Dave Lassam's story

Dave Lassam joined the Royal Australian Navy in 1978. After completing the initial 12-week recruit training, he started a 9-month medical training course at HMAS Cerberus to become a medic.

Dave's first sea posting was with the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne. While serving on Melbourne, he witnessed several major incidents.

In June 1981, Melbourne rescued 99 Vietnamese refugees from a broken-down fishing boat drifting in the South China Sea. It was a dangerous night-time rescue in rough seas. Dave remembered the once-in-a-lifetime event as a ‘real morale booster'.

In 2005, while serving on HMAS Kanimbla, a Sea King helicopter crashed during Operation Sumatra Assist 11 following the Nias earthquake. Nine navy personnel were killed in the accident, including one of Dave's medic team.

Then in 2008, Dave saw a Black Hawk helicopter crash while trying to land on HMAS Kanimbla during a special operations assault exercise. Two men were killed.

Dave remembered that despite the horror of these unfortunate events, the crews and teams reacted professionally to the emergencies, and that their training came to the fore.

During his naval career, Dave deployed to East Timor in a small medical team sent to support the Australian Army as it secured Dili and the port area in 2006. Then in 2002, while stationed in Darwin, Dave helped arrange transport and treatment of Australian nationals injured in the Bali bombing. He felt proud of the work he did.

While attached to Joint Forces Command, Dave helped set up a hospital in the United Arab Emirates to assist with the evacuation of Australian personnel who might become casualties in the conflict in Afghanistan. It was a task in which he had to work closely with the United States personnel.

Navy veteran



Back in 1977, I was in Tasmania. Mum and Dad had parted ways etc. and I was living with Mum and I went down there for my last two years of matriculation, years 11 and 12. We lived on a farm, we rented a farm out of Launceston, 1500 acres, and it was really cool, living on the farm and doing stuff, but we were still going to school in town.

I had not really decided what I wanted to do at that stage, I was pretty keen on being, of all things, a forest ranger. I was very environmentally hooked up then, I was pretty keen to do the right thing by the environment, so forth, back in those days.

And I went along, and I was chatting with my mates and then they said, "How about you come down to the recruiting office, they want a bunch of Navy pilots". I went, "Ah yeah".

I really didn't want to have anything to do with that, because I'd grown up during Vietnam as well. I was a bit "Hmm, don't really want to be in that". And we went to the recruiting thing, and I sort of thought, "All this is looking a bit of alright, this is quite interesting stuff". And we were interviewed and so forth and because I wear glasses, and my Mum's background of working in hospital, of all things, they decided to suggest that I become a medic, and I was a bit, "Huh, okay". I basically said, "Okay, I'll do the test for that.

My mates did their tests and of the six of us that went down, I was the only one that passed. And suddenly I'm looking like becoming a medic. Finished off school, matriculated and in between waiting for them to call me up. I worked on a chicken farm of all things in Longford, in Tassie, in the big sheds that were doing all the, churning them through and literally killing chickens to get them through to the markets.

The police came and saw me one day and said, "Navy want to talk to you". And on the 7th of February 1978. So it was just after Christmas. I was called up and signed on the dotted line and flew to Melbourne and it started from there.

Family history as selection criteria

I'd done biology at school and when they did ask you the questions about your family history, I said "Well Mum worked in an operating theatre at Launceston General." And that was fine. And then I said, "Oh, my grandfather was an ARP warden in London during the Blitz".

And of course they were the first aid guys and they'd run around shutting windows and all the rest of it. And as soon as they get that little thing, a spot. "Oh, he might be suited to be a medic". And I must admit I was a bit, I thought "Oh geez, I wonder if I can do that".

I wasn't quite sure but then I thought, "Well look just give it a go and see what happens". And it just went from there. So I had no training proof, no first aid treatment. Nothing.

Medical training

It starts off at a first aid level but you're trained in hospital stuff as well. So you're trained in nursing. How to nurse a patient in bed. So how to put bandages on amputations, how to take temperatures, how to give blokes, and it was easy because there weren't many girls in the Navy then, bed baths and stuff like that and looking after, how to wash hair of a patient in bed.

And you think, "Well that's easy". And no, it's not actually and you've got to be trained how to do it. So within the Navy, you're looking at training your medic to serve at sea. That's what you want. You want the person to be able to serve at sea. Now on our ships back then you might have two medics, a chief petty officer and an able seaman, chief in charge.

Able seaman is the bloke that runs around and does all the hard yakka there's only two. On some of the bigger ships like the carrier we had 11 medics total so it was, all the medics have various ranks and skill sets. But that was on a carrier, which is really set to do a lot more stuff.

