Brad Dunn - Cambodia and East Timor veteran

Running time
41 min 29 sec
Place made

Department of Veterans' Affairs


Enlistment and early service history

Born and raised in Wollongong, New South Wales. Had always wanted to be in the Army, ran around the bush playing wars and guns. When I turned 17, I went to recruiting and spoke to them and then convinced Mum to sign the papers, as they had to back then, and I joined in August '79. Went to Kapooka. Back then, you didn't pre-select what corps you went to.

They gave you three options and then they said, well, they'll test you and you might get your first, or you might get you third or you might find something you are good at." For whatever reason, I chose the Armoured Corps, because I like tanks and armoured vehicles. I got it, which was terrific. Then I was off to Puckapunyal to start my M113 driver's course. I was a cavalryman. Didn't start off well as a cavalryman, I went to the tank regiment because they used cavalry vehicles as well. I spent the first three years of my service serving in 1 Armoured Regiment in Puckapunyal. After that I went to recruiting, funnily enough, my hometown, in Wollongong. Did two- and a-bit years there. Then after that went to 3 CAV or 3-4 CAV in Townsville where I was finally in a cavalry unit and I was a true cavalryman.

After three years there, I went down the school and served in our initial employment training wing, teaching. New recruits from Kapooka came to us and now I was teaching them how to be an Armoured Corps soldier. While there, when you progress to sergeant, you have to specialise in one of three skills, either driving and servicing, gunnery or radio.

I became a radio instructor because I like being indoors. Gunnery instructors are forever out in the range in the sun. Driving instructing is madness, sitting up in the turret with the new driver, that's for madmen. A nice set room out was for me. Then went back to Townsville, as a troop sergeant. I was there, I got selected to go to UNTAC, my first deployment to Cambodia.

I got that because I was radio trained and I'd done the contractor course for the new Siemens radio that was just being introduced, and that's how I actually got picked. Two other guys from my unit, came with me and we deployed to Brisbane initially, for some workup training. Then we were the last group of the first contingent to go in the country and serve from '92, '93 in Cambodia.

A dramatic change

I actually knew quite a bit about Cambodia because I'd done a year in Canberra going to high school. My high school years weren't so flash. My sister convinced my mum to make me go to Canberra. I went to Canberra High for a year and we used to do Asian social studies. That was 1975, so I was studying the fall of Saigon and the fall of Phnom Penh.

I had this vague interest in the place, so I thought I knew what it was like, but you're not prepared for... plus, our contingent being the third contingent, the regiment had already deployed into country. We didn't have any guidance. We were just the last group of blokes and women to get in to then be distributed amongst the troops. I had no idea what I was going to do. It was rumoured that I'd be a troop sergeant in a signal troop, which I could do, because I was radio trained across the board. I could do radio analogue, TeleType or Rat Net. The Mid Put High put I couldn't do.

I'd read that there were a lot of RatNets, so I was hoping to get a troop sergeant slot, because that's what I've been trained to be, even though it was a signals unit. It was an odd unit because it was signals command down through the warrant officers then from warrant officers down, you then got other corps inputted in. Like my first meeting with the officer commanding of the squadron, he told me he didn't want me.

It was a great welcome to the country, but the regiment had the CO and the RSM had met us at the airport and shook our hands and "Welcome to the country," which blew my mind. It was an odd bag. My troop, which I ended up having, we were in the Northwest corner, Sisophon. It was a complex area because of the four armies in Cambodia, they all needed logging routes into Thailand and gen routes into Thailand. That was done through our sector. Whenever I went out to visit our troops deployed through the sector, we used to have to cross individual front lines of the different armies operating. It was quite a complex area to operate in, but it was different because we were a signals unit.

You're not bringing fire power to the game. I'm an armoured corps soldier. I bring fire power to the game, so suppression, et cetera. This was simply, we've got to get a radio, put up antenna and send people's messages, that's what we're here to do. You don't shoot people doing that. It was a dramatic change. I had to shift my brain in the thinking, but it was a wonderful deployment. The troop leader was a SIG, troop Corporal was a SIG. We had a Naval PO, petty officer, which freed me up. He runs the comms end, I'll run the admin of the troop. We were perfect. Perfect little troop.

Humanity gone

It was like a scene out of a movie. I know other people would say that, but the jungle had taken over parts of the city. When we'd arrived, the smell just hit you. If you'd been to Asia, you say Asia's got a smell. No, nothing smells like this. This was urine, faeces, it was rotten jungle. The city was gloomy. People were still coming back though, just trickling back into the town.

