WITH a full-blown drama playing out next door, around 35 former national servicemen and their wives gathered at the Fremantle Army Museum last Friday to train up for a new battle.
As police bailed up an alleged armed robber on the roof of the Naval Store and confined the Nashos (as they’re known) to the barracks in case he jumped the fence, they joked that the last place he’d want to find himself would be amongst a troop of grumpy old conscripts trained to kill.
But these Nashos, amongst the 63,735 Australian men called up for mandatory national service through the dreaded “Birthday Ballot” between 1964 and 1972, never fired a shot in anger – and that’s at the heart of their grievance.
Despite undergoing rigorous and often demeaning army training, and living under the cloud of being sent to the front lines of the Vietnam War at any time, their lack of active combat denies them a veteran’s “gold card” which would cover all their medical expenses.
The 48,000 Nashos who remained at home or were deployed as peacekeepers in places like New Guinea or Malaya only qualify for a white card which covers about 20 ailments directly related to their service.
With age now aggravating old injuries, hearing loss and mental scars, they launched a national campaign in September called Nasho Fair Go to try and get access to the gold card.
David Butterfield heads up the WA branch of the group and said the Nashos were fed up with arbitrary decisions about what qualified under the white card and delays in getting applications approved that have in some cases stretched into years.
He said army training was tough on their bodies, but the Nashos were made to feel like malingerers if they sought help at the base’s medical post and their attempts at self-care are now coming back to haunt them.
“I remember when I first went in Puckapunyal, we used to a lot of marching and running in the old bloody hobnail boots,” Mr Butterfield said.
“I don’t know, I might have one foot bigger than the other, but around the achilles area it was just red raw.
“Now, in city life I’d have maybe not taken a day off, but maybe put on some other footwear of something.
“But they’d just maybe give you a bandage and that was about it.”
Sitting around a table with Mr Butterfield and fellow Nashos Horace Misko, Chris Dawson and Cedric Bell, they all agree that being prepped up for Vietnam – the unpopular and undeclared war – took its toll, as did the demeaning taunts of their training officers.
Mr Misko was conscripted in 1972 as Vietnam wound down.
“But I’m in an infantry unit; I’m in the section of a platoon with 10 blokes and I’ve got an M16 machine gun.
“I’ve got the firepower, but I’m also the biggest target, and the number 2 on the gun, his job was to pick up the bandanas of ammo and change the barrel with a pair of asbestos gloves, because the barrel was so hot.”
Federal campaign coordinator Geoff Parkes met with federal veterans affairs minister Matt Keogh on September 7 armed with a petition containing 25,000 signatures and says he got a sympathetic hearing.
“There are many cases where National Servicemen stationed in Australia were subjected to verbal abuse an mental bullying that would not be tolerated today,” Mr Parkes said.
“Further, young men were forced, subject to imprisonment, to serve their country for ideals they did not support. And the community rallied against this injustice.
“In short, our medical and psychologicval welfare has been neglected for years by successive governments.
“We are upset that we are not taken seriously and urge government to address this matter with a generosity of spirit and compassion for a generation of men who were powerless to resist the law of the land,” Mr Parkes said.
A 34-year-old man was later charged with armed robbery.