Seeing so many die violently in Vietnam left Tony Dell scarred for decades. Now he is asking his old cricket buddies to rally and help him fight Post Traumatic Syndrome. KEN PIESSE reports:
PRIVATE Tony Dell and a handful of his mates had lost their way in the blackest of jungles south-east of Saigon. A routine mission soon became their worst nightmare. Just as they were bedding down, having resolved to wait until first light to re-track their steps, a large enemy platoon marched directly at them. Any sound and they were dead.
Dell held his breath hoping the Viet Cong wouldn’t hear the boom-boom-boom of his heartbeat. The Australians were hopelessly outnumbered. The enemy came within metres of the hideaways… and kept marching.
When it was finally safe to alert his superiors via their radio, Dell couldn’t speak. He was still terrified – and traumatised.
‘We just had to shut up and hope that no-one spotted us,’ said Dell of his near-death encounter. ‘If someone coughed or the bloody radio had squelched, we were gone.’
His time in Vietnam left monumental scars. Seeing so many die violently was to trigger decades of torment. He saw a bullet blow an enemy soldier’s brains out. He saw another enemy soldier shot in the chest and his whole back explode with the exit wound.
‘I witnessed things that the human brain is not meant to experience,’ he said. ‘A couple of years in Vietnam changed my outlook on everything: life, cricket and people.’
Known throughout his teen years for his amiability, wide smile and extraordinary cricketing ability, Dell had originally viewed his two years of National Service as a boy’s own adventure. His name had been plucked out in Queensland’s National Service lottery. ‘I didn’t mind it one bit,’ he said. ‘We were going to play real soldiers…’
The atrocities and horrific violence he witnessed left him sour, moody and impossible to live with.
Haunted by the vision of the dead and disfigured and jolted by flashbacks of enemy fire whistling overhead, rarely could he sleep for more than two hours each night.
It wasn’t until he was in his mid-60s, living in his mother’s garage that he learnt the truth of his own painful self-destruction and the reasons behind all the dramatic mood swings and marriage breakdown. A diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder emanating from his active service, allowed him to finally piece together the ruins of his brooding, troubled life and find some answers.
Vietnam was one of the most divisive wars in history, 60,000 Australians served, 3000 were wounded and 521 died. More than 20 per cent of Vietnam veterans suffer from PTS. Like Dell, most don’t know it.
Ironically, he says, without Vietnam, he could not have opened Australia’s bowling alongside Dennis Lillee in an Ashes Test cricket match. Known as a gentle giant – he’s 196cm (6ft 5in) – he returned fitter, fiercer and more focused.
The only living Test cricketer to have seen active service, the former Army signaler said there was no repatriation for those who had served. ‘One day I was in the jungle shooting at people. Two days later (in March 1968) I was walking down Queen Street in Brisbane looking to get back to work. There was no counseling, no time to decompress. I didn’t talk about Vietnam. None of us did.’
Cricket was his distraction and for a time his savior.
With Australia plunging to series defeat against Ray Illingworth’s touring Englishmen, Dell, 23, was called into the deciding Test match in Sydney to open the bowling with Lillee, who had debuted just a fortnight earlier. The Age newspaper referred to Dell as ‘the cyclone from the north’.
The Australians, under first-time captain Ian Chappell, were narrowly beaten but Dell made a fine entry with five wickets for the match. He out-bowled even Lillee, who took three.
Not that he can remember anything about the game. ‘It’s gone,’ he said.
After just one more Test, his big-time career was over. Crankier and increasingly irrational, his dark moods and flashes of anger were a familiar companion. Even his closest mates from Churchie, Brisbane’s prestigious Church of England Grammar School, no longer sought his company.
Years earlier, shortly after his return home, one had jumped, unannounced, onto Dell’s back and he was ropable. ‘Never, ever EVER do that again,’ he shouted at his mate.
‘Tony returned from Vietnam carrying a lot of baggage,’ said one.
Every time he’d walk into a restaurant or a cafe, he’d have to sit against a wall, facing the door.
Once a rising star of the advertising business, he became unemployable and having walked away from cricket – without really knowing why – his marriage failed and he became estranged from his three children.
Author Greg Milam, who penned his soon-to-be-published biography And Bring the Darkness Home said Dell was ‘one more unlikely casualty of the ghosts of the Vietnam war’.
‘His personality changed entirely,’ Milam said. ‘The psychological toll of war had been confronting and overwhelming.
‘Having seen so much death, he was never able to process it, because he had a job to do.’
As society wrestles with a growing global mental health crisis, Dell’s own private internal war has lasted a lifetime.
It wasn’t until he’d hit absolute rock bottom, living out of his mother’s garage on the Sunshine Coast that he was able to find some answers to his lifetime of torment.
