A veteran talks about mateship, connection and taking care of your community

Allan Ploenges has a ready smile and expressive blue eyes, his demeanour is outgoing and positive – above all, he’s ready to speak about the things that matter to him.

For this Vietnam veteran, the things that matter are mateship, connection and taking care of your community.

These are the special things that sustained him during his nine years of military service, 13 months of that spent fighting in Vietnam.

His service memories are still vivid and sharp. Born in Mt Gambier in South Australia he hails from a line of men who fought for their country and were recognised with distinguished service awards for their courage. He is, and rightly so, immensely proud of them.

So, when the time came for the 17-year-old to decide on a career, it was only natural that his father recommended the Defence Forces, The young man followed his advice and by January 1963 he had signed up and was on his way to Kapuka for three months of intensive training.

“It was tough, but enjoyable,” he recalls.

After completing his training in the infantry, he went to Healsville (in the Dandenongs) to do his elected training as a medic. For about two years he worked in the School of Army Health and then applied and was accepted to go to Malaysia.

Those two and half years in Malaysia provided extraordinary experiences and opportunities for him.

“We travelled the length and breadth of Malaysia,” he said.

“We saw tigers in the wild, giant millipedes and one time we came across a tribe of people in the mountains who were living in the same way they had for hundreds of years – the modern world hadn’t touched them.”

It also gave him the opportunity to meet his wife, a nurse also in the Défense service working in the local base hospital.

The couple married, had their own children and today are enjoying their grandchildren.

He left Malaysia in 1966 to accept a posting in Thailand. By April 1968 he was back in Australia and this time around, he was part of the 9th Battalion, sent to Woodside in the Adelaide Hills for training.

“We were specifically being trained to replace a Battalion in Vietnam,” he said.

“The 9th Battalion was the last one raised in Australia.”

After another 10 weeks spent in Shoalwater Bay, his Battalion boarded HMAS Sydney, an aircraft carrier that took two weeks to arrive in Vietnam.

Allan’s face tightens up when remembers the trip.

“It was horrible – horrible,” he emphasised.

“There was a huge storm over the Bight when we crossed. Even the sailors were seasick.”

Still, these memories are not all bad.

“We were allotted 2 cans of Fosters (beer) per man, per day,” he smiled.

The crew landed at Vung Tau and travelled onto Task Force Head Quarters at Nui Dat. Nui Dat was considered ideal for the type of counter-insurgency warfare that Australians waged in Phuoc Tuy. Its location in the centre of the province meant that Nui Dat was in the middle of Viet Cong territory. Therefore, security was of prime importance. The soldiers lived in tents and worked to establish defences. Every soldier at Nui Dat had a fighting pit. Elevated bunkers, manned 24 hours a day, were constructed around the base’s perimeter which was further defended by wire obstacles and belts of anti-personnel mines. Vegetation was cleared from a 500-metre-wide area outside the wire to provide fields of fire and a clear view of approaching Viet Cong.

At its peak the base at Nui Dat was home to some 5,000 Australian personnel.

“We were out on operations most of the time, finding the enemy,” Allan explained. The specific type of operation dictated the time away. “It could be anything from five days to 10 weeks.” The patrol varied from land clearing to uncovering explosives.

He said night patrols consisted of seven or eight men who went outside the wire and into the wet, muddy jungle. There they would lie down in ambush position waiting for the enemy.

“We had to be quiet, no smoking, and we would dig down into the mud with our fingers to get ourselves as low as possible.”

When he wasn’t doing that, he was treating the wounded. Some wounds were the results of the claymore mines. When detonated, 1.5 lbs of C4 explosives would propel hundreds of ⅛” in diameter steel balls up to 100m out in a 60-degree fan pattern. According to the U.S. Army, the steel wall of projectiles is lethal within 50 meters but can maim or kill out to 250 meters.

Booze was often the antidote many soldiers used to quell the mental and physical pain.

“Everyone hammered the booze,” he said.

“It was just a way of life.”

Yet, he says that due to the quality of solider training, the Aussie Défense Force was extremely disciplined and they understood the terrain.

“They was excellent jungle training at Canungra,” he said.

In fact, he recited a sign on the wall there.

“Let not your spirit say if you were better trained you would be alive today.”

Corporal Allan David Ploenges did come home, but unlike other wars, there was little to no respect for the service they had given. “People didn’t want to know you,” he said Sadly, he recalls, one year he joined a military parade through the city, where a young woman swore at his face with degrading language and taunts.

Yes, this returned solider does admit to suffering PTSD, but it took him until 1991 to admit.

“For a long time, you put on a mask and didn’t talk about these things” he said.

He is glad that today there are plenty of avenues of support and there is no shame in revealing mental health issues.

Finally, Allan says that without doubt, it is mateship that gets you through the tough times and mateship was the thing he learned about during his military service.

“Mateship,” he said.

“It stays with you forever, because it was a mate you depended on for your life.”

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