Whilst some memories of the Vietnam War still haunt him, Veteran Community Award recipient at the 2019 Victorian Senior of the Year Awards Peter Burquest says he has no doubt his life is the better for his decision to join the army as an 18-year-old.
‘I probably would have been in jail if I hadn’t joined the army. I was knocking around Sunshine, Braybrook and Footscray with the wrong people, living on the streets there for a while. I was going nowhere in life. People in the family had told me to join the army and do something with my life,’ Peter says.
In 1967 the Vietnam War had been going for a couple of years but reporting on what was happening was limited.
‘I hadn’t thought about going to war really, though I did think about the home loan rewards; I was looking more for the security,’ Peter says.
After training for six months, Peter joined the 1st Battalion RAR in late 1967 and left for Vietnam on the HMS Sydney in March 1968.
‘There was a lot of activity going on; the enemy were withdrawing after the Tet Offensive and hanging around the area to have another go at Saigon City and American Air Bases,’ Peter says.
A truce through Tet (New Year celebrations) had been called for and agreed to, but the enemy decided they would use that truce to launch an all-out attack on villages and cities.
‘From knocking around the streets of Braybrook prior to 1967 to fighting in a major battle two months after arriving in Vietnam (FSB Coral) was a pretty hairy experience. The whole tour was pretty hairy really, particularly toward the end of the tour when you’re counting down the days to return home.’
When Peter completed his tour, he was given the option to leave the army or sign up for another three years, with a six month peace-keeping deployment to Malaya on offer. He had married a month prior to leaving for Vietnam so chose to re-sign, for his wife was able to live with him in married quarters in Malaya.
‘We ended up staying there for two-and-a-half years; six months in Malaya and two years in Singapore. The good thing about extending my service was that it gave me the opportunity to stay with many of the same guys whom I toured Vietnam with, on a deployment where there was no real danger. Whereas many service men came back from Vietnam and were sent back to their normal civilian life and expected to be able to adjust with no support available.’
It also meant he missed much of the anti-war sentiment directed at Vietnam veterans in Australia at the time.
Humbled by award
Still married to his wife of 51 years, a father of two and grandfather to seven, the 70-year-old was humbled to receive the Seniors Veteran Community Award in October for his work with the veteran community and in providing opportunities for disadvantaged youth.
He helped raise around $30,000 for a small war memorial in Caroline Springs and was a co-founder and inaugural president of the Caroline Springs RSL Sub-branch for its first three years.
‘The RSL started with $65 in March 2014, and we’ve now got about 230 members with a yearly turnover of around 200,000,’ Peter says.
Helping fellow veterans
The RSL has three volunteer welfare staff who visit veterans and war widows at their home, hospitals or in nursing homes
‘When called on they also support newly-returned armed services members in their difficult journey returning to civilian life.’
Peter is the Team Leader of the Western Suburbs Vietnam Veterans Education Team, whose members visit schools, groups and organisations, to deliver a presentation on the war.
‘Students, in particular, are usually pretty good at listening and there’s a lot of interaction. We get a good response from it. They like the fact the story is coming from people whom have actually experienced it,’ Peter says.
‘I find the work I do with the Education team and RSL is a bit of therapy for me. I think it helps the brain in some ways; helps me to keep busy...less time to ponder the past.’