They were only nineteen: the song, the story and the legacy

If there’s one song that will haunt me all my days, it’s Redgum’s I was only Nineteen (A Walk in the Light Green).

Written in 1983, it tells the story of an Aussie infantryman, from training at Pukapunyal to first-hand combat, military operations, and eventually returning home disillusioned, psychologically scarred and possibly suffering the effects of Agent Orange.

My sisters and I played the song endlessly as kids, only half understanding the lyrics with some help from Dad, who was a Vietnam Vet, filling in the blanks.

Of course, the line that sticks with everyone is: “And Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon. God help me – he was goin’ home in June.”

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At some stage in young adulthood, it dawned on me that the story of the man in the song was real. It’s written into the lives of every Vietnam Veteran, into the words they don’t speak, the wounds they don’t talk about, and the lives they rebuilt after coming home, virtually in disgrace.

My father has never spoken much about the war. There are photos in which he looks like a young Robert Redfern – he’s usually smiling, mucking about with mates. We’ve heard the story about the time they blew up the dunnies on the base, but the serious stuff. Well, that’s not something he can really talk about.

One of the pictures is of a dirt road somewhere in Vietnam. I think Dad was on R&R that day (I’m not sure if it’s the same day he accidentally ordered monkey’s brains for lunch). There’s a little girl in the photo, not much else. I remember looking at it one day and my father casually mentioning, “That was the day I saw my first dead body.”

The only other hint of what he went through as an artillery man was when a young friend who’d joined the army said he wanted to got to war. My dad, not prone to flashes of anger, practically shouted, “He’s an idiot!” and swore.

I also remember being proud as punch the day my dad was reunited with his unit for the 1987 Welcome Home Parade in Sydney. Redgum played I was only Nineteen in the Domain. At the time I had no idea that the song was part of the movement that forgave the young men for fighting in a dirty, unpopular war.

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All I saw were lots of bearded blokes, some laughing, some crying, and my dad wearing his medals – a hero of the Anzac legend in every way.

The true story of “Frankie”, who kicked the landmine in the song, is revealed in a new book, The Jungle Dark, by journalist and Vietnam Veteran Steve Strevens.

Frankie is a real person – Frank Hunt, a friend of John Schumann from Redgum’s brother-in-law – but it wasn’t he who stepped on the landmine on the day in the song.

Frank was walking behind a man named Lieutenant Peter “Skipper” Hines from 3 Platoon, A Company, 6 Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment who was injured when the mine exploded on July 21, 1969.

Frank, who himself still suffers from physical and mental injuries obtained during the war, told the ABC he allowed his name to be used instead of Skipper’s to protect the family from the media attention, but is happy now for the story to be set straight.

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“He was an absolute champion man, a leader of men,” Frank said.

Even today, 32 years after the song’s release, Frank says it still plays a role in raising awareness about the physical and mental health effects returned soldiers live with.

“Everyone is Frankie and that’s the point I really wanted to get across with the song,” he said.

Speaking with my father, who went on to work as a public servant, the legend of Frankie is indeed an important one to Vietnam Vets. He remembers the Old Boy’s attitude of the early 80s and the refusal to recognise the Vietnam soldiers.

It wasn’t until the Veterans Association came face to face with “Frankie” that the attitude began to change. A condition known as Post Vietnam Stress Syndrome was recognised and the Vietnam Veterans’ Counselling Service was established, and, finally, the 52,000 soldiers who fought in that dirty, unpopular war were allowed to get on with their lives.

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My father recalls the procedure – or lack thereof – for coming home after two years of service. “You put your rifle in a barrel, got on the plane and when we landed at home they said, ‘right then, f-#$k off”.”

By then he was no longer 19. And he was just another Frankie.

Do you remember how the Vietnam Veterans were treated when they came home? Do you think it was wrong?