Friday 1 August 2014

30 min talk to the Ball Participants of 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne)

Note that all items in RED were not stated


Thank you Major Cox for that introduction.

The Commander Colonel Foster, “Principal Guests” (I included the following people but now do not have their details -  Maj Gen Williams, a Brig and a Col from European Nations, 3 members of 173 supporters and Sgt Kyle Pitts – Medal of Honour), the Officers and men and women of 173rd and importantly the wives, partners and supporters of 173rd .
Thank you for having me here – I am very proud to be here rekindling relationships made in Vietnam. I want to tell you that I also am look forward to seeing your Engineers in Poland in a couple of days.


I intend to cover in this talk the following:

1. My link to 173RD Brigade

2. Some of my experience in Vietnam.

3. What it means to be resilient and thoughts on moving forward to cope with tough times. 


Introduction of 1 RAR Group with 173rd Airborne Brigade

Ever since the 2nd World War, when USA came to our aid in the Pacific War, Australia has always looked favourably at joining the US when called upon. Ground combat troops (as distinct from Advisors) were first sent to Vietnam to join the 173rd Airborne Brigade at   Bien Hoa in Jun 1965. This unit was known as the First Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment supported by Armour and Atillery sub-units. My unit – 3 Field Troop Engineers joined the Australians and hence 173rd Airborne Brigade in Mid Oct 1965. The Australians were under the operational control of 173rd Airborne.

Role of 173 Airborne Brigade based at Bien Hoa

Bien Hoa is an airbase about 20 miles North of Saigon and the role of the Brigade was to be the Reaction Force for the III Corps area in Vietnam and to protect the airbase.. South VN was divided into 4 Corps areas. III Corps covered an area from the Cambodia to Eastern Coast being about 15,000 square miles. What Reaction Force means is whenever there is any enemy activity reported in the III Corps area 173rd Airborne reacts to it. This means, of course, that there is very little boredom on Operations because there is always something going on.


We had different tactics

A couple of quick examples include Americans would clear by fire. In a defensive position in the jungle Australians would send out clearing patrols to their direct front and put out listening patrols overnight. The Americans would line up on the perimeter and fire at the jungle – it was scary to hear! Americans would walk down tracks which felt to us like inviting the enemy to fire at them. Once the enemy was located the might of the US fire power was brought to bear on the exposed enemy. The Australians would move slowly through the bush. I would reckon that sometimes both the Australians and the Enemy would miss each other! We were jungle trained. Most of our tactics came out of New Guinea, Malaya and Borneo, so it was what we'd been doing for years.


One of the units in Bien Hoa was Troop E, 17th Cavalry. They were the ground reconnaissance element of the 173d Airborne Brigade. We thought this Troop was crazy. The vehicles consisted of jeeps fitted with an M60 Machine Gun. The crew was a driver and a radio operator in the front and, the No 1 and No 2 machine gunner in the back. Off they would drive down the middle of enemy jungle tracks. Sure they were doing reconnaissance – by what means? They attracted enemy fire. We heard stories of these guys being hit – the Machine Gunner first. Without hesitation the No 2 took over and the radio operator became the No 2. Then the Radio Operator was the Machine Gunner with the driver being the No 2. There was no question of withdrawing or driving away! Tons of raw guts was exhibited time and time again.


Comfort Zone

My guess is that most Soldiers are in their comfort zone with their own armies. I was no exception and at that time did not look forward to serving with US or Vietnamese Forces. Let me explain. I have a long hereditary military connection with my father, grandfather, great grandfather and great great grandfather serving in the British Army with the Sappers – that is the Corps of Engineers. You all know or have heard of a bias expressed by the British towards America – I guess that’s because you won the war of Independence – yes – I am sure it goes back that far – I grew up with this.


I have the utmost admiration for the American Soldier and consider myself blessed to have served with them. The views of my forebears stop with me.

