Family heals after Vietnam

SOMETIMES it takes a son to show his father how to live.

So it has been for Leongatha’s Rob Fennell.

Called up at 20 to serve his country in the Vietnam War, Rob went as a willing participant.

He wasn’t a political person and decided if he had to go, he might as well make the most of it. He thought it would be an adventure.

“My attitude was let’s get going!”

But his high school sweetheart Marg didn’t share his enthusiasm. Members of her family had been involved in World War Two and an uncle had been lost in Rabaul. 

“I was ready to hide Rob,” she recalled, “my family was so against war.”

They became engaged before he left for Vietnam, with Rob having volunteered for the infantry.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said with a shrug.

He boarded the troop ship HMAS Sydney in April 1967 and was choppered from Vung Tau to Nui Dat, an Army base in the heart of the jungle. Gungho thoughts of adventure vanished.

Rob and his 7th Battalion comrades were at war in the steamy jungle with an unseen enemy.

In a 1982 interview with Star reporter Mary Rogers, Rob recalled, “It was guerrilla war. The enemy wore no uniform; by day the villagers would be friendly, at night they could be the enemy.

“We always buried the dead after battle. It was awful. We thought we were fighting men – an army. But these were women and children, whole families. But they all carried guns and would have killed you.”

He was also spooked by the booby trapped tunnels the North Vietnamese dug, sometimes tying poisonous snakes to overhead beams.

“That scared the living daylights out of you.”

He was overseas for 12 months, living in the clothes he stood up in, with planes flying overhead spraying Agent Orange everywhere.

“We were soaked.”

The experience changed him forever.

He was discharged and hassled off a plane at Essendon Airport at 7am to disperse as quickly as possible. The Vietnam War had been hugely unpopular with the Australian public and demonstrations were rampant.

Rob returned to Leongatha where Marg was waiting for her man. He had sent her some silk from Vietnam and she wore a gown crafted from that material when they married six weeks after his home coming.

He went back to his job in a bank but couldn’t stand being cooped up inside.

“I lasted a week.”

The second year after his discharge, he decided to march in an Anzac Day parade.

“I was spat on and abused and didn’t march for another 15 years.”

Rob had a poor view of the Vietnamese and didn’t mind who knew his feelings.

He was pleased in 1982 when his eldest son did an Anzac Day project about the Vietnam War and he enjoyed feeling a little more content when a mate persuaded him to take part in a Vietnam veterans’ healing march in Sydney.

He found great solace in sport – tennis, cricket, footy (including coaching) and squash. And family – the Fennells have four children; Scott, Travis, Brock and Bree and there are nine gorgeous grandchildren.

It is Travis who, through his own life choices, has led his father to a kinder place within.

Travis travelled in South East Asia and came back, telling his parents Vietnam “is a great place” and he was going to work there.

“I thought it was a dumb idea,” Rob declared.

Travis disagreed, working for a company before setting up his own travel business in Vietnam.

“He wanted us to go over and visit,” Marg said, “but Rob said no.”

The last country he felt inclined to go to was the one where he’d seen mates die and the enemy had turned out to include women and children. But Travis kept asking.

When he was in the Army, Rob became close friends with Stan Whitford from Wonthaggi and 12 years’ ago, the Whitfords and Fennells flew to Hanoi to visit Travis.

Marg recalled, “They still had soldiers with rifles at the airport. It was creepy for Rob and Stan.”

Their hotel in Hanoi was very comfortable and as they were crossing a chaotic road a couple of days later, Stan remarked, “I can’t believe it but a load has lifted off my shoulders.”

Rob felt the same.

“It was very healing,” he recalled. “Travis took us all through the country and to families he knew, to Saigon and Nui Dat and we found the area where we had camped.”

Then Travis married a North Vietnamese girl called Ha.

“We went over for the wedding and Ha’s father took us to his home where we met her uncle who was a colonel with the North Vietnamese.

“They were wonderful to us,” Marg said. “They love the Australians. It was so healing.”

Ha was born just after the Vietnam War ended. She and Travis now have a family of their own and they’re coming home to Leongatha for Christmas.

“We love her,” Rob and Marg chorused. “The way it’s turned out is wonderful.”

Sports mad Rob is a life member of three local organisations – the Leongatha Football Club, the Leongatha and District Cricket Association and the Imperials Cricket Club.

  • Long Tan Day – the Viet vets’ equivalent of Anzac Day- is on August 18.

Short URL: http://thestar.com.au/?p=8145

Posted by on Aug 14 2013. Filed under Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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