When we first went out, we were allowed out into town, and there was only a handful of places you could really go. One of them was the Cambodiana, which was this massive modern hotel on the river. You went in there and you were drinking with diplomats. It was really very, very edgy. I remember the unit doctor saying to us, "Look, you're going to get sick. Don't come and see me until you've been sick for three days and it's going through you or coming up. I can't do anything for you, but if you're still sick, after three days come and see me."

I got sick. I was sick for two days. When I came good, I remember Maria, I wrote a letter to her saying if I had a gun I'd shoot myself, because it was humanity gone. It was really empty. It was very odd, but we saw it come back while we were there.

Moving to Sisophon

I was in Phnom Penh for the first two weeks. The mission had been set up by the advanced UNIMIC had set it up. When they arrived, the regiment had arrived, the headquarters had all changed, the whole mission had changed, in fact. My troop had flown in through Thailand and we're in a Thai refugee camp. We were going to support the Marine Dutch battalion.

The Dutch were going to be overseeing the Khmer Rouge based in Pailin. Well, the Khmer Rouge was pushing back against everything and refused to have any UN troops inside their AO. We had a detachment in Pailin, but the only way to get in was to fly in and out. Couldn't drive the road, they might ambush it. It could only fly in an out and the UNMO Det, the United Nation Monitoring Officer Det was only flown in.

The Marines had to position themselves around the edge of the whole district, which they did. We had to switch to a town called Sisophon, in the Northwest. We ended up moving our stuff there. I was two weeks in Phnom Penh, drove into Thailand, about three weeks there, then we came back in the country and set up in Sisophon. That's where I stayed then for the rest of the year.

The Khmer Rouge

The CPP owned the country, so that's Hun Sen's mob. They were the toughest because you could look at them like being friendly forces, but once we got in there, they realized we were deposing them. We were going to run a free and fair election that could see them out. We wanted them to hand in their weapons as well as the Khmer Rouge and FUNCINPEC. They're all supposed to be disarming in a wonderful brotherhood.

The CPP soldiers became a watching threat. The Khmer Rouge, they'd occasionally come to harass, but they were never as bad as the CPP because they were everywhere. They were reinforcing and refueling, rearmmoing and arming up. Say six months in, the CPP, you could see that they were going to be a problem for us.

Our head headquarters was at the base of a hill and there was a CPP had the unit had a couple of weapons up on the hill, anti-aircraft obstensively. We realized they'd moved the position of the guns to shoot at us. They'd changed from being air support to aiming into our camp. We then had to counter by digging a big hole into which we would hide.

The CPP threat

The CPP owned the country, so that's Hun Sen's mob. They were the toughest because you could look at them like being friendly forces, but once we got in there, they realized we were deposing them. We were going to run a free and fair election that could see them out. We wanted them to hand in their weapons as well as the Khmer Rouge and FUNCINPEC. They're all supposed to be disarming in a wonderful brotherhood.

The CPP soldiers became a watching threat. The Khmer Rouge, they'd occasionally come to harass, but they were never as bad as the CPP because they were everywhere. They were reinforcing and refueling, rearmmoing and arming up. Say six months in, the CPP, you could see that they were going to be a problem for us.

Our head headquarters was at the base of a hill and there was a CPP had the unit had a couple of weapons up on the hill, anti-aircraft obstensively. We realized they'd moved the position of the guns to shoot at us. They'd changed from being air support to aiming into our camp. We then had to counter by digging a big hole into which we would hide.

With the Dutch Marines

When I drove up to do the recon, there was a three-man detachment already in the country, in situ. They had a wooden hut that they lived in. They were withdrawing to Siem Reap, which was to the west, no, sorry, east. We took over the hut and we shovelled us all into that. They had an individual room each, so we put three blokes in each room, got bunk beds in there.

Each troop had its own cook, so he started cooking three meat and three veg every day. Trying to source local food was tough because the quality was pretty off, in fact. Just across from us was a butchers' that used to bring that buffalo in and butcher them, meat, fresh. Lot of the meat had worms in it, so he was essentially cooking ration packs, big ten mans, which was fine.

Then the UN wanted to switch us all to live food, and that's when they brought in an Australian catering company to deliver live food to us. That was atrocious. That came in in about the seventh month of the op, it'd be around there. They'd drive the food up from Phnom Penh, ostensively. Well, that was a 20, 24 hour run to drive that road, even longer, probably 32 to get to us.