173rd History
Tonight we have heard and read about some of the great history of 173rd and there is an excellent summary on the Ball Program. I would like to reiterate the last paragraph.
“Today Sky Soldiers continue the distinction of honored service training with partnered nations throughout Europe and even Africa.. The 173rd stands poised to rapidly deploy world-wide acting as the US Army’s premier contingency response force in Europe and answer the Nation’s call, whatever it may be”.


I was privileged to be present at the Sigholtz Dedication earlier today and congratulate the Brigade for its celebrations and building dedication.


To the Running of the Herd.

I was on Operation Hump with the rest of 173rd Airborne Brigade. My troop was given the following tasks:

1.           Be prepared to demolish tunnels, buildings and other installations.

2.           Be prepared to assist in neutralising enemy booby traps and mines

3.           Carry reserve tear gas, explosives and demolition equipment.

We were in an area where we had to clear the village of Xom Cay Xoai which consisted of about 150 huts and small buildings each with their own bunkers and small tunnels. We encountered very few enemy, unlike other units of 173rd which were not far away. The Running of the Herd originally commenced as a commemoration of the death of 48 soldiers on Nov 8, 1965 in Vietnam on Operation Hump and now commemorates all those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice from  173rd Airborne’s proud history. My congratulations to the Brigade and to all those who participated.



 In my first Report as Tp Comd from Vietnam I have extracted two relevant points:

1.           We were allotted land which was a swamp as our home base. It was right next door to the company of US Army Engineers who quartered us under canvas and fed us for 3 days. During this time my troop of 68 soldiers had to secure 300 yards of perimeter, dig weapon pits, erect tents, toilets and showers and have a workable kitchen. This aim was achieved but not without working 18 hours a day. At one stage we had one Forklift, one Front End Loader, one semi-trailer, one 2.5 ton truck, and two D7 dozers all bogged at the same time. Yes – drainage was our priority.

2.           The most challenging problem is likely to be the clearing, entry and demolition of major tunnels. When tunnels are found then more often than not the entrance is blown. Sometimes smoke is blown from a smoke grenade at the tunnel entrance using an air blower called a Mighty Mite. This smoke often reveals further entrances which can be blown., What we will do is to mix teargas with the smoke which will make it very uncomfortable for the occupants, we will then blow air around and then we will put on Tear Gas Masks and search the tunnel for booby traps and for intelligence.


So – back to the first point - Our Living Conditions had to Improve

Whilst Engineers are tasked for any construction whatsoever we were tasked to assist 1 RAR Group in the main – this we did by way of standard army issue kitchens, store-rooms, water supply, showers, mess huts and more. There were other Brigade tasks as well – like perimeter roads, culverts, Landing Zones within unit locations, manage the Brigade Tip and more.


About 40 % of our time was spent “inside the wire” at Bien Hoa Airbase – so we had to make a few improvements to “home” – didn’t we? The Americans had everything – lighting, refrigeration, plentiful stores, vehicles and more – our soldiers had had a taste of this and of course we wanted the same. We tried the normal supply methods and couldn’t get anywhere – it was harder to get supplies in Vietnam than it was in Australia. We had to be resourceful and otherwise acquire them.


On Timber

Let me quote from my book – the Tunnel Rats – “For "otherwise acquire" read "steal from" or trade with the Americans. When I needed timber, I took a couple of trucks down to the dock at Saigon and just loaded it up. Realising that we wouldn't be able to unload it at the other end, I got one of the lads to drive the fork‑lift on to the back of our truck and took that too. I just signed for it and took it away, as simple as that. One of my drivers, Sapper Mick McGrath, who was driving one of the trucks, says he was stopped at the gate by a South Vietnamese guard who asked him for some documentation. The only thing he had on him was the certificate they'd all been given when they crossed the equator on the HMAS Sydney, (on the way to Vietnam) so he handed that over and was allowed to pass.


