“A Voice for the Men Australia Forgot”

50th Anniversary of Abolition of National Service

Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance – 1pm Saturday 10 December 2022

A Wreath Laying Service Was Held to Honour the Service and Sacrifice of National Servicemen 1965-1972

Shrine Address – 50th Anniversary of Abolition of National Service

Tuesday December the 7th, 1972 is widely recognised as the day the new Whitlam government abolished national service. While the actual date was in mid-1973, this was the date when still serving national servicemen were told they could pack up and go home, if they wished to.

It was a date that brought to the end a very divided and fraught era in Australian history. Conscription and Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, divided this country like very few issues have, before or after. It caused some of the greatest levels of civilian protest Australia has ever seen.

The National Service Scheme of 1964-72 was implemented by the Menzies Government. Birth dates for two intakes per year were drawn using marbles. To fail to register, or to refuse to present for service, carried a potential two-year jail sentence. The men who took this option were known as conscientious objectors, or “Conchies”.

They were treated with contempt and loathing by a large section of the community. I think most of us now would realise that they were men of great principle and courage.

Between July 1965 and December 1972, 63,375 young men were conscripted to serve in the Australian defence forces, primarily the army. This was just 7% of the 864,000 men who turned twenty in those years.

Men undertaking full time study could apply for deferment of their service. Those called up could elect to serve five years in the Citizens Military Force, as an alternative to two years full time service. Anyone who was not called up was able to get on with their life as if nothing had happened.

15,100 of those called up, would serve in Vietnam, while the remaining 48,275 would serve in Australia, Malaysia, and PNG. 645 would die while during their service – 210 in Vietnam and 435 elsewhere. The major cause of death was not enemy fire but road accidents – men desperate to get home for a weekend with loved ones.

Today we remember these young men whose lives were taken in their very prime. We reflect on the futility of the Vietnam War and Australia’s involvement in it. We must also remember the 22,000 of our cohort who have passed in the years since we were discharged from our service. It is a time when we must all be aware of our own mortality.

Today will also stir memories of our conscription – registering for the draft, our birth dates being called out over the radio, medical examinations, and the day we entered the army. There we were. All shapes and sizes. Mostly long haired and unfit. Very few of us ready for our first taste of the military, which would be our life for a considerable time to come.

It would be hard to forget watching our long hair falling to the floor as we sat in the barber’s chair. Exchanging our civvy clothes for jungle greens and getting to know our fellow recruits. Probably the greatest culture shock was army discipline and how it was administered. Initially, most of us were terrified by the NCO’s who continually screamed at us. No threat or verbal abuse was off the table. Verging on brutality at time, it would probably cause a Royal Commission today, and yet, just a few weeks later, it washed over us, virtually unnoticed as we became institutionalised.

There is no denying that our ten weeks of basic training transformed us and was an experience that probably shaped the rest of our lives. We would reach levels of fitness even those of who regularly played sport could never have imagined. Kilos of flab were transformed into lean muscle. We could run 8 kilometres in our boots, before breakfast. We carried huge packs and weapons over long distances. Out in the bush, we slept on the ground and went for days without changing our clothes or taking off our boots. We could dismantle and reassemble weapons in seconds. By the time we marched out of our basic training unit we felt like we were supermen.

Australian army training is among the world’s best. It produces superior soldiers by building teamwork and reliance on mates. I doubt there are many of us who have ever experienced greater levels of mateship than we did during our basic training.

After basic training came corps training. We were allocated to the various corps that make up our army for further training. A high percentage of national servicemen were sent to infantry regiments. Jungle warfare in Vietnam and Malaysia required bigger, stronger bodies than those of the usual regular army, seventeen-year-old recruit. These became frontline battle troops. It’s no coincidence that Nashos were represented disproportionately in the casualties suffered in Vietnam.

Eventually we were to finish our time and go home. Next came what would be, for many, the biggest hurdle of their whole conscription experience. Some men would be living with the physical and mental scars suffered during their service. Some just found it very hard to settle back into a civilian life that had moved on without them. Some found their relationships with family and friends altered, some had careers that were set back or ruined. Some could not hack life on the “outside” and went back into the army. Not many people wanted to hear about our problems. Australia was so over Vietnam.

So, here we are today. We give thanks that we are able join together to mark this occasion. Men! As you go on your way, always remember,       When your country called,       you answered.      You did your job.      Be proud of what you did, and who you are.    Well done!

Thank you.

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