A Witness at the Gateway to Hell

AMS Staff

‘You’ve never lived until you’ve almost died. For those who have fought for it, life has a flavour the protected will never know.’
Rudyard Kipling

The Rev Howard Dillon is the executive director of Anglicare (Sydney) – one of Australia’s largest welfare organisations. Anglicare ministers to the poor and infirm, the hospitalised, the prisoner, the abused and the lonely. It feeds, clothes, supports and bears witness to the gospel of Christ.

Christian ministry for Howard Dillon has always had a practical edge. Half a lifetime ago, as a young Anglican minister, he signed on for a tour of duty in Vietnam. He was sent to the hospital at Vung Tau, about 60 kilometres east of Ho Chi Minh City.

“In the 1960s the big issue was conscription and national service,” he reflects. “When the Vietnam War was committed to, young men from my youth fellowship and other Christian young men I knew were being called up and I thought, ‘Where is the ministry?’”

Prior to his departure for Vietnam Howard Dillon spent some time with the young recruits as they trained for war. He estimates that during this time he had the opportunity to speak to up to 10,000 20-year-olds about the Christian message.

“I saw that as the cream of Australian youth,” he says. “I was speaking to them about the gospel at a time when they were working out their future, dealing with their resentment at being called up and – for some of them – knowing they weren’t going to return or they would return maimed or injured in some way.”

While the soldiers’ training was intense and specific, the preparation for chaplains was cursory by comparison. A chaplain needed to be accredited in his denomination and complete a two-week military training course. During the fortnight course the prospective chaplains learned how to salute and how to behave in a military context. But essentially their presence within the conflict was professional not martial. They went as chaplain not soldiers.

Apart from the practical advice given him by Bishop Frank Hulme-Moir, who served as a chaplain in WWII, Howard Dillon received little in the way of training for what was to come.

Although he was based away from the fighting, his experiences in triage at Vung Tau could not be described as easy. It was his responsibility to care for those who came through the hospital. The wounded often had missing limbs, massive abdominal damage and other serious injuries. And the chaplain was spared none of the visceral details. It was his responsibility to be there for the wounded, to support them. While the medical staff took charge of the physical ailments, the chaplains cared for the emotional needs of the soldiers. They were there to listen, to counsel.

The soldiers who had died in combat were also presided over by chaplains. It was they who prepared the bodies to be sent home.  The experience of dealing with the dead and the dying is something that remains with Howard Dillon.

“It still lives with me. On certain days I can smell the jungle, the dirt, the sweat and the blood. It backs up in my throat. I don’t know if that’s as traumatic as being shot at but it was pretty traumatic.”

an unpopular war

Howard Dillon is acutely aware of the differences between the Vietnam War and WWII. He describes the Second World War as being a “more strenuous experience” for the men and women who served. The period of service in WWII was generally much longer than the 12-month tour of duty for the average soldier in Vietnam.

But for Howard Dillon and the veterans of the Vietnam War, the most significant distinction was in the nation’s attitude to its armed services.

“I think the big difference was that WWII was a national movement,” he explains. “Everybody was in it, whole families were involved in the war effort. They were raising funds, they were knitting socks they were doing all sorts of things. It was a national commitment. We had no sense that the nation was behind us. Just the opposite.”

The Vietnam War was and continues to be controversial and divisive. While Howard Dillon was caring for the sick and wounded at the hospital in Vung Tau, men and women in Australia were protesting the war. The unpopularity of the conflict and the disapproval of the nation were keenly felt by the soldiers and their chaplains. It was also evinced in the way troops were moved to and from Vietnam.

“It was always dark when the plane took off,” recalls Howard Dillon. “Coming back was the same, you’d get back here in the dead of night. There was no debriefing. Going in and out under the cover of darkness is something that lives with me.

“One of the greatest problems for the troops in Vietnam, and particularly the guys in the hospital, who had been wounded, was that they would read the newspapers and there was so much negativity. They’d been conscripted, sent here by order of the government and their country walked away from them.”

The sense of shame and betrayal lingers, as does the awfulness of the experience. As far as Howard Dillon is concerned all war has its terror and tragedy, regardless of geography.

“I don’t think the horror of war is much different. It’s a dirty, dirty business. You lose your friends, you’re scared most of the time you’re in combat. And you have this terrible job to do.”

fighting faith

An enquiry into the Second World War concluded that a religious faith sustained a man in battle and as a prisoner of war better than anything else. Howard Dillon agrees.

“Faith sustains because it is spiritual. If your trust is in God, when you’re under heavy fire or in a prisoner of war situation, your faith isn’t going to be blown away – it’s spiritual, it supports you.”

It was his faith that led Howard Dillon to serve in Vietnam. It was not only concern for those conscripted to fight but also a desire to bring God’s perspective to them. In his own words he went to be God’s “witness at the doorway to hell”.

When he speaks of the soldiers he encountered he talks of fellowship, mateship and loyalty. In his experience chaplains were respected and supported by the men they served. But such respect had to be earned. It meant going beyond the prescribed job description. It meant being available to talk and listen. It meant giving of yourself when you needed to rest.

“Soldiers get themselves into all sorts of scrapes and situations. You may have to stand in the Officers’ Mess for two hours until someone’s had enough alcohol to say, ‘Padre there’s something I need to talk to you about’. You had to be willing to be there a long time, to be yourself. And if you’re a vibrant, active, Christian man, being yourself reflects the glory of God.”

To the soldiers who were injured or traumatised the Word of God provided comfort. At a time when their nation repudiated them God’s message of love and acceptance was powerful to hear. Of all the parts of the Bible that Howard Dillon used it was the 23rd Psalm and Matthew 11:28,29 that resonated most with his listeners.

“The 23rd Psalm is absolutely immortal. The picture of God as a shepherd, the Lord Jesus as a shepherd caring for his sheep breaks through to people. It’s a very simple, loving symbol. Those passages of scriptures that speak of welcome and acceptance, those were the words I used the most – ‘Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest’.”

This article is based on Robyn Powell’s interview with The Rev Howard Dillon for Radio World View.