Who is John F McGowan?
Born in India 1951 to Australian expat parents John returned to Australia as a young child and grew up in the area of Lilli Pilli, Sutherland Shire NSW. At a time when the area was still significant bushland criss-crossed mainly with dirt roads, without television, home telephones, sewerage and good reliable public transport. Most residents were taking advantage of post WW2 soldier settler blocks and living in sheds etc while building their own timber framed houses clad in Asbestos cement or timber panelling. .
John’s youth was filled with a generation of baby boomers who spent every free moment playing in the local bushland and in water activities along the Port Hacking river. With his brothers and friends’ canoes were built and used to explore the river from Jibbon beach to Audley and a great deal of camping in the Royal National Park. All activities lead John to love the physical lifestyle rather than the academic one.
He pursued swimming, some competitive canoeing, diving, gymnastics, sailing, rugby league and rock climbing. Of course as a teenager he was drawn to the beach life of surf activities at the Cronulla beaches. Like many boys of his generation Air Rifles and .22 rifles were a part of life, shooting rabbits and targets and miraculously, not each other. He was by his own admission a mischievous teenager. Every parent’s nightmare.
It was this love of physical activity that attracted John to join the Australian Army aged seventeen choosing a career as an infantry soldier. He served nine years as a soldier including a tour of duty in Vietnam with the Third Battalion Royal Australian Regiment during the closing stages of Australia’s involvement in what is now commonly referred to as the American/Vietnam War.
Within two years of returning from active service John began to experience medical problems leading to extreme weight loss, strange painful joints and unusual rashes, along with sudden attacks of extremely sharp pains shooting up through his midriff. John was admitted to the Daw Park Veterans hospital and underwent a variety of tests that found no known medical causes. He was recorded as anorexic, suffering severe irritable bowel ‘Syndrome’ and sent to a psychiatrist who advised him his health issues were ‘psychosomatic’. He was sent back on duty with no follow up counselling or support, in-stead being medically downgraded to work supervising soldiers on kitchen duties.
John, like so many other soldiers, experienced symptoms of what is now generally referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) but there was no recognition of such war related consequences for returned service personnel. Equally at that time there was no testing for parasites that may have entered his body while patrolling and living in the jungle environment or for reaction to chemicals such as Agent Orange or allergic responses to not one but two different anti-malarial tablets sometimes taken together in order to keep soldiers in the field of operation. .John took it upon himself to fight back, carefully examining what food he could eat and keep in his system, a steady and increasing exercise program based on his childhood training. He discovered the advantages of meditation techniques. He was however totally disillusioned with military service or the indifferent treatment of his physical health.
He enrolled in Adult Education as an external student to study Communications with a major in Psychology, left the armed forces and gained employment working with young offenders and youth with behavioural problems. The South Australian Department happy to have a person with such a variety of skills and most willing to take groups on camping, trekking, canoeing and rock-climbing activities. At the same time, he undertook additional training in Transactional Analysis, Reality Therapy, Neuro Linguistic Programming and moving to senior and supervisor levels. He then transferred to the Department of Youth Affairs as a Regional Project Manager developing training initiatives for young people that could link them to TAFE qualifications. John presented his training approaches at national youth work seminars during this time. He also completed a post graduate study in public sector management.
A change in state governments lead to the closure of that program and rather than return to supervise youth workers, John moved to Public Housing as a Regional Manager covering an area from Port Lincoln South Australia across to the Nullarbor which included responsibilities assisting with Aboriginal Housing needs. He then returned to city life as a District Manager of Family and Youth Services overseeing Social Work Teams covering areas of Child Protection, Foster Care, Youth Services and Financial Advice. During this period john wrote a manual used by the South Australian Department for Community Services as part of the training course for new youth workers. John was also the South Australian representative on the National Training and Advisory board which developed the national curriculum for the Accredited Certificate in Youth Work.
With the next wave of refugees arriving in Australia during the Howard years, John was given the additional role of providing services to Unaccompanied Refugee Minors living in South Australia and was also asked to host and assist a delegation from Vietnam who were in Australia examining child protection issues that could be used in their own country. It was during this period that his frustration with Federal Government services to refugees began to trigger memories of the innocent victims of the war in Vietnam and his discussions with the Delegation From Vietnam brought home to him the overwhelming task that existed in that nation post the war with the USA and of course Australia. John relapsed into some of his prior medical conditions, increased Irritable Bowel, strange rashes and of course sleeplessness, bouts of depression and a need to isolate from other company etc. Finally realising it was affecting his capacity as a manager of important human services John took long service leave hoping to get psychological assistance so that he could return to his successful twenty-five year post military career.
Unfortunately (or one may argue fortunately) the attempts at counselling literally opened the floodgates of suppressed issues. After a year of counselling John was unable to return to his career and resigned his position, then being classified as Totally and Permanently Incapacitated suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). With the wonderful support of his partner Grace, a small acreage of land was purchased where john spent two years in semi social isolation with his new dog that Grace wisely insisted, he needed.
A shed, then a home was built, and Grace gave up her own senior management career turning instead to consultancy work to help John and his now two support dogs get his life back together. Although a significant drop in income occurred changing all long term retirement plans thankfully the military service pension along with Grace’s consultancy work made life comfortable enabling John to continue his journey, something for which John remains grateful to Veteran Affairs for their ongoing support and assistance.
It was at this time that John discovered the power of writing. He found it almost impossible to talk to counsellors about his issues from a personal emotional perspective, to explain his fears, his insensitivities, even callousness in war, racism etc. At a counsellor’s suggestion he was asked to write about one such incident, to have the courage to express how he was feeling during that moment. John discovered he could do this and was able to give the incident to the counsellor which opened up better conversation. After the third exercise the counsellor told him to take a chance and write his whole story. “A book is in there John, a book that may help others”.
John could not do that. He was awkward about a public admission of his issues, he was unable to accurately recall exact details and timing of events, and as he had not had any contact with those whom he served. He had not marched in an ANZAC day parade since returning. He did not know even if or where many of them lived. He could not possibly write about them without their permission. That is when he was given the best counselling advice ever. “So don’t write about yourself, write about another person who is allowed to have your issues, write about characters you create who are believable, write about incidents that approximate events but free yourself up to enable you to explore all those personal issues that have plagued you all these years. Write about a young boy, not who you are now, call him Brian”.
So, to the reader…This is john’s personal history and he hopes other veterans, not just of the war in Vietnam, but recent events in Australia’s military history, may use similar techniques of self-exploration through writing. If necessary, as was John’s case, creating characters who can have the issues and to express and deal with them. He is now an avid writer of tall tales and true stories, about youth and mischief and maybe will publish some more in future years.
He and Grace have left their small acreage and now live happily on Hindmarsh Island. Enjoying once again sailing, boating, camping and fishing activities. He even tries to surf but happily admits, most his efforts are more of a man nearing his seventies than of a young sun tanned seventeen-year-old with long blond hair who walked into the Army Recruiting Office all those years long passed.