From the battlegrounds of Korea, Malaya and Vietnam to the cause of traumatised Australian veterans and their families today, Keith Payne has never shirked a fight.
His love for the Army was born as a lad, watching WWII troops heading for the battle front through his home town of Ingham, Queensland. His first job didn’t grab him, so he enlisted in 1951 and went on to serve with the 1st Battalion in Korea. After that, service took him to Malaya during the communist uprising and Confrontation with Indonesia.
Back in Australia as an instructor when the Vietnam conflict erupted, Keith and his mates formed an “escape committee” to get to where the action was. Outflanking the bureaucracy via a ‘devious route’ that took in Papua New Guinea, he soon found himself on Vietnam’s porous Cambodia/Laos border, trying to stem the growing North Vietnamese Army (NVA) infiltration.
'It was full-on. We didn’t have to go far to find trouble,' Keith recalls. 'They threw pyrotechnics at us, and we threw them back. We were on ops constantly. My word, it was stressful.'
The lightly-armed Australian and Vietnamese patrols were up against heavy NVA regiments, and firefights in the jungle could last for days. In May 1969 Keith was commanding the 212th Company of the 1st Mobile Strike Force Battalion near Ben Het when it was hit by a strong NVA spearhead. His company of indigenous Montagnard troops was caught in an annihilation ambush and fell back, both taking and inflicting heavy casualties. The other commander fell. Keith was hit in the hands and arms by shrapnel from an exploding rocket. Yet he managed to cover their withdrawal and settle them in a defensive position.
Under cover of darkness, dense vegetation and a friendly helicopter, he then traversed the battlefield for wounded soldiers, who were ‘lying doggo’ as the foe moved about, still firing. Keith located forty men, brought out some wounded himself and organised the rescue of others, for which he later received the Victoria Cross.'It was pretty terrifying, really. I try not to talk about it nowadays.'
The experience inspired a lifetime crusade to help fellow soldiers, their wives and families, who continue to suffer post-traumatic stress as a result of experiences in war. In Australian homes, Keith frequently witnesses a struggle as grim, and courage as shining, as anything on the field of battle.
'I’d like to say the battle (for recognition of PTSD and other issues affecting veterans) has been won, but I’m sorry, I can’t. We all owe it to our soldiers to look after them a little better. There are still many who are caught in the compensation trap.'
Keith Payne also received the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2006.