I think that the hardest part for people to grab hold of is the fact that we had to look at what we call the sea time and the seashore ratio. Because when you are on shore, you had to do all the technical courses, just to maintain your skills and progress yourself through the ranks as well. And we'd always work in one of the big hospitals, we had hospital at Cerberus, one at HMAS, Penguin, Sydney, and there's one in HMS Sterling, they were the main areas, but there were also little bases around that needed the odd medical team.

So we were spread fairly lightly on the ground, the medics, and you had reasonable places to go but sea time back in those days, your sea time was usually fairly short. You get 12 months, maybe two years if you're lucky, and then you'll be back ashore, and somebody else could go because, as I said, we had to keep turning people over and getting them getting him to see because that's what we're there for. Back then it was at HMAS Cerberus at the medical training school.

It was about nine months long. And it was all things like learning about the anatomy and physiology of the patient. So you do all skeletons, and all the systems, your brain, nervous system and all that and you'd learn all those. Then you'd learn all the diseases that affect those and how to treat them. And, of course, you get tested on it. And you do the practical side, how to give a person the bed bath, as I was saying, how to make a bed and do hospital corners and all those sorts of things.

How to run the ward, how to do a night duty, how to do all sorts of different skills, practical and theory. And it went for a long time. And a very good reason for that. You want to get medical stuff, right. And of course, you're always being checked by senior people, nurses and senior medics on what you're doing. And you've got books to fill out and so forth to maintain your skills.

Navy training

With the Navy training, basically, you are brought in as the subgroup you want to be, so I was recruited as a medic. Army tend to recruit you as a soldier. You do your recruit training and then they will say, "Well, you're a cook, you're a cook you're a cook, you're a rifleman, you're a rifleman." A bit different to us. We would go to recruit school, of course, which I did.

Before your medical training, you get to recruit training and that was 12 weeks. I think it's 11 now, they cut a few things out, not much but save money anywhere they can. So we did 12 weeks, and it was how to go from civilian to sailor, what are the rules, how to iron your clothes. And it might sound silly, but there's some people who Mum and Dad always did that and they never knew what an iron was but you had to be trained in how to iron a naval uniform correctly, how to shine your shoes, how to keep your room clean, because you don't get a single room you live with other people, especially in the Navy, when we live at sea, you're living like this and it can get on your nerves. People can annoy you. So you have to learn how to live together and work as a team.

I think the team part of it's very important and once they start building at the early stages of that, that then goes right through your career and that's always worked for me. So again, with Navy, we have the 12-week course we learned all these things. By the end of it, you have a graduation parade. So you've gone from recruit to what we call Seaman Star, and that's a little asterisk next to your name.

It means you haven't been trained as anything, but you're trained so you can march round, you can shoot a weapon and so if you had to be sent to battle, you could basically do something right at that point. But then you go off and you individually sit in courses which differ in length from four weeks for a say an officer steward, through to 18 months for technical cyber doing electrics or something like that on the ship.

Getting your sea legs

I had a few experiences with not getting my sea legs. I think the first boat I was on, wasn't ship, it was a boat was one of the wooden, anti-mine warfare ships that happened to come into Hands Inlet down at Cerberus. And of course, all the recruits, "Right, down to the wharf". Off we go. And it's wooden and bobs around like a cork, so I wasn't really well, you but you get the hang of it.

Then I went to sea on a destroyer, which was in Melbourne, and we just went out for the day run and it was great. felt absolutely great, mind you, it  was pretty flat. We're in Port Phillip Bay so it wasn't going to do much. But my first sea posting down the track two years in was to Melbourne, the aircraft carrier. And you think she'd be great. doesn't roll too much, should be fine. But of course, mentally you're thinking, "Oh my God, I'm gonna mmm. And I was, first day out, crook. And then my sea legs, once I got them, laughing and I was fine and in the end you enjoy it.

And when you get off the ship, it's funny, you have to get your land legs back. If you've been at sea a while, you're always moving and you get on land, the land doesn't move, you do. And so you see sailors swaying down the road. They're not drunk, not mostly, they're just getting their land legs back.

Always training

I still remember the day I joined, she was in drydock at the time but still you look up and there's this huge ship. When you consider it next to American ships it's tiny, however, pretty big to me. And we're in drydock, so we had to live on board, but you had to shower and use the ablutions ashore which was a bit of a pain, as you can imagine, because back in those days, we didn't have tanks that store all the grey water and black water, it just used to go over the side.

Now, people shock horror and things like that but back in those days, that is how it was done. The ships was actually designed in World War Two wasn't built until 55 and you can't change much of that, the plumbing and so forth without getting a new ship really. So while she was in drydock, you couldn't do that you had to go ashore and we used to have to live on the ship, doesn't matter.

The only reason you didn't is if you're married, and you could live off ship but if you're a single bloke like I was, you lived on the ship the whole time. She came out of drydock, we went to sea and once I got the hang of it, it was great and we did. she was always known as a bit of a jinx ship, you've probably heard about Melbourne, she unfortunately had two collisions back in 64 and 68 and a lot of people killed.

