Almost 50 years after Ray Kuschert left Australia to serve in the Vietnam War, he still sheds a tear when he talks about his fallen mates.
It is a feeling of solidarity and kinship shared by many who gathered at Campbelltown RSL Club on Monday to attend a Vietnam Veterans Day service.
Mr Kuschert said the servicemen were linked by a strong bond forged by living through the terror of war and then returning home only to be shunned.
‘‘Vietnam Veterans Day to me is a very special day — it is a time for me to remember all those that paid the ultimate sacrifice,’’ Mr Kuschert said.
‘‘It feels like a family atmosphere, it doesn’t matter which part of the armed forces you served in, everyone is part of the family and we all understand what each other is going through on that day.’’
Mr Kuschert served with the 1st Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment, which was attached to the 173rd Airborne Brigade American Unit.
He joined the army when he turned 17 and by 1965, aged just 19, he was sent to Vietnam as a rifleman.
His role soon changed to forward scout, forcing him to go ahead of the group to ensure the way was clear of enemy soldiers.
‘‘I was in an infantry section and part and parcel of our job was to search and destroy,’’ he said.
‘‘To start with I thought about [death] but I was so blase by the end that I didn’t care about it because I thought I wouldn’t make it [home] so why worry about it?’’
Although he did survive his year of service, it was followed by many more troubled decades after he returned to a country that was outwardly hostile towards Vietnam veterans.
He spoke of a parade in July 1966, where veterans were ‘‘hugged by a woman covered in red paint who was screaming ‘woman-killer’ and ‘baby-murderer’.’’
‘‘This is what we were met with and the protest movement of the day was very strong, even to the point where the RSL didn’t want anything to do with us,’’ he said.
‘‘All of the veterans dropped out of society completely.’’
Mr Kuschert did his best to get on with life, marrying and having four children — the youngest of which did not find out his father was a veteran until he turned 20.
‘‘I got a job as a security officer because I didn’t have to mix with anybody, I didn’t even wear my medals until the Welcome Home Parade in 1987,’’ he said.
Severe bouts of post traumatic stress disorder dogged Mr Kuschert, who credits his survival to his second wife Veronica.
The pair work together to help others through the Macarthur Vietnam Veterans Association, and between them they have seven children, 17 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
He also visits schools to talk about the war and said while students are inquisitive, many do not know about Australia’s military history.
‘‘I encourage the older kids if they see a veteran with medals on, to go up and introduce themselves and thank them for their service and ask them what their medals represent,’’ he said.
‘‘Each veteran has a different story and it’s most important to relate these stories to the younger generation.’’