He had little or no money. Baked beans on toast was a daily staple and chicken nuggets in chicken noodle soup a treat. ‘I was living off the smell of an oily rag,’ Dell said.
He had never bothered with the traditions of being a military veteran. He had never taken part in the annual ANZAC Day parades, refused invitations to reunions, never wanted to return to Vietnam, as so many had done, to revisit the old haunts and try to heal the old wounds. His war service seemed like a lifetime earlier.
Until that winter of 2007, Dell had no idea that he was the only Test cricketer to have served in combat in Vietnam. The man who told him, a retired colonel, thought that piece of history made Dell the perfect guest-of-honor at the first-ever International Defence Cricket Challenge that summer. Teams from the Australian Army, Navy and Air Force were due to compete with defence forces from New Zealand and the United
Kingdom in Canberra.
Dell duly flew to Canberra, made some speeches and was preparing to leave again when someone asked him if he had his ‘fifth’ Medal, the Vietnam Medal.
The fifth Medal was news to him: he didn’t even have the four he was originally issued with. ‘I told them my kids had wrecked them over the years, tearing the ribbons off, and that I had nothing left,’ he says in his biography.
He was told he could request replacement medals from the Department of Defence. He nodded, said he would, flew home and promptly forgot all about it. ‘I got a call
a month later. “Have you been back to get your medals?” I said no. They called again in January. “Have you been back?” No, I said.
‘I thought to myself I’d better do it otherwise they’ll just keep on
calling and it’ll drive me nuts.’
Dell finally sought out the veterans’ drop-in centre in Caloundra. As he began to explain why he was there, looking for information on applying for replacement medals, the old volunteers wanted to talk about cricket instead. Over a cuppa, the conversation flowed, the veterans exchanging anecdotes. After half an hour of chatting, one said to Dell: ‘You’ve got PTS.’
‘Bullshit,’ he said.
Despite his circumstances, like all old soldiers he’d always regarded himself as bulletproof. He thought his fading memory was just bad luck. He could recall only flashes of his cricket career, yet Vietnam and that incident on the trail to Hoa Long was still incredibly vivid.
Until that moment, Dell was unaware that Post Traumatic Syndrome even existed.
He’d regarded fellow veterans who had turned to drink or drugs to cope with their demons as weakies.
This, however, was his own moment of truth. After his initial denial, he listened again to what the volunteers were telling him. They had been through war themselves, they had been diagnosed with PTS and had learned to live with it.
It was the conversation Dell would have loved to have had decades earlier. He was the classic PTS sufferer.
His life had been consumed by hopeless thoughts, negativity, guilt and shame. He had not been the father he’d wanted to be to his three children – now his closest friends.
He’d become detached from society, deliberately avoiding even lifelong mates.
Here was something to arrest the downward spiral in his life. ‘I had lost the will. I had always been a fighter but I had lost the fight. My marriage was going downhill and I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself,’ he says in And Bring the Darkness Home.
More practically, the next step was an appointment with a psychiatrist to confirm the diagnosis. Soon he had a ‘White Card’ from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs which allows the holder free medical treatment and care. He immediately underwent knee replacement surgery, which he’d been putting off for years, simply because he couldn’t afford it.. ‘At that point I couldn’t stand for more than 60 seconds and couldn’t walk even 100 metres,’ he said.
While he was still recovering from surgery, he was called to a review board to assess whether he was eligible to be upgraded to a ‘Gold Card’. Hobbling in on crutches, he met a doctor who was also a cricket fan.
His Gold Card arrived two days later. ‘They call it the magic card.’ he says, ‘Flash it and you get full medical and dental, all paid for.’
It was the beginning of Dell’s second coming and now he is intent on helping fellow Vietnam veterans and sufferers. No longer is it a taboo to discuss depression and mental health problems.
He has established a charity Stand Tall 4 PTS and hopes his cricket connections and the increasing awareness can see an annual Test match at the Gabba dubbed the ‘Orange’ Test to aid awareness and raise funds to assist sufferers, just as Sydney’s New Year Test match each year is the pink Test to aid breast cancer.
Now 73 (his 74th birthday is Aug 6], Dell is proud that the Governor-General, His Excellency David Hurley, is launching his book in late August.
‘It just happens to coincide with Don Bradman’s birthday,’ he said. ‘The Don was the selector who first picked me a lifetime ago.’
* Signed copies of And Bring the Darkness Home, the Tony Dell Story by Greg Milam are available from cricketbooks.com.au for $60 including post.
KEN PIESSE has covered cricket and football for more than 30 years in Melbourne. Despite that setback, Ken has written, published and edited 86 books on cricket and AFL football to become Australian sport’s most prolific author.
His latest cricket book is David Warner, The Bull, Daring to be Different with Wilkinson Publishing, out now