It has been proven that Melbourne was not at fault. The ships, the smaller ships drove straight underneath her, and you can't stop a carrier, so, but I thought immediately I thought, you know, I've really copped it here, I've got the crap job but I loved it, I absolutely loved it. The first sea posting, well, before you go to sea, before you deploy on a deployment, you have to do what's called workups and they prepare the ship for being at war.

So you'll have other ships to practice with, you'll have gunnery, and of course, we had aircraft. So we're launching aircraft all the time, you'd be doing it 24 hours a day because that's how you do it. And so you had to get used to the fact that you'd be you might be the flight deck medic, which we've rotated through that, but I did it many times. And you have to be awake for 24 hours. And if you grab a quick kip while you could, you're allowed to have someone wake you up so that the medic could watch every launch and landing.

Now the reason we did that was because if there was an accident, and there were a few on board, and you're the medic, and you see what happens, it does give that little bit more information as to what might have happened to the crew person that's been injured. If something crashes into the deck and just blows up and fire, well, you know, you're gonna have burns and so forth and you can quickly give first aid at a point before you can get them to the sickbay.

So you have to watch every take-off and landing and that can be quite can get boring, but it can get very exciting very quickly and it did several times that I was on board, had a couple of planes crash and bits come flying off and flying down the deck which is not a good thing. But after you've done your work and you've passed the test, you have a team come on, like you have to pass the test.

So doesn't matter who the captain is, there's a team that come on, and they just do everything and check every department. And so we're always training. Even when we'd finish that you go somewhere else and you're always training. They'd suddenly pull a drill, fire drill at midnight or something, that's not a nice thing, but they would do it because it happens, stuff happens and you can get caught.

Flag flying

The first trip I did, we've sailed from Sydney through the bight to Fremantle, worked there with the Americans, they had a fleet over there, the Midway was there. And then we sailed up to Indonesia. My first port of call was Jakarta, which was an eye opener for a young bloke from out the scrub in Tassie to Jakarta was a bit of a shock.

And we did, in those days,, a lot of touring around. I say touring around, what we called flag flying. So it's not like, in later years when we were doing over in the Gulf and performing war tasks, we would sail from Singapore to Hong Kong to India, and look out for the Russians in the Indian Ocean and then come back and then just go to different places and fly the flag, as it's called.

We're just there. We enjoy the locals hospitality, then we go back to sea and exercise. So I spent two years on the Melbourne, did two big trips and I did her last trip that she ever did as well. So I had a great time.

A Russian encounter

One main episode that had me sort of tiptoeing around a bit because I was only a young bloke, I was at sea within two years of joining the Navy, which is pretty quick, so I still had a lot to learn. And the geopolitical thing was way above my paygrade, I was an AB med and I did my job.

There was a situation where we left on our first mission and we were heading off into the Indian Ocean to do flying the flag. And we had, we're doing some, just going back, basically doing triangles out in the sea and just being there. And the Russians at this time weren't overly impressed with anybody mucking around in the Indian Ocean, they saw it as their patch.

And as we came up, away from Australia, and moved out into the Indian Ocean, they sent a very large warship, which I can't remember the name of at the moment, down to just keep an eye on us. And what, that was another thing, there was a lot of those communication ships that they had that looked like fishing boats that had more aerials on them than a C and N bus, that were out there tracking us, and every day our planes would go up and look around, we get photos of this boat, and this boat, this boat.

And then this rather large destroyer turned up one day and we had, the voice of the captain come over the Tannoy and said, "All personnel be aware, we have a Russian warship to portside". And of course, everybody goes to have a look, "Gee, I want to see this". And pretty close, say a kilometre away, that's pretty close. You're not likely to run into them but it's, you know that they're Russians, and they were bristling with everything and we were in a carrier that had some pop guns for protection and some aircraft.

And it takes time to get the aircraft off if you need to. I do remember one of my mates was a communicator, and he had actually wanted to be a medic and he had done some time with us in the sickbay because you can change category sometimes and he was looking to becoming a medic , and I said "Well, you need to get some hands-on time to have a bit of work experience down the sick bay".

Anyway, but he was on the signal deck the day this happened and of course, you see the ship's flashing lights, he gets, like in the old days, they do the flashing lights, and I can't read it so I've got no idea and at a certain point you hear their klaxons go off. So this didn't sound good, they then go to action stations.

So there we are in the middle of the Indian Ocean, we've got no one to protect us, get a Russian warship there, it's 1980, Cold War still banging away quite happily and I'm sitting there thinking this could get ugly. And they then went to putting missiles up on the ramps and then pulling them down and then putting them up and pulling down and swinging things around and doing things and you just stood there and couldn't believe it. And the lights are flashing madly.