I remember the first truck, when it arrived, they'd stacked the meat on top, then ice, ice, meat, then veggies underneath. The meat was just dribbling through. We were attached to the Dutch Marine battalion as a supporting force, so they'd receive our food and give us our portion. Well, the Dutch wouldn't take the food, they'd put it in the pit and burn it. Then the Dutch battalion commander said, "Well, don't worry Australia. We'll feed youse," so we stayed on Dutch Marines which was okay.

Communications teams

Well, the troop's role is to provide communications to all UN elements. All UN elements come to our troop location, give us their messages, and we'd send it down the road. Our com went in to Battambang, which was to the south, first in Battambang and into Phnom Penh. That's the troops job.

Outside of us, we had Pailin Det and we had three Charlie Tango, CT locations, was Cambodia, Thailand. We had border cross checkpoints with supporting UNMO teams. Then around Christmas they switched it and they did this big rotation, so we had to pick up two more Northern Dets. We lost Pailin and we picked up two more CTs. CTs were individual soldiers with just a radio and a backpack sitting out in the bush, sending voice messaging into us. Then we'd type it up and send it down through the Rat, which sounds like a lot, but it's not. It's pretty simple.

Putting the guns away

When we first arrived in Sisophon, we carried our weapons everywhere, but then we'd been there about a month, and it dawned on us that we didn't really need to be carrying our weapons because we were not there for offensive ops. It's not our job. Our job is to get signals through.

The troop leader and I came to a kind of agreement that, well, we could lock our weapons away, so we did. We stopped carrying rifles and we lived like that then for the next few months, which was positive, really positive with the locals. The locals got to know us as the guys that don't carry guns. Everyone else was still carrying guns. We suddenly put ours away, that worked really well up until the election cycle started. Once the election cycle started, then CPP was pushing back against everyone, the Khmer Rouge were getting edgy and starting to do a little bit of fighting.

Then we had to pick up our guns again and carry them, which set the locals off because now we're carrying guns. They started to believe the rumours that the Khmer Rouge were putting out that they were going to come back and take over the place again, which was just rubbish. They didn't have the strength. They didn't have the units. They'd never be able to take over anything. You could see the locals faces when we started carrying our rifles again, that they were, "Maybe we shouldn't be here."

The Wool Shed bar

We ran a bar. It was a strange deployment, but the soldiers were allowed two beers per man, perhaps per day. Generally during the week there was no drinking, but because the troop leader and I didn't like the idea of the guys going outside the wire to go out and drink, we decided we'll open our own bar and that we'll invite the UN in. Very early on we got the cook to make our pizzas, we invited the local UN staff to come up to the Wool Shed, we called it, which they did, they came.

That just developed over time. It got quite large. Every Friday and Saturday night we'd have pizzas and the Wool Shed would be open for the local UN workers to come up and have a drink with us. I set up a relationship with the local shop to deliver beer and soft drink and water to us. I picked him because he could deliver, so I didn't have to go and pick it up, he delivered it to me. Well, years later, see, I returned to Cambodia as a DAA in the embassy in 2004 and served there in the embassy.

I took my wife up to Sisophon, to show her the town. We were wandering around and we went in a little shop and it was him, him and his wife. He told us, because I could speak Khmer then, he told us how much that contract had affected his family. He'd been able to educate his kids and his life had improved. The local market was just a stall back in '92, '93, but when I went back in 2004, he had a brick shop. It was wonderful.

The election

In '93, we'd started to do troop rotations out. Our troop was rotating out in three lots. I went with the last, so I was there for the elections. It was a problem because the first troop leader left, and now I picked up a new troop leader and picked up some new people, which is not a problem for me, but the first troop rotations out of country meant they left before the election. They'd been there for a year, and they missed the election.

At least I was there for the election, which was then usurped by Hun Sen…the UN elect, on the very first day of the election cycle, they'd gone out and they'd set up, electoral booths everywhere. The Khmer Rouge started saying we're going to kill them, "Anyone shows up to that booth, we'll kill them." Then the Dutch Marines would have to provide different booths in our area. The Dutch Marine provided a security detail. The security details were then limiting how many booths, which pissed the UN elect off.

They saw the shortfall as limiting democracy. They'd wanted a hundred booths. "Well, we don't have a hundred security teams. We've got 20 security teams." "We want a hundred!" They shut them down and went with the lesser number, but the Cambodians showed up in force. The locals were wanting to vote. They wanted the vote, and they were voting. They were polling, well, someone was doing polling and it was being seen that Hun Sen was going to lose power. Just before we left the country, Hun Sen had got with Ranariddh, who's just died actually, the FUNCINPEC guy, and said, "Come on. We'll get together and we'll lead the country together" and they did…

There's a local tinge to things, personally, I didn't accept it, but in their country, they've got to live by their rules. There were 22,000 foreigners or troops all through Cambodia at that time, and they were all bringing their own concept, their own ideals. I remember I took what was left of the troop out to a dinner in Phnom Penh as we were exiting, and the waiter came up to us and said, "Oh, you're not leaving now are you?" "Yeah, we're going home." "Well, who's going to kill the opposition?" "Sorry?" "Who's going to kill the opposition? You're not going to make us do it again." It's just his take on, "Well, he's won, they've won, so we've got to kill these others."

