about what happened to us and think that will happen to them, but it won’t. It’s completely changed,” he said.
“It’s been an ongoing thing, and now we try and look after the younger veterans as much as we can.”
Mr Miles, originally from Bairnsdale, was called up to Vietnam when he was 20.
“I knew I had to go, so I accepted it. I’d spoken to some World War II diggers in Bairnsdale and they said to me ‘go in, do what you’re told to do and don’t volunteer for anything’,” he said.
“I went in and I just did what I had to do.”
Mr Miles found himself in the transport corps and after months of training headed to Vietnam in 1966.
“I ended up at Vung Tau. I was attached to the headquarters as a general duties driver. I considered myself very lucky because…I was doing something different every day,” he said.
“One day I would be doing convoys, I could be carting supplies, the next day I could be carting troops. We had a lot of civilian workers. One of the jobs was to pick them up, take them to the camp and take them home at night.
“Every time you drove out the front gate you didn’t know what could happen.
“It was dangerous. We just drove from Vung Tau to Nui Dat, but who knew.”
After 10 months, Mr Miles returned home and, like many Vietnam vets, found the adjustment to civilian life “very, very hard”. “I arrived back in Melbourne at 11am in the morning and by 2pm that afternoon I was out of the army,” he said.
He stayed in Bairnsdale for only about three weeks before getting work in Warrnambool as a delivery driver for a laundry. He ended up marrying his boss – Alva – and stayed in Warrnambool.
“I considered myself very lucky, meeting Alva. She’s been very, very supportive. I know I put her through hell for a lot of years,” Mr Miles said.
We try to help other veterans and the younger, contemporary veterans coming through.John Miles
“What I was going through, the slightest sort of thing would set you off and, unfortunately, the same as a lot of us, you try to self-medicate with alcohol and that sort of thing. It was very, very hard.”
Mr Miles describes returning to Vietnam with his son Andrew about 13 years ago as a turning point.
“When we got back down to where I was based, all I wanted to do was have a good look around there, you wouldn’t know the place now, it’s so different,” he said.
“That night, I was just about to go to bed and Andrew looks at me and said ‘are you OK?’ I was great. I just felt so good, it was like a weight had lifted from my shoulders.”
While he can’t change the past, Mr Miles and the Warrnambool RSL have worked hard to improve the future of other servicemen and women.
“There’s a lot more assistance out there now than what there was. We have our veterans’ support centre set up at the club, that’s where we try to help other veterans and the younger, contemporary veterans coming through now,” he said.
Mr Miles said Warrnambool’s new war memorial would also go a long way to giving deserved acknowledgement to veterans of the modern era.
On a personal level, he is honoured that his name will be one of those featured. “It will be fantastic.”