Anyway, after certain period time, we managed to get some helicopters up. And as soon as they did, they broke off and moved away. And it was just the fact. I mean, our helicopters were pretty old then and whether, no one would have done anything, you hope, but there was still this thing floating out there and I did find I did find this quite funny because my mate, I did have a chat with him later on, I said, "What was going on up there?" "Oh, it was a madhouse" he said, "But the skipper was really good" he said.

I said, "What were they flashing?" And he said, "Well, the captain flashed to the Russians", or "The Russians flashed to us, When are you going home?". As I said they were not happy that we were there and the captain came back very quickly "After the movie tonight".

And they didn't take that as a good thing and that's when they went to action stations. So, just a little bit of humour and they went off the deep end … But it was always one of those ones where you were trying to be very careful, I believe because he just didn't know what was going on.

Spotting MG99

We rescued 99 Vietnamese refugees in the South China Sea. They were on a very leaky boat which was not much longer than this room and they were on their last legs. Their water had run out, food had run out and the engine had conked out. And my understanding was we had an aircraft in the air and they were just doing some last sweeps at dusk and the people on board heard the plane, so they lit a fire using some of the petrol they had and the plane saw them.

And later that night, we rescued them, biggest rescue that we had been involved in since, forever, and they all survived. And 40 years later, of the 70, sorry of the 99, 77 went to Australia, 22 went to America, and they all had good lives apparently and made great homes themselves back here because as soon as we picked them up they then became our responsibility when you're out at sea like that.

Rescuing refugees at sea

Anything you do at sea at night is dangerous, it really is, but the ship was ready for this sort of thing. Even though we are set for war, you have to pull people out of the sea and so forth. We had, HMAS Torrens was with us as well I believe, one of our warships, and they helped rescue some of the people. But the main bulk came and they were alongside the Melbourne and we got them up scramble nets and so forth.

Now this was at about dusk, as I say, so it was getting dark, it was dangerous and we got them up. And that particular night, I was night duty because we had enough medics on board the Melbourne, as I said we had 11, we could afford to have one bloke on duty at night so if something went wrong, I could, without waking up the rest of everybody, I could at least do something, get the doctor up or whatever.

And of course, when the rescue started, I was quickly woken up to join in in the thing because it was taking all hands-on deck. And I still remember coming and going, "Oh geez. Oh here we go". The youngest was six months old and the oldest, I think she was 87. I think she was the grandmother of the six-month-old or something like that.

And, of course, where do you put 99 people, even on a big ship like we you can't put them on the flight deck because we still needed to fly so we put them on the fo'c'sle (forecastle) which is the front end but below the flight deck. We made it protected for them and we had the beds and everything and everybody on the ship pulled together, it was just amazing how the stories got all the gear and the cooks made extra tucker for them.

Literally everybody wanted to help, they want to be a part of this. There was just this upwelling of the humanity type thing. And it's something you don't often see but we do and because when these things happen, everybody wants to help. But there's a team thing that has to come in and there's a system we have to do to make sure that all the bits happen, notwithstanding the fact that people want to help, we have to perhaps get them back a bit, say. "No, listen, get this done, so that we can do the whole job."

Of course, as you're saying, medics tend to be forefront when these things happen and the guys that were on board that time were just great, they just wanted to be there and knew their stuff. But we were dealing with old people and young kids, which is what we don't normally deal with. But we sorted them out and most of them were okay. I think we had three or four in the sickbay, the sickbay was fairly large, the grandmother was one and the little fella was there, was another one.

We had a couple of others who have been dehydrated and so we had to put drips in them and so forth. And we then had to maintain, just like a normal hospital, we have patients and we're all sitting up on the fo'c'sle which is in the weather a little bit, but we managed to cover it off so there wasn't too much blowing on and we had to feed him and look after them.

There's still a security thing to look after them, you just can't leave them there, we had to have security guys and if they had to go to the heads or toilet, you had to be escorted and all that sort of stuff. And look, I think they were just so pleased to be not sitting out in a little boat because they would have they would have all died, if we hadn't found them that night.

I have no doubt they would have sunk because they did advise us that during the phase where they're coming, two or three other large ships had seen them and just ignored them and sailed on and we were the only ones that stopped. To be part of it, and it still is today, a really big morale booster, I think, it's just one of those things that's just, you know, happens once in a lifetime.

Rescuing a pilot

We had several fixed wing and some helicopters. The fixed wing were the A4 Skyhawk which are the fast jet and if you have seen Top Gun, the original one, the chase units that they fly are Skyhawks, and they were that good, still very good enough to fly with the bigger jets. So we had those, we had the Grumman trackers, which are anti-submarine, their wings folded up so that they could be taken down into the hangar deck, not take up too much room.

We had Sea King helicopters, they've been around forever, and Wessex helicopters at the time. So they're the little bumblebees, they are pretty big, but look like a big bumblebee. So we had both fixed wing, which required a catapult to fire them off the front, and the helicopters which flew helicopter stuff, anti-submarine and would protect the jets as they took off.