Casino and Friendship

Our Mess Tent doubled as a Casino at night – No! Not every night. We had just enough lighting for the Casino – we played a number of games plus had some poker machines. And you can guess who our visitors were. Many friendships were forged with the 173rd Engineers! They had lots of money – twice as much as the Aussies - and brought their beer with them because we were limited to 2 cans/man/day.  


So the Troop made some money from the Casino and our Electrical and Mechanical Engineers attached to 3 Fd Tp were despatched to the disposal sites in Saigon. Here they found a couple of 33 KVAs (large electricity generators) plus some parts which we bought and then made one operable. We had electricity! We bought the wire and fittings and every tent had lighting and an electricity output. Our Casino, now relit, continued to go well and friendships flourished. The troop money was spent on more luxuries like chairs – and ultimately a big party when on time-out from our new home in Nui Dat at the end of our tour.


On a more serious note my Sappers were always full‑on at work. You had a job every day, whether it be mess duties, doing some road project, building a culvert, building a shower block or you were in the field. It's a different kind of death that you face as a sapper, and it's one you cannot turn and run from, or hide until it goes away. It is your ingenuity against your enemy's. And if you get it wrong you're just as dead as if you'd charged into a hundred blazing guns.


Some of My Tour highlights in Vietnam include:

1.           Operation Newlife was straight after Operation Hump. My Troop was given the task to make sure that about 30 miles of road were open for the transit of 8 Div ARVN to protect the rice harvest. We worked directly under the HQ of 173 Airborne Bde whilst normally on operations we were responsible to our own Battalion. There were several bridges we had to replace or repair on the way. I was especially happy about one bridge whereby we were able to complete the crossing in half a day as against 2 days allotted by our US HQ – I won a case of beer for that. We built another Bridge close to a village and were able to commandeer a VC vehicle which we repaired and used for the remainder of our tour – and we passed it on.

2.           Operation Crimp started on 8 Jan 66. My Sappers initially had a support role and then this was upgraded to the main Divisional Role (including of course 173rd Airborne) because we found what the Division was looking for – that was, the Tunnel HQ of the VC in the Iron Triangle – now known as the CU CHI Tunnels which is a famous Tourist Resort in Vietnam. We not only searched it (not just blew up entrances) but we also took out the biggest Intelligence find of the War (so far). We formulated Tunnel Search Methods and General Westmorland – the commanding General in Vietnam – issued orders saying that from now on all Enemy Tunnels will be searched by Tunnel rat Teams.

3.           Here’s the story of the beginning of the Tunnel Rats. I attended an International Press Conference (this was quite a thrill for a 25 year old Captain) and in the interview I described us as “Ferrets” chasing the enemy underground. I explained that a Ferret was like a large Rat used when hunting rabbits. Very quickly a journalist said – “A Tunnel Rat” and the name has stuck.

4.           One of the Sapper Principles is to have no dissipation of effort. In other words Sappers are best employed en masse. It is quite challenging for a young Captain to go against any Engineer Principle but that’s exactly what I had to do. In most search operations the infantry forward scouts are the guys who find the mines and booby traps – then they call for the Sappers. The best place for the Sappers to be is out there with them at Platoon HQ. To do this we divided our Combat Engineer Teams into Splinter Teams of 2 to be with each platoon. We also developed the Mini teams of two Sappers including a mine detector so that they could support APCs and Tanks. What I am really proud of is that this was used throughout our time in Vietnam, that it became Engineer Doctrine and is used today with our forces in Afghanistan. Just as an aside I was talking to Lieut Col Michael Ripley who witnessed Australian Engineer Splinter Teams working with both Special Ops Teams and the Commandos in Afghanistan.


 I came away from Vietnam with a Military Cross and an American Bronze Star as recognition for what we achieved there. More valuable than that, I returned home with memories of a small slice of history: a time when ordinary Aussie blokes became extraordinary; when boys became men; when those I led became leaders themselves.


It wasn't all dangerous work – there was some fun in it as well. Australian soldiers' humour is priceless and it's wonderful to be around at any time; the way soldiers use it as a "pick-me-up" for dangerous, boring, or futile situations is a great credit to their psyche – it keeps them going, through thick and thin, and is an essential ingredient of their "mateship" – in short it helps with Resilience.


Your Commander is Creating Resilience

Within 173rd your Commander Colonel Foster has as a training priority:

Total Soldier Fitness

   - Physical

   - Mental

   - Emotional

   - Spiritual

And this contributes to your Army Ready and Resilient Campaign. Army’s definition of Resilience is:
“The mental, physical, emotional, and behavioural ability to face and cope with adversity, adapt to change, recover, learn and grow from setbacks”.


As an aside - every soldier in Australia is issued with a huge warm coat – it’s called a Greatcoat!. All armies “change their mind”. In the Australian Army this is “humourised” to be called Greatcoats On – Greatcoats Off. Have you heard of that? Or don’t you guys change your mind? Humour helps to overcome the frustrations.


I can remember training my soldiers to operate under “stress”. That’s the same thing. When you are tired, hungry, exhausted, disappointed, sleep deprived it causes stress – when one is resilient then one can overcome these adversities and operates with Peak Performance.


I remember training my soldiers with

·             sleep deprivation on exercises – having enemy attack all night

·             Extending exercises at a moments notice

·             Dealing with the unexpected

·             Unpleasant surprises at the end of an exercise like no vehicles to meet the soldiers and having to march back to base camp


The leaders that excel under these conditions are the ones to note and promote. The different effects of music are worth observing. Like Singing. Like a band meeting the marching soldiers with only a mile to go to base camp. Just observe the lift in morale.


The mental aspects of Resilience is also very powerful. Once again it can be developed in training. The most important thing to know is that we are much more powerful than we think. I have given examples of this in my talks to the Brigade soldiers and Brigade leaders.

My most recent civilian work has been in the area of the mind – the subconscious mind in the main. The subconscious mind is 88% of the mind and it is really worth knowing how you can use it deliberately to enhance your life. Incidentally my website is easy to remember – it is Why calm – because that is the most important component in using the subconscious mind. When you are calm and relaxed you are dealing with 88% of the mind – the subconscious mind.


Why do I mention this?  Because Resilience can be developed mentally.

If you could relax and release stress and focus in less than 30 seconds that would help – wouldn’t it?

Other life areas that are important and which mentally contribute towards resilience are:

Acceptance, Forgiveness, Creativity, Increasing Self-Confidence, Improving Sleep,  Dealing With Pain, Dealing With Anger, Assisting Healing, Assisting Pain Release, Overcoming Anxiety, Moving Through Depression  Dealing with Trauma and there is always more!


And remember this – we talk to ourselves more than 50,000 times a day. If it’s negative then that will affect ourselves negatively – if it’s positive then it will affect ourselves positively. This is scientifically proven by none other than a Nobel Prize winner being Prof Roger Sperry who showed the functions of the Left and Right Brain. What do you think of when I say “ Don’t think of a rainbow”. A rainbow of course! Don’t Worry to the subconscious mind means worry – don’t forget means forget. The S/c mind doesn’t get the don’t.        So stay positive and watch your self-talk!


I have had the privilege of meeting many of 173rd  Leaders on all levels. Their dedication leads the success of 173rd today.


The !73rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) is in good hands


It has been my Privilege and Honour to be here and address you.


Thank you.



Your Commander Colonel Michael Foster


Command Sergeant Major Richard Clark


LTC Patrick Wilkins 1st Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment


LTC Robert "Todd" Brown 2D Bn (Abne) 503D Infantry "The Rock"


LTC Kyle A. Reed 1st Squadron (Airborne), 91st Cavalry Regiment


LTC William Kirby 4th Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment


LTC Michael T. Ripley 173rd Special Troops Battalion


LTC Jon P. Beale 173rd Brigade Support Battalion