During that time we went on our first family holiday to Exmouth. After about seven hours of driving I knew the Wiggles entire discography by heart and the children were starting to disappear beneath a drift of muesli bar wrappers and empty juice boxes. We stopped at the Overlander Roadhouse and as I was walking the kids to the toilets I noticed a man sitting, eating a hamburger in a white Subaru and on the window of his car a small sticker that read AATTV (Australian Army Training Team Vietnam). On the way back to the car I tapped on his window and introduced myself.
He was happy to talk about his experiences in Vietnam and we stood in the car park and the kids played on this scratchy little patch of grass while road trains tore down the highway. He'd done two tours of duty, the second had been worse because he'd been married by then and leaving had been harder. He told me about his experiences with Post Traumatic Stress. About ten years after his last tour things had got pretty bad and he'd decided he was going to blow up his boss. He'd worked out a way to disable the locking mechanism in his boss's car and was just working out how much chlorine he was going to need for the bomb when his wife discovered what he'd been doing and he was committed. He coughed and said that there were years when things had been hard, really hard.
The title of my novel comes from the term "seeing the elephant" which means to have an experience of such magnitude that it will never be forgotten. It has been used by soldiers to describe their first experience of combat. In my novel the character Frank, when explaining how war changes someone says, "Because you know, without a doubt, that the world will never, ever be the same place again. You’ve seen the elephant and it’s big, so big it can block out the sun forever.”
I only write about war because it terrifies me. It terrifies me as a human being but most of all it terrifies me as a mother. Once you have loved as a parent you can't help but see the world as a place that's populated by other people's children. That each life is as precious, fragile and loved as any new born. And it seems to me that when we talk about other people's children as soldiers they become the tools of nationhood and part of some wider agenda. When what we really need to do is think of them as someone else's precious child, or as a brother or a sister, someone's lover, spouse and best friend. And if we do that, providing services to ensure that their lives are as fulfilling and healthy once they return is less a matter of politics and instead becomes one of national urgency.
After spending nearly a year researching the Vietnam War and its aftermath I started writing. I wrote Seeing the Elephant for lots of reasons... because despite studying history at school I didn't learn about the Vietnam War, because the children of Vietnam War veterans have a suicide rate three times higher than the rest of the population, because some of the veterans I spoke to still talk about the shame of their homecoming, because 3000 of our veterans are homeless and because the US promise of no more Vietnams has long been silenced by torrents of nationalist rhetoric. I wrote Seeing the Elephant because despite the fact that "lest we forget" has become a kind of Anzac Day benediction, I think we do, indeed, forget.
And I think that's a problem.