They would fly to the side of the ship in case something went wrong and they could rescue the pilots within minutes, and that happened, I was there for one of those when that happened. So, as usual, as we said, the medic has to watch what goes on and it can be as boring as boring, boring, and this was in the middle of the day and I was standing on a position on the ship, where there's a large thing called the beast, and it's a crane, an articulated crane, so that if something does crash and we have to get it off the deck, it can be picked up, and chucked over the side in hurry, and it's usually done in a wartime situation where you need the deck cleared.

And it was a safe place to stand and the wheel was high enough that you can just rest your chin on the wheel, and you'd watch the plane, you watch the sequences that came through, the guys would wave them in and the plane would move up and the thing would come up with the back and they wind them up and give them the blanket push a button and off they'd go.

And this particular one, I was watching it, and at about two thirds of the way through the thing I suddenly realized something's gone wrong. Without winding the plane up, so there's no real thrust, he's just idling, the catapult fired. So it's dragging the plane forward and you can tell the bloke in the cockpit was not happy because he was standing on the brakes, because there's smoke just pouring out of the rubber and, of course, my adrenalines suddenly gone through the roof thinking, "Oh, this is not gonna end well".

And just as the nose wheel dipped over the front, there was a loud explosion and the deck was covered in a yellow smoke and because the ship was moving forward, obviously we don't have to move into the wind, the smoke quickly cleared. But I heard two bangs. The first bang was the ejection seat going off. The second bang was the canopy hitting the deck.

And then there was a splash. And, of course, everybody, klaxons are going off, everybody had gone into, not panic mode, but reaction mode. I've gone and grabbed my stretcher and I'm standing by. The helicopter that I was talking about before was flying off the port quarter and they came alongside to where the plane was. Now the plane was actually, had turned over and was upside down and the poor old pilot's parachute was going down and it tangled around the wheels.

So he's in the water with the plane that's gonna go down and everybody's thinking, "Oh, this is going to be … " Anyhow, the diver who's always in the helicopter, he jumps out, cuts the guy out of the thing, gets him, winches him into the helicopter comes across to the ship. I'm ready with my stretcher, we load him in, quick check to make sure he's not bleeding or anything like that, talk to him, he's okay, picked him up, went to the forward lift.

So in our carriers, the lift well is in the middle of the deck, as soon as we're ready to go ding, ding, ding, down we went. And the sick bay's position is right in front of it for this very reason. You open the door, you walk through and 10 feet, and you're in the sick bay. So the timing of the entire thing took like three and a half, four minutes, if that.

Bang, bang, bang, it just went off like clockwork and as soon as I'd handed the patient over, "Right back up on the flight deck." And unfortunately, I think we had to end fixed wing flying because the catapult was broken. something had gone wrong inside but we still fly helicopters. But that woke me up in a big hurry. It was very exciting but the training just kicked in and you just knew what you had to do.

The medical team on HMAS Melbourne

There were 11 medical personnel. There were two doctors and then there was senior, what we call senior sailors, chiefs and petty officers and leading seaman. And the number of junior medics was five, I think, and I was one of those but we had an X-ray technician, laboratory technician, operating theatre technicians, because we had a small operating theatre, and a lab and an X-ray unit.

So we could do a fair bit of work and we had two doctors. The junior doctor did most of the day-to-day stuff and the senior doctor was there to help and cover and he would liaise with the captain, if anything was seen to be necessarily had to be done. Sometimes when you do these things, somebody might need to be medivacked off the ship and the doctor can say to the captain, "You've got to turn around".

And they basically have, not the right, but they've got the power to say listen, "If you don't turn around, this is the consequences." and then he makes the decision. If you're not at war, you'd be turning around and doing what the doctor asked. But yeah, that's how we were covered. So we had two doctors, some senior guys and junior guys as well. So that made up the 11.

Resilience of a Bali bombing survivor

When I went on the plane, there was some really horrendous injuries. I do remember one poor bloke, as I said before, when the aircraft stops, the air conditioning goes off, and it gets very, it heats up very quickly, so we had to get them off very quickly. But where to put them on the tarmac in the sun? So we put them under the wings, where the shade was and, of course, my job was to monitor everyone.

And also they get them on to the ambulances and so I'm running around doing stuff. And I came up to one young bloke, and he's just lying quite happily in the sun, sort of thing. And I looked at him, "How you going mate?" "Yeah, I'm alright". He says, "You might look after the others" "Yeah, okay, I'll look after everybody". And I looked down and his feet had gone. And I just, "G'day mate, how you going?"

Well … and that's always sort of stuck with me, but he never worried about it, he wasn't concerned, he was worried about other people. But it's all these little bits that that you saw. I mean, there was, one person passed away on the flight and that was pretty horrid to be a part of it. But we had a job to do and we got the job done.

