RAYMOND P. AGOMBAR
Captain | Royal Regiment of Australian Artillery
His notice for National Service arrived in July 1966 and with great reluctance, Ray complied with his conscription into the ranks. His younger brother had previously joined the Army, but would not see Vietnam until a year after Ray’s return. Joining the military was a dramatic change to his life – Ray had just married and was a peaceful fellow who preferred to keep to himself in his quiet hometown, but his humble life transformed over the next several months as he trained with the Royal Australian Artillery. The 108 Field Battery to which he was assigned was slated to rotate in late November 1967 and when the time finally came to leave Australia, within fifteen hours he was on an airstrip in South Vietnam with mortars incoming.
The war completely enveloped the country leaving no definite frontline. Instead, combat consumed the country and the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong especially were spreading and threatening units that would be considered rear echelon. The Australians, however, were experts in jungle combat after years in the oppressive New Guinea jungle and later while fighting the communist insurgency in Malaya. For the first three months in country, Ray was a simple gunner at the Task Force headquarters, constantly firing guns as the infantry battalions demanded. Brilliant sunsets melted into dark nights when one could not see the red dust blown off dry clay, but by morning it had become infused in every pore and fiber. There were only few brief breaks between fire missions that consumed fifty to a hundred rounds. Their support began at dusk and ran until the first hint of sunlight when guard duty followed the throughout daylight hours. Each leg of the day was punctuated by a stand-to in the morning and evening. The unending schedule led Ray to cherish a meager four-hour sprint of sleep when time permitted.
Though the schedule at Task Force headquarters was punishing, Ray found patrols to be far worse. Dropped by helicopter in the middle of the jungle, it could take up to two weeks to fight their way out. Unlike their American counterparts, the Australians were slow and careful to sweep and eradicate the enemy from the depths of the jungle. It was possible to spend nine hours over just one mile of terrain – better to be quiet and careful than attack without patience. When the patrols did lay an ambush, the forward observer called in artillery support to obliterate the opposition. Within moments of relaying mission coordinates over the radio, a deluge of shells ripped through the jungle canopy and churned up the earth with frightful force. Only after the dust settled did they witness the results of their destruction. Sprawled in the dry leaves among the average soldier in black pajamas were the most haunting of the dead – children no older than their teens and a pregnant woman cut open by machine gun fire. Delivering death hardened men overtime and impressed disturbing memories that could be tamed only by alcohol. With grim resolve, Ray had to accept and believe that all those they faced in Vietnam were the enemy.
Jungle warfare was a nightmare made worse by a horrifyingly sneaky enemy. The nighttime jungle was alive with an abundance of creatures slithering and flitting around. The unearthly noises and blinking fireflies created the illusion that every inky shadow or turning leaf was a Viet Cong creeping silently through the thick foliage. They ruled the night and while the mind chased these phantoms, only the light of day revealed what lurked during hours of darkness. A claymore placed in Ray’s pit overnight exhibited the cunning capabilities of the Viet Cong. The constant level of anxiety and fear did more to influence postwar trauma than any combat.
The six-month tour was filled with acute experiences like these. When Ray came home, there was no change to decompress as he was abruptly forced back into civilian culture where it was considered best to forget the awful memories of Vietnam. They were visceral, inescapable, and simply suppressing them became impossible. The war burned for much longer than Ray’s six-month tour. Intrusive thoughts invaded his private life and he struggled for years to properly cope – not just with what he had seen and done, but simply that he had survived when so many others had not.
Photos courtesy Raymond Agombar.
Ryan, Nick. “To Whom It May Concern.” Nick Ryan Showcase, 2001, www.nickryan.net/articles/vietnam.html.