As special as The Last Post had been to Graham Edwards, it became the last straw in the public life of this remarkable West Australian.
Mr Edwards, a Vietnam veteran who became a long-serving State and Federal politician, will reveal in the memoirs he is writing how he suffered depression after hearing it played too many times in the week before Anzac Day in 2016.
It triggered his decision to step away as head of the WA branch of the RSL, a move which freed him from a relentless work ethic, but also opened the space in his mind that held some of the most horrific parts of his past.
“I heard The Last Post played at something like 16 or 17 services that week,” Mr Edwards said. “It just got to me and I reckon I got bitten by the Black Dog. I found myself getting incredibly depressed and I just had to give up being president of the RSL
“Every time I hear The Last Post, it means something. The number of times I’ve looked at names on a memorial and thought, ‘Jeez, mate, your name could well have been up there, you came that close’. It makes you think about things and those who didn’t come home.”
Mr Edwards’ legs were amputated after he stepped on a landmine in Vietnam on May 12, 1970.
“I recall with great clarity the mine incident which should have killed me, but didn’t,” he said in a recent speech at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, which has inspired his memoirs.
“I recall sitting in the red dirt, watching it turned to mud by my spilled blood. Looking at my shattered legs. Clutching my machinegun, afraid to put it down in case it triggered another mine.”
Mr Edwards started writing his memoirs over two months last year at Rottnest Island, and he has booked to go back there in July. He is also considering a return to Vietnam this year to continue his work and will engage Curtin University students to help research his political life.
The task has already driven emotions to the surface that he had buried for decades, and he expected more to emerge. One was an anger he had not recognised for years until he saw the same symptoms in others on opening the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service.
“When I came home, I must have been a bugger of a bloke and I was very hard on the people around me, who had a lot of concern and love for me,” he said. “There are things that I wish with all my heart I had done differently. When you retire and reflect back over your life and really start to think about the sum of your experiences, you connect a lot more things together.
“I thought I owed it to my family to write something and, perhaps, I owed it to myself.”
A return to Vung Tau in 1990, 20 years after his accident, helped him better accept Vietnam as a country, not a war.
“Maybe I was going back metaphorically to look for my legs, mate,” he said.
“I figured it was time to confront my views of Vietnam and go back and see the country in a different light. It was another life-changing experience in Vietnam.
“I never bemoaned the fact that I lost my legs because I was alive and so many blokes who had similar circumstances weren’t.”
Included his Canberra speech was this resonating thought: “Like many Vietnam veterans, I have now grown used to thinking nothing of Vietnam for weeks, but then thinking of nothing else for days.”
It underpins his wish for Australian defence personnel to be kept out of foreign wars to ensure the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
Mr Edwards hopes his memoirs will bring hope for people, like him, living with disability. He said the biggest obstacle was the attitude of others, particularly those in decision-making positions of power.
“I was elected a number of times and people were prepared to give the bloke in a wheelchair a go … it was something I never, ever forgot,” he said. “People still see a disability before they see a person and that’s a fact of life, but it’s changing ever so slowly.”
Mr Edwards’ political achievements include serving as a State government minister between 1983 and 1997 before he moved into Federal Parliament from 1998 to 2007. He was drafted into politics by then Labor leader Brian Burke and said he was satisfied rather than proud of his working life at a tumultuous time in WA’s parliamentary history.
“We went through good times and bad times and did some good things and some silly things,” he said.
“I wish I’d gone about things a bit differently in some cases, but that’s life and it’s easy to look at things in arrears. I’m quite satisfied on balance — I got in and worked and I’d like to think I paid my way.”
He said he was indebted to Mr Burke for the political opportunities he had, but the pair had fallen out and not spoken for years.
Mr Edwards said he was still fighting for war veterans by helping raise funds for the WA RSL and Legacy WA through Athletics WA’s annual Gallipoli Run at Kings Park.
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