My name is Dal Crocker and I was born in 1949. As my dad was a World War II veteran I grew up in a war service estate in Williamstown. Most kids at the estate were treated like soldiers, disciplined by parents who were most probably still fighting their own wars. We were urchin kids, hunting tiger snakes in the rifle range, and many got into real trouble. I was lucky my mum was strong and kept me away from the worst of it.
At 15 I became secretary of the Williamstown Swimming & Lifesavers Club and held that position until I was 24, except when in the army; everyone knew me as the young guy who ran the club. Williamstown, at the time, was a shipping town filled with wharf workers trying to make ends meet. It was a tough town to live in. Finishing year 12 I qualified for university but we couldn’t afford it, so I joined a bank and worked there for 18 months until I turned twenty and was called to enlist for National Service. My marble came up and I was conscripted.
Following my rookie training, I trained three more months on Centurion tanks. Seeing what a person could suffer in combat, I was very glad to be inside a tank in Vietnam. As part of a tank crew, you get to know your crew better than your own brothers, and from the two troops I served with, today I have four mates that would be here in an hour if I was in trouble. It’s a camaraderie that you can’t really explain.
When my tour concluded, I flew back into Sydney late at night and was told to change into civilian clothing before landing. The anti-Vietnam thing was really being pushed and soldiers were not popular; people saw a uniform and attacked it. Although it was the government that decided to send us there, we were the targets of the public’s discontent.
As a child I saw veterans at our local RSL drinking alcohol like there was no tomorrow, so back then I envisioned the RSL negatively. When I came back from Vietnam dad took me to the Williamstown Sub-Branch for a drink, but I ended fighting with a WWII veteran who spurned the value of my service. That episode and similar negative experiences made me feel rejected - like I’d lost two years of my life. So for a long time, I didn’t tell anyone that I had served.
I met my first wife, Wendy, before I was called up, and we were married about a year after I returned. Together we raised two children until she, unfortunately, passed away in April of 2000. Back then my only contact with other veterans was on Anzac day when my four mates and I would come together. We never marched, however being together was our way of getting over the war.
In May 2001 I was invited to a function at the Greensborough RSL. It wasn’t until I began talking with other veterans there that I realised that what I was feeling was the same as the others, and it was because of post-traumatic stress. Joining the RSL I met Tony, a fellow Armoured Corps veteran. Wendy had died the previous year and Tony helped me through my grief, but after his cancer diagnosis, I was the one supporting him. Tony died in December of 2001. I gave his family emotional support, getting to know them better. Maria, Tony’s wife, continued coming to the RSL, and as the only widows in the group, we’d often be partnered up.
In 2005 I was still getting over Wendy’s death and had not been well for a while, so I was sent on PTSD course at the Repatriation Hospital. There, hearing other veterans speak made me accept that I had problems, both from Vietnam and other points in my life. Growing up we were taught that boys don’t cry, so for years, I had let a lot build up inside.
Today the RSL is much better equipped to help veterans, and while some don’t want to take part because of what they’ve seen and done, support is here for them if they want it. The RSL gave me a new purpose and a chance to give back. Having been down that same road many veterans are on, perhaps I can help make their journey easier.
Maria, Tony’s widow, and I got married in 2011 and now we have eleven grandchildren between us. Once married I moved to Montmorency, which feels like a country town to me, with a lot of outlets for children to stay active, and people who greet you down at the shops. For many years I visited a friend around this area, but the trees and nature didn’t register with me then. Now I see Rosellas and King Parrots flying outside our home every morning; I whistle at them and they whistle back at me.