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A song for our veterans that changed the nation

Singer-songwriter John Schumann with his guitar alongside a Vietnam War exhibit in the Australian War Memorial.

Former Redgum singer John Schumann wrote 'I was only 19' to recognise Vietnam veterans. (AWM2016.8.91.19)

Singer-songwriter John Schumann believes his hit song 'I was only 19' made Australians stop and think about the service of Vietnam veterans

When singer-songwriter John Schumann sat down to write 'I was only 19' he never dreamt the song would be the subject of an exhibition at the Australian War Memorial more than three decades later.

"I didn't think for a moment that this song was going to be as influential and as life-changing for me and others as it has been," Mr Schumann said.

He'd wanted to write a song about Vietnam veterans because he knew he could have been one of them.

"It really was a case of there but for the grace of God go I," he said.

Mr Schumann's grandfather had been a marksman on a merchant navy minesweeper during the First World War and his father, who had been in the RAAF in the Second World War, wasn't too worried about the idea of his son being conscripted. His mother, though, was far from comfortable with the idea.

"I didn't understand why every time I had an asthma attack I had to go to the doctor, but she told me a bit later on that she was laying a paper trail in case my marble came up," Mr Schumann said.

It wasn't until he reached university that Mr Schumann started to learn more about the war in Vietnam.

"I had been in blissful naïve ignorance … but once the light was turned on, I became opposed to our participation," he said.

"It was a war of American imperialism, and we had no business there, and I was very keen to see the Australians brought home, particularly those blokes I knew over there.'

Some of Mr Schumann's friends who served in Vietnam came back fundamentally changed.

"And that I think helped give rise to the song ... The songwriter in me could well imagine myself being sick and psychologically injured and being home from a war that nobody wanted to honour my service in. There was a sense of injustice … injustice will always fire me to get off the couch."

Mr Schumann decided to write a song for the veterans, and sought inspiration from the experiences of his brotherin-law, Mick Storen, who had served with 6 Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment in Vietnam in 1969.

"We had a long conversation, which I taped on cassettes, and I just listened to those cassettes over and over and over," the singer said.

Sitting down in his Melbourne backyard to write a few months later, the words just tumbled out.

"It was like it'd already been written," Mr Schumann said.

"I sat in the sunshine with my guitar, and, really, it didn't take very long at all to write the song … As proud as I am of 19, that morning I felt as if I was little more than a conduit."

When Mr Schumann and his band, Redgum, released the song in March 1983, the impact was immediate.

It went to number one. For the hundreds of thousands of Australians who bought the record, Schumann suspects it was a way of saying sorry.

"I think I was only 19 provides an 'I get it' moment," Mr Schumann said.

"[It] made us stop and think, "We didn't do the right thing by those blokes".

"We've learned to separate our position on the war and our position on the men and women who are sent to fight it … that's a very important distinction."

Veterans still approach Mr Schumann to thank him for telling their story and helping their families understand.

"Sometimes I think that I channelled some other force that day," he said.

"It's almost as if the universe said, 'Look … it's really not fair about these Vietnam veterans. We really need to get everybody to understand what's going on here, and how do we do that? Oh we'll do it with a song.'"

See a video of John Schumann performing I was only 19 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan in 2016.

The Australian War Memorial's online exhibition A walk in the light green has more about 'I was only 19'.

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