A Sea King helicopter accident

The team that was assembled originally on the ship, the medics that came to it, one of the guys that died was on my little team of four. So I came away with, there were four of us from Sydney, and we're going home with only three. So that affected me afterwards quite heavily. At the time, I think it was, it was just stunned, everybody was stunned. This doesn't happen. No, no you can't, which is a typical response.

However, the training and the ability of defence personnel to just kick straight into the mode that they need to be in is almost automatic. And it can be quite automaton at times when you think about it, but that's why we have to do it because usually, in wartime, or this sort of thing, it's something pretty horrible going on but you've got to get through it to make sure that everybody, as many people survive as possible, whatever's happened.

The mood on board was pretty bad, everybody knew somebody and even if they didn't, it was one of ours, one or a nine of ours had passed and even if you didn't know them, it was a part of the Navy, Army, or the Air Force. It was part of them that had gone and we need to be able to get around that and then fix everything up and then grieve a bit later.

And that's how it does work in defence, you have to literally do it, and get on with it and then think about a bit later and that's when it tends to, the morale tends to, let's not say morale, but the grieving takes place and you're angry and all those things start to happen, usually after a fair way after because we're trained to get through whatever's happened. Save lives If you have to, especially medical people, and then when that's finished, then you can have a think about it and go away and go, "Yeah, okay".

A second helicopter crash

When we had the second helicopter crash,12 months later, on board the Kanimbla, I think there were only 11 of us who were on there for the first one, so we copped a double dose in a 12-month period and we tended to group together, funnily enough, because it had happened before. And we couldn't believe that it happened again that quickly.

But again, there's a heap of support for people now, a lot more than they used to be. Back in the, like in the 1980s, bits and bobs happened, mental who? Mental health was never mentioned. Harden up. Drink a cup of concrete, get on with it. And you were sort of, that was why we now have so many guys like Vietnam vets or anybody else, the guys who were on the Melbourne when they cleaned up the Voyager and so forth, you still get this PTSD because we weren't looked after.

Defence was very slow, and I'll say this about them, they were very slow in getting their act together. But now, my understanding is that it is a lot better and they're getting on to things a bit quicker, there's a lot more understanding that goes with it. You give people time to grieve, you just got to get your timing right to bring people in to do it.

The Blackhawk crash, they buggered that up, they were too quick. They were there within 24 hours and we were still coming to terms with it and you've got people asking, "Are you alright? Are you alright?" Just pissed everyone off. But nowadays, it's my understanding, there's a lot more, I use the word advertising for it, there's a lot more help out there.

East Timor 2006

2006 East Timor went off again. There were fighting in streets and the bad guys were coming out of the hills and doing things to the good guys, so to speak. We put together, I think Timor was basically a Navy medical team, we managed to get, I think it was 15 of us. Now it might not sound like much, but that's 15 from places where we don't have many medics anywhere because we're either at sea, or you're in one of the hospitals but it's hard to get a full Navy crew because the specialists are usually the army guys, and the technical, like the labs and that are raafies.

So basically, we got a small team together, mainly Navy, couple of raafies, to do the other stuff on the Kanimbla, went through Darwin, and then sailed into Dili in support of the army who were going in to take the airport and make the place safe again.

We remained off station for a while, which means out at sea, but you could see everything. Dili was burning again, which was pretty sad, black smoke coming out of everything and you just think, "Really". And the bad guys are setting fires here and doing something bad over here and then when we go there, they'll go to the fire, sorry, they'd set off, set off over here and then they'd light a fire there and it was all over the place.

But within a couple days the army had taken control, we moved the ship alongside, every now and again somebody would shoot at us with shotguns and stuff, so we were told to keep below the ballistic armour on the side of the ships, so you just had to watch what you're doing. Quick as a flash it can get quite boring, but we were there to support the army guys, the captain literally said, "We're like a hotel for the soldiers. And we will shower feed, them, look after them. And that's our job".

We did get to do a couple of trips in the special boats, we went up to the airport, the medics, just for a look basically and offshore, that was okay. But I must admit, one of the funny things was the captain threatened me, he said, "I do not want the next landing at Timor since World War Two to be a boatload of bloody medics getting off in the sand". And they wouldn't let me off in the sand with my troops but we went, had a look. T

imor, after about a week or two weeks, I think it was week, two weeks, it was decided to downsize. I left a couple of my best medics there with the army and they flew the rest of us home. So it was fairly short and sweet. The army did the rough yards, but we've gone in support, to keep them going and stop the fighting. And they did.

Setting up a new hospital in the UAE

At the time, I was in headquarters, Joint Operations Command, just outside of Canberra actually, Bungendore, and I was in the health section, inside, as you'd expect. So it's a headquarters where there's just lots of bodies, mostly officers, there's very few junior people because we're the guys that have to do all the decision making and planning and then sending it up the line.