We're saying to him, "Mate, that's not how democracy works. Be there for the next vote." It's strange. There was a lot of that conversation going on though, with soldiers, who were being stopped and talked to by anyone learning English would ask soldiers, "What do you think and what happened? How did you vote?" There were so many parties, I think there were more than 50 parties to vote for, which was unworkable.

It was Ranariddh being the old brother of the king, and Hun Sen the strong man, ex Khmer Rouge. See, nowadays, they don't even recognise us in Cambodia. Any mention of the UN in Cambodia is absolutely just derided. "They were whoremongers here, living on fat wages and doing nothing, wasting our time." There's no UN day there. There might be a little bit, but really, they don't see us as anything, but we did a good job I'm rapt with what we did. It was an interesting experience.

A more natural deployment in East Timor

I just deployed in role. Armoured vehicles we deployed in as an APC squadron supporting third battalion, third RAR. I got 24 hours' notice to go. We boarded Tobruk. It was our wedding anniversary the weekend we deployed, so I boarded Tobruk, spent my anniversary out at sea. Then a few days later we arrived in Dili and we offloaded and arrived in Dili. There were lots of fires when we arrived, the city was burning.

The Indonesians were withdrawing. It was a lot of complexity in Dili at the time. Pardon me. It was a more natural deployment for me. You get your vehicles, you load on, you get your vehicles you load off and then you get your troops and you start patrolling… This sounds strange, it was more natural for me in East Timor, because I was with my troops, men that I trained with for years, doing a role that I prepped for years.

To carry a rifle in that situation, it's much easier. It's much simpler to know whether you're going to aim or shoot or do anything. Compared to Cambodia, it was very kind of you're working independently in a way. It was all very natural East Timor. We'd butt up with something, work it out. They'd go, we'd go.

I didn't fire a shot in Timor in the long run, pointed guns a lot, but in reality, within a couple of weeks, we were there on our own. The militia that was still there, they were small pockets. They were mostly these Timor guys that were a bit lost, out of a job, Indonesian buddies had gone home.

Projecting power in Dili

Dili was a projected power protection, so we get in, secure Dili. That's about projecting power in Dili. It took us all day to get off Tobruk. The sea state was relatively calm. I don't know, I think they call it sea state one. It's relatively calm, but it took them all day to offload us. Just the getting the vehicles off and the infantry off as well, that took us...We disembarked, it was 07:00 my vehicle came off with me...

Then the last troop vehicle came off at 15:30, 16:00, like that. Then we moved into town and we took over an old school building and cemented there for the night. Then next day we started patrolling the city. In fact, next day, the troop, sorry, the squadron commander and myself, we came from a recon regiment. The recon regiment doesn't carry troops aboard, so we'd had to re-man and re-equip and rejig the vehicles.

The ASLAV has a type I, that's got 25-millimetre canon in the turret. You can get about two fully laden troops in the back. It's got three troops on board. There's like crew commander, gunner, driver. It's a fighting vehicle. It can fight in all weather, all terrain and fight 24 hours. It's got infrared, it's got heat sight. Then there's a type II ASLAV. That's a troop carrier. It's got a commander and a driver and then you can pack it with whatever you can pack it. We were putting in sections of about up to 12 could fit it in the back there.

We'd gone from being a recon regiment where a normal troop would be three type ones, two type IIs, to now one type I and four type IIs. We'd gone from reconnaissance to APC. I'd been an APC section commander back in the day, in 3/4 Cav. There was a smattering of NCOs in our squadron that had come from an APC background, which was really helpful, because when you're carrying troops, the vehicle's for the troops that you bring on board, and it's really important that they know that.

Rescuing reporters and old acquaintances

We had to deploy on the second night to go and find these two reporters. These reporters, the British reporters, they'd rung the British embassy in England saying that the militia, possibly Indonesians, were trying to kill them. We got the word we had to get out and find them. These guys are still ringing Britain and we're getting messages coming down. There was a convoluted messaging between our embassy in Britain and to get to Dili, but in the long run, anyway, we got out that night and...patrolling Dili, looking for these reporters.

