John Thurgar (Australian Army), Operation Aussies Home
Department of Veterans' Affairs
John served with the Special Air Service in Vietnam. He was dismayed by the hostile reception many Vietnam War veterans received on their return home. He later became the senior investigator for Unrecovered War Casualties - Army and later worked with Operation Aussies Home, a privately funded venture led by Dr James Raymond Bourke MG, AM aimed at locating Australia's six men who were listed as Missing in Action in Vietnam.
"Vietnam, it's only part of my life, but the physical and emotional and psychological impact remains. But, you have to learn to live with that, you know, leave that in a box and try not to let it out."
John Thurgar served as an SAS trooper in Vietnam in 1970. Like many, his homecoming was bitterly disappointing.
"I went to the RSL for my first Anzac Day in 1971 with my father, there was a World War Two veteran and, I was accused by a World War Two veteran of being a baby killer and, you know, he was against the war and so I got up and left. It took me a very, very long time to ever go back to an RSL and also, to be forgiving."
John became an integral member of the group of veterans who organised Australia's Welcome Home Parade. It took place in Sydney in 1987.
"The Vietnam veterans put on buses from all over Australia so that veterans who didn't have any money could just hop on a free bus. And wonderful stories where families just picked up the veteran and went and put him on the bus. Said, 'You're going. Here's your bag. We've already packed it for you. You're going.' You know, I mean that was not an uncommon thing, where the families forced the veterans to go and it had a great psychological release."
The success of the parade led to the building of a dedicated Vietnam War memorial in the nation's capital. Visiting the memorial became the stimulus for John's greatest service to Vietnam veterans.
"My experience was that I'd go down there, two o'clock some mornings, just you know, try to approach the memorial, but there'd always be someone else there! It didn't matter whether it was two o'clock, three o'clock, four o'clock, there was always another veteran down there, or a group of veterans down there.
And then I started to realise that blokes were actually taking ashes of their mates down there, and putting them in the memorial, into the moat. And so it started to become a very important place for a lot of veterans. And of course, the place to sit was on the three seats with two names on each of our six missing in action. And I always wondered what had happened to them."
John became the senior investigator charged with locating Australia's six missing in action. Working with the army alongside the group, Operation Aussies Home, the remains of four of the six MIAs were located and returned to their families in Australia.
"It was for the sake of the families. What has been proven is that the families suffer from grief and then there's inherited grief. The children bear the grief that the parents did just as much. And then that's passed on to their nieces and nephews and grandchildren."
The last two missing men were the crew of a Canberra bomber that was lost in 1970. After exhaustive detective work, a possible crash site was located.
"We started to get pieces that were British, because you see the B-57 and our Canberras were essentially the same but there were differences. And so I had to find the bits that were different. And when I found enough of the bits that were different, I was able to convince air force "" this is our aircraft. I'd done the investigation and then I needed to bring all of that information together to the Vietnamese Government where I could convince them using our anthropologists and our other specialists that these remains were our men."
In August 2009, the remains of Flying Officer Michael Herbert and Pilot Officer Robert Carver were returned to Australia.
"There are so many things that enter my mind every day, because that's the problem with getting older you know, you look back and have regrets, you look back and think, could I have done something differently, but I think back and I can still see the faces of the dead and I still cannot... I don't have any... I find it very hard to forgive myself."