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The Sleeping Dragon: Uncle Graham Atkinson

The dragon awoke when the twin towers in New York fell in September 2001. Feelings of anger, sadness and confusion long dormant came to life. Other Vietnam veterans felt it too. We talked about it in the PTSD programme that the Department of Veterans' Affairs were running at the Austin Hospital back in early 2002. The veil lifted. I could put a name to these feelings. The long journey started.

I was called up at only 20, a young Aboriginal man plonked into an alien world.This was 1968, one year after the historical referendum granting Indigenous people full Australian citizenship. This decision  would galvanise my thinking around black and white, Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations.

Vietnam politicised my identity. After Vietnam, we returned to a wall of silence.To the wider society, we were invisible or worse, loathed for fighting a war that many didn't agree with. 

As the only Indigenous soldier in my company, mine was an even quieter reception. After the theatre of war, sharing my experience with mostly white brothers, my homecoming again placed me backstage, in the shadows.

My family were glad to see me return, but I'm not sure about the rest of the community.

Ironically, Vietnam had taught me strength, respect, a sense of dignity for all. But Vietnam also left me with decades of unresolved memories, vivid flashbacks to traumatic times.

In September 2001, the trauma of the twin towers somehow felt like a personal tragedy. The uncanny sight of people falling from the sky churned up 30 years worth of suppressed feelings. An ongoing feeling of uncertainty, of inner conflict and not knowing why.

People's indifference to our experience didn't help us any. I had a lot of friends in the Army, but never kept in touch. Like me, they probably wanted to move on with their lives and put the war behind them.

War is surreal and coming to terms with it is challenging. It taught me to challenge all forms of violence, particularly in my own Indigenous community.

My trip back in 2005 to Vietnam, and more recently with my two sons in January this year, has helped me to continue to manage that dragon.