Update. Dennis Edwards passed away in a Melbourne hospital on December 26, 2013 after a recurrence of cancer in September. He had recently completed several projects to improve conditions at a Vietnamese orphanage in Nha Trang.
First published in Mojo in February 2013.
IN 1964, Dennis Edwards joined the army. He was 15 years old. A country boy from South Australia, he had no idea that his decision would upend his life – twice.
But within five years of enlisting, Edwards was plunged into the war in Vietnam, fighting alongside fellow Australians against guerrilla armies and living among fear and bloodshed in an alien land far away from home. Vietnam left its mark on Edwards. And this year, more than 40 years on at the age of 63, he will return to live in Nha Trang, in the heart of the war zone he now calls “paradise on a stick”.
Nha Trang is just over 400km northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, and is central to five orphanages that are supported by the charity established by Edwards and his family. Edwards left the army in the 1980s, and in 2001 suffered a heart attack following which he “self-destructed for 18 months”. Only then was he diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. On advice from his psychiatrist, in 2003, Edwards went back to Vietnam to “face it” and cleanse himself of the memories of his war service.
“It seems like yesterday,” says Edwards of his decision to enlist. He had joined D Company and so was immediately put in training as a fitter and turner and blacksmith. The deal was simple: four years to train, five years to pay the army back. Shortly after he married his childhood sweetheart, pay-back began with a posting to Vietnam. It was July 1969.
Edwards’ job out there was to repair Centurion tanks and armoured personnel carriers. He was later mentioned in despatches for the retrofit of up-armour – a collapsible foot rest and metal plates to protect drivers from the blast of landmines. His skills came to the attention of a Red Cross Captain who asked if Edwards could make playground equipment for orphanages in the region. “So I made swings and slippery dips and playground equipment. I made about 12 sets.”
The swings and slides were built in orphanages, outside the ‘safe zone’ and in some of the poorest and most remote areas of Vietnam. Such was the danger that the teams building them had to make their way to the orphanages under infantry escort “because the Viet Cong were running around the place everywhere”. But Edwards remembers that the children were so excited that they couldn’t wait for the concrete to set before they started playing on them.
The orphanages, some of them run by an order of nuns, took the risk of liaising with the Red Cross who used the skills of Edwards and his army colleagues to build the playgrounds for the children.
“I found out after we left Vietnam in 1970 that the nuns and the helpers in those villages were raped and pillaged and driven out of the place because they were Aussie sympathisers…and I had to deal with that, you know.”
The sense of responsibility lived with Edwards long after he left the army in 1986. But so too did his legacy. When he returned to Vietnam for the first time in 2003, he was amazed to find the playground equipment still in use by “beautiful kids who were still as poor as church mice”. At least they were living in peace.
From that first trip in 2003 Edwards visited the orphanages twice a year until he was diagnosed with Cerebral Lymphoma, a form of brain cancer on Christmas Day 2007. Two years of Chemo Therapy at Royal Melbourne Hospital and six months of radical Radio Therapy treatment at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre followed and he was declared in remission in January 2010.
His organisation, ASAVO (Australians Sponsoring Aiding Vietnamese Orphans), now provides food and facilities for 480 orphans and funds and education scholarships for 120 children in Ho Chi Minh City, Da Lat, Nha Trang, Ba Ria and Vung Tau.
“I’m just trying to give these kids a chance at life,” he explains. “If they can learn English and get an education they have a chance at life.”
Vietnam set Edwards on a radically different path. Little did he know – a “little Methodist kid brought up in the church environment”, who grew up on a 500-acre dairy farm where the day-to-day existence centred on hand milking a herd of 350 head of Jersey and Friesian cows – that when he chose to learn a trade instead of taking up a place to study drumming at the Adelaide College of Music that his life would be driven by the very different rhythms of a war-torn jungle, and the people whose suffering and courage convinced him to make it his home.