Having us all together, obviously makes sense. They opened up the new headquarters in 2000 and, they were building it in 2007 and I went there in 2008 when they built the new one. After a while you get the hang of everything and, of course, I'd been at the other headquarters, been working in all the Asian stuff and I've done East Timor and bits and bobs and so, of course, what's the first thing to do when you get a new place, chuck in the Middle East, somewhere I've totally got no idea.

Very quick learning curve, but it was great and my job was to look after the health plans for the Middle East. So from the UAE, to Kuwait, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, if somebody got hurt, shot, whatever, there had to be a medical evacuation plan to get people out. And we worked very closely with the Americans, of course, because they had the all the helicopters and so forth but we, I think it was averaged out that we could get somebody from the battlefield to decent medical, decent, to the next level medical help within 15 minutes, anywhere in the AO. Now that's pretty phenomenal.

There came a time when Iraq was coming to a close and we had to, we had to move out of there, they weren't quite sure what they were going to do. And they decided that we were going to move to the United Arab Emirates and have a hub there. It's a lot closer to Afghanistan but there was no need because we're pulling out of Iraq. But what are we going to? How are we going to run it what are we going to do?

So a team has set up, the project survey team called the PST and that included a brigadier general who worked in the office right next to us, medical representation, which was me, we had a few other reps and so forth, a team of about 30 of us that went, and we had to plan moving out of Kuwait, because we had a lot of stuff there with the Americans and moving into the UAE.

And the plan was to include, how do we man this? How do you know how many people you need, and so forth. We had to know, and the hospitals, as I described before, we're in another country now. So how do we do the same sort of thing? So we had to design a hospital then, so we had to design a hospital in the UAE. Where are we going to do it? How are we going to man it? And what we do, we were given these options, and we had to move around a few countries to do it.

So I sat down with medical teams in each of the bases that we had, because we had one in Qatar, one in Kuwait, and we had something in the UAE, there was a small contingent, so we had to literally go from country to country in a, pretty much a warzone, and talk to the people and work out what they need. This is what we intend to do.

We're going to do this, can you help me design a hospital that will suit you, because once people get to us, we're a hub, then they can fly them to Germany, where the Americans had part of a, part of the run of a huge hospital there and then on the way back they could come to us and then we could send them back to Australia on the C 17s. So that was how big a hub it was.

So we were at Al Minhad airbase, which is a well-known United Arab Emirati air base, and we had to build all this stuff and plan for it. I'd finished my, we were there for three months and I'd finished the medical side of it in about three weeks because it's pretty straightforward for us, we know what we have to do and what we need.

The manpower was big problem. How do we get the numbers right and all that? The Brigadier said to me, "Well, look, you can stay here, we won't send you back. I want you to work on this manpower document" which tells you how many people was I think it's quite well, no, we had about 1550 people or something in country and I learned a lot in that space as well, about all the different jobs that people had, it's like, you've got to have blokes who know how to fuel trucks, and sounds a bit silly, but you've got to have the right sort of guys doing the right sort of things for the right mechanical stuff that we have.

So there was all those people you needed, you needed pilots, you needed the aircraft you're gonna have, so I had to deal with the whole thing myself and one other guy were given that job. And we did, we did a pretty good job in the end, it was great to be a part of it, to move all those people in. So we got it all ready to go and then the plan was off we'd come back to Australia.

So we flew back, we had done this plan and that's what happened and they all moved into, we built a new hospital, and it had all the medics that I'd had, all together. And I said to the Brigadier, "Look, we can't lose anyone because he wanted me to chop people off and said, "Oh, you got to cut got to cut". I said, "Well, we can't". You've got to have, because you need designated people who know how to do aero medical evacuations, run the sickbay, do this. So we still need the numbers we had. I was happy we got there.

First aid combat training

And the next year before we actually moved, I was flying back again, just over 12 months later, by a week. And, of course, the sad part about that was I had to go and do the training that you have to do before you go overseas, again, a week out. So I had to literally go to another army base and learn how to shoot a rifle again and all the other good stuff but that was okay.

I took two other guys to Army blokes with me and our job was to move or look if we could move the combat first aid, which was done at that time in Kuwait, to UAE. Now how the Americans, we paid the Americans for this, so they all went through it and so we just tagged on, our 10 guys would go in with their 200 sort of thing. And I remember, we got told, or we're gonna go and review what they've got.

Okay, get in the four-wheel drive and off we go, drive out into the desert, and there's one road, black tar, there's sand drifting across it and there's concrete barriers along the side. And that's to stop you driving off the road into a minefield because all the old battle wagons from the first Gulf War were sitting just the blown-up ambulances, trucks, and as I said you just do not get across off the road.

So off we drove into the middle of the, into the desert, and we came across another US Army base, and it was the next level down in comfort and that was so they were getting people ready from going from an air-conditioned area down to a not so air-conditioned area. So you're getting ready to go into battle.

And from there, you'd go over, jump the line back into Iraq. And going into this place was where they did their combat first aid and basically, it was a Nissen hut, which is one of those half huts, you know, but they were covered in a cooling thing, so that they look quite pink in the desert, but they are air conditioned, fully ready to go and inside was this high state of the art first aid training gear and, of course, they had mannequins in various stages of blown uppiness, legs ripped off and really bad stuff and it's above your normal first aid that you see, normally have to do.

And they had a tank sitting up outside and I asked them, I said, "What's that?" and they said, "Oh, that's the blood tank" 10,000 litre tank full of coloured water, which was blood. And these were all electronically controlled. So when you walked in and they started the battle, this is combat first aid. So they had all the sounds going, gunfire helicopters coming in, they turn huge fans on to give you downdraft and the patrols had to fall out, guard the person and then one person would have to do the, blood going everywhere, tourniquets and all that sort of stuff.

And so we sat down, we watched several classes of marines come through and do all that. And so we worked it out. Yes, we still wanted this. How do we get this into UAE? And we spent next couple of weeks sorting that out. Literally, we wrote the contract and that's what happened. We got another American company to come in and doubled up what they did for us. So we had it covered.

American service personnel

All the American servicemen that I've ever met and had to work with are great guys. You get some loonies as you do in any defence force but culturally, they were fine, there wasn't any open hostility like your sometimes fear there might be between, say, Hispanics, and African Americans.

But they're all there on a mission, they knew they were there for the good, the good fight. Some of the surprising things I must admit that was happening was that if they were coming into country, to then step over the line into Iraq, or Afghanistan, they'd carry their weapons with them everywhere.

Whereas medics, unarmed, and there were young women with machine guns strapped to their pack going to breakfast in the morning and it because they had to learn to live with the weapon, become a part of it, and what they weren't given ammo. They were just given the weapons to do. But that was a bit of an eye opener in some of these bases.

But that's what were there for, once you realised and you remember that you're actually in a war zone, you get with it, but it was quite unnerving to start with, if you're not used to it because we didn't have anything either, we Australian guys, we had nothing, whereas the guys who are Australians who were at the base working did, whereas we didn't.

Recognising PTSD

It took me 30 years before I was treated. I still have good days and bad days, as do many people who have PTSD but if you get it early, you can get better treatment, and you will do better in the long term and I think Defence has really come to the fore with it, even though I haven't been around for a few years now, that my understanding is that they're starting to really get going well with it.

And just getting the younger people who are afraid to put their hand up be seen to be weak or anything, it's not weak, something has happened that has affected you, then you need to get it looked at and then deal with it as best you can with the help of others. And that's the word I try to get out there. Even a grumpy old lieutenant commanders can get it. Not everybody gets it the same. But if you do think you need help you go out get some, it's there.

The importance of Anzac Day

Once you've been and been part of it, as a member of defence, you just, the history of that first stuff comes into it and you just feel that it is your responsibility to maintain, so that we don't forget. There's a thing that says lest we forget, we do not want to forget it, and people say, "Oh, you are glorifying war." Well, no, actually, we're not.

We're commemorating those who died, paid the ultimate price for all of us to be here where we are today. Now. I just have this, I don't know whether it's innate or whatever. I just have this thing that I have to do my bit. And over the years, I've done many different roles in Anzac Day.

When I was on the Melbourne, when I was on the Melbourne in Sydney, we were up for the Sydney march past and lo and behold, I was carrying, they wanted four Melbourne sailors with their cap tallies to carry the flag for HMAS Australia. And we did, just amazing, through the streets of Sydney, the crowd was going wild.

Back in those days it was, they'd started to build up after Vietnam finished. Vietnam finished five or six years, they'd started to build back up, so we were getting a good thing. The Vietnam vets weren't, but we were as young sailors at that time. And again since then, I spent, I did spend a long time, about half my career at Cerberus which is a training establishment where we try to inculcate what we do, where we inculcate the service and so forth into the young people and get them out there.

Yes, they're told they have to go to these things but once you've been part of it, once you've been a part of that sort of thing it becomes ingrained and did in me, so that over the years, and later on when I was promoted to officer, I'd volunteer automatically go to go to these things and I would go all over Victoria, or wherever I was, in Tassie, as well, to lead parades, to do the speech, to be the Invitee and I write something different every year.

I have spent the last, I think, 11 years at Foster down in Gippsland as their guy, they want me all the time now. There was no "Yeah, no, you coming back?" "No, I'll be here". And I'm allowed to do that even though I'm retired, I get to still do that.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Dave Lassam's story, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 9 December 2023, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/oral-histories/dave-lassams-story
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