Born in 1947, Noel McLaughlin and his family emigrated from Ireland to Australia in 1958. He left school at 14 and spent five years in the retail sector before being called up for National Service in July 1967.
‘I just wanted to get away from home and I saw National Service as a ticket out,’ Noel said. ‘I was given my seven-digit Army number and told not to forget it. Kapooka first and then to Armoured Centre in Puckapunyal where I trained as a driver/signaller [on the] M113A1 [armoured personnel carrier]. I loved the Army. I was a third-generation soldier.’
Noel extended his National Service by six months and went to Vietnam in May 1969 with Support Troop, B Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, Royal Australian Armoured Corps (RAAC).
‘I wanted to get to Vietnam because I wanted to do my bit,’ he said. ‘It was as simple as that and I never regretted going.’
Noel drove a M125A1 ‘mortar track’ and also crewed on M577A1 armoured command vehicles during his tour of duty.
He wanted to extend his time further but wasn’t able to. ‘I was a Nasho and had a girl back home, so I focused on getting back to Australia and out of the Army and back to a normal life with my girl,’ Noel says.
‘It was a very hairy time,’ he said. ‘The Squadron was suffering a high attrition rate in battle damage to the vehicles and constant stress on the crews.
‘When you heard somebody had hit a mine and was dusted off or killed, and it becomes your turn to lead, your mind is concentrated wonderfully, as is your hypervigilance. If you weren’t a tad scared, you were dangerous. Thankfully, you were busy, focused on your job. We had excellent leaders and the discipline, professionalism and application to the task by the blokes in the Squadron was outstanding. That’s why the Cavalry were awarded every single battle honour for the entire conflict.’
He came home to the Sydney suburb of Penrith in December 1969, just as the My Lai Massacre became known to the Australian public. He returned to a community whose attitude to its own soldiers had soured.
Noel’s mother told him never to mention Vietnam in her house again. ‘She was dead-set against me going to Vietnam and that affected my relationship with the family,’ said Noel. His mother objected not because of that particular war but because she hated all war.
He learned that while he was away, his mother had asked their parish priest to say prayers for his safe return, but the priest refused.
‘The priest said he didn’t believe we should be there and he didn’t believe in saying prayers for people who killed innocent women and children,’ said Noel. ‘That was when I started putting up my mental wall. I still have that wall.’
Meaningful employment was another challenge. At that time, the law required employers to re-employ any Nasho after their tour of duty. However, Noel was struggling. He was completely adrift in his former employment and ended up having six jobs in six months.
‘I couldn’t settle down,’ he says. ‘I was just inside my own mental bubble.’
The morning after he arrived back from Vietnam, Noel went down to the local pool. His mind was still in Vietnam and he couldn’t relate to the fun people were having and the ordinariness of everyday life while Australians were in a war zone, suffering and dying. Nothing seemed real to him. He couldn’t stop thinking about his mates risking it all.
‘I couldn’t stop thinking about my mates and kept wondering what they were doing, who was out on operations and who was back at Nui Dat. I couldn’t get Vietnam out of my mind.’
In 1970, Noel spent his first Anzac Day back in Australia at Penrith RSL. There he was ridiculed by a Second World War veteran who asked what Vietnam was like saying, ‘You’ve been to Vietnam, have you son? What’s it like over there?’ When Noel attempted to explain, the old Digger said, ‘Ah youse young blokes wouldn’t know what war was like till you’ve seen blood spilled,’ and burst out laughing with his mates. Noel decided then and there to re-enlist. He missed the Army and being with mates and had become a stranger in his own country. He walked and has never returned to that RSL.
Noel re-enlisted in the RAAC in June 1970 for a further three years, serving a second tour of duty in South Vietnam with 3 Troop, A Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, in 1971. To his great surprise, he was deployed with some old mates from his first tour.
‘When I got to the Squadron lines, I felt I’d come home because there was nothing back in Australia for me. I was back with my mates, with blokes who understood me and how I felt.’
In 1973, Noel returned home, moved to Canberra, married and had children. He joined the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Police before re-enlisting in the Regular Army again in the Armoured Corps, until he was discharged with the rank of sergeant in 1986.
Noel became a Deputy Superintendent with ACT Corrective Services. Noel also became a veterans’ advocate specialising in appeals. He is a self-taught advocate and has practised for 33 years (undertaking TIP 4 training in 1996), enjoying a 100 per cent success rate. For his services to veterans, Noel was honoured with an Australia Day Achievement Medallion (1995) and the Medal of the Order of Australia (2000). Life Membership of the RSL followed and Noel is now a member of Cowra RSL Sub-Branch.
In 1986, Noel attended a meeting of the Vietnam Veterans Association at the ACT RSL Sub-branch and heard that DVA was rejecting a lot of veterans’ claims, following the introduction of new legislation. They needed people to help veterans appeal adverse decisions. Noel met Peter Kelly LLB, the ACT RSL’s Lead Advocate who was ex-AIF and a former barrister who had recently retired as Chief Legal Officer at the CSIRO. From there, lifelong friendship formed. Peter taught Noel how to best support veterans’ and war widows’ appeals.
‘I worshiped at his feet for 23 years until his death in 2009 and learned a lot from him,’ Noel said.
Since retiring in 2001, Noel remains active in ex-service matters. He continues to work as an advocate and provides advocacy advice to other veterans’ practitioners. Noel says: ‘If we don’t look after each other, no bastard will. You can quote me on that … It also stems from my Catholic upbringing. The Parable of the Good Samaritan underpins my commitment to helping others. It’s the Aussie ethos to help those in need, including looking after your Digger mates’.
Though Noel has had some very sad and complex cases, he finds advocacy to be hugely rewarding. He recalls a function he attended where an elderly member of the War Widows’ Guild approached his wife and said ‘thank you for lending us your husband’. Noel says, ‘it doesn’t get any better than that’.
He has one piece of advice: ‘I would say to the post-Vietnam generation of veterans, if you are suffering from PTSD and you’re really doing it hard, the bravest thing you will ever do is to walk through that doorway and say to the counsellor or to Open Arms, “G’day, I need some help”. If I can do it, so can you. Don’t bottle it up because it will eat you alive. My advice to spouses and partners of veterans is to seek advice on strategies to cope with a traumatised spouse/partner.’
Noel says he has seen a significant change in DVA in recent years. He says DVA did have a sense of ‘bureaucratic inertia’. However, under the leadership of Liz Cosson, the department has changed for the better. ‘Liz Cosson is in my opinion, doing a good job,’ said Noel.
‘The department may still make mistakes, but turning DVA around is like turning the Queen Mary – you’re not going to turn it on a dime. It will take time and under Ms Cosson’s leadership, it’s heading in the right direction. The changes initiated thus far and the more approachable attitude of DVA staff, shows the Department has improved markedly compared to previous years. Notwithstanding these achievements, there is still a way to go.’
On a personal note, Noel says: ‘The achievements in my life would not have been possible without the love and support of my darling wife of 46 years, and my personal and professional development as a soldier in the RAAC. The RAAC awakened an insatiable desire to learn and to apply that knowledge to any forum including in the veterans’ advocacy field. I owe the Corps a debt of gratitude I will never be able to repay.’