The type I's, with the night vision that we've got on board, we can see clearly. You can make out an Australian soldier by his webbing, by his water on his back, you can see everything. They're a terrific sighting system. We came across a checkpoint; the militias and the Indonesians would set up these checkpoints. When we hit this one on the second night, they were the troops that were looking for the reporters. It was getting really tense. We knew we were close to somewhere where the reporters had been or were expected to be.

The OC got off the vehicle to communicate with the militia troops or the Indonesians. We were preparing to shoot, it was getting close. Then an Indonesian officer yelled out, "Chris, Brad." Turns out the commander of the local Indonesian unit had been on a deployment to Australia and had trained with us in Second Cavalry and was now, years later, in a command position. He recognised us, so it was much back-slapping and guns going down. Then one of my troops came forward and said, "We got them. They're in the back of the type II they're snuck out," and "All right, well, nice to see you again, see you later," as we climbed up and headed off. That was the first 48 hours.

An Indonesian Army Reserve

In all honesty, I think the Indonesian units that had been there for years had set up kind of an A-Res, an army reserve kind of thing with locals. They'd recruited locals into the Battalion and into units. There were local kids, local East Timorese, living and working with the Indonesian army. Same as if we were there, we'd employ them, and you become friendly. Now they were having to leave and that meant that's the job done, so it was a lot of conflict in young kids' minds.

I never once saw a militiaman, an independent militiaman. I saw a lot of Indonesian soldiers, we came across a room that had lots of rubbish that you could put an Indonesian soldier into, and that's not something I say too easily. It was confusing. The Indonesians were withdrawing from Dili. They had their old World War II, big landing craft, huge bloody things, and they were getting on board and leaving. We secured Dili, then the rest of UN forces started coming in and then we busted out and headed west.

Town burnings

There was a lot of strange towns. There was one town up in the Highlands, because we went out to Bobonaro, Maliana, Suai, and went up into Ainaro and then back over into Dili eventually. There was a big town... I'm sorry, I can't remember the name, but when the Indonesians were withdrawing, the mayor of the town had paid the Indonesian troops not to burn, so this town had all its rooves. Every other town they'd steal the tin. They'd rip the tin off the roofs and set fire over and go and they'd take locals with them.

Family connections and religious ignorance

I don't connect with the East Timorese like I do with the Cambodians. I was in the vehicle, I met a couple, we had an interpreter on board and I learned as much as I could, but I didn't get to know them as a people, not really, not as much as Cambodians, but they're heavily integrated. Uncle Bob from there will know cousin Tim from down in Dili.

There's big families. When we were up in Ainaro, up in the Highlands, there were some returnees coming back in and the rumour was a lot of them had been militiamen. We ended up having to set up a cordon to defend them from the locals because the locals wanted to kill them, so they say, they talk tough. Then they got them in, got the head town people in.

It was a bit of push and shove and argy-bargy, but then got them in, got the leadership of the town in to talk to them and they knew them. They were relatives of them. Then he had to go out and "Oh no, they're not militia. They're uncle Bob and cousin Tim have come back." Now that happened a couple of times. It's heavily religious too, East Timor, really, really religious and a mix. When we were in Maliana, and I remember the local market got burnt down.

When we asked the interpreter, "Why'd they burn the market?" "Oh, because they reckon Mary wasn't a virgin." One of my soldiers said, "Well, who's Mary?" Well , mate, we had to do some religious training with everybody.

A wave policy

In East Timor, Dili was a strict, heavy patrol program, so we were working seven days. Then when we busted out of Dili, we went down to Maliana in centre sou- west. That was still seven days a week, and just patrolling. Constantly out, you're just out looking for trouble and not finding it.

Then when we moved over to the coast again and went up into the Highlands, again, a lot of looking and no finding. It became very evident to the squadron commander and myself that we had to deescalate our mindset from war-fighting to more of a peacekeeping concept. When you're operating an armoured vehicle for war, you're operating the vehicle on the edge, you're putting the vehicle into positions so you can get fire.

We needed to ramp that down a bit when you're just driving around and get everyone calm. We could see that we needed to start to calm things down a little bit in ourselves and deescalate this a little bit to get more of a peacekeeping... Waving, we instituted a wave policy, all commanders would wave. One of our troops... You'd tell when you'd been in an area with one, because the troops are dispersed, so from the headquarters, they're out doing the patrols.

Then the boss and I would head out and follow them up. You could spot where two troop had been. The two-troop troop Sergeant had come up with this thing of winding his hand up and then coming up with the thumbs up and the kids used to run out and... You knew, "Oh, well, two troop's been here."

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