15 August 2023

From larrikin to pastor: Vietnam War 50th anniversary medallion honours veterans like Wayne Lyons

| Katrina Condie
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Wayne Lyons and Steve Rainey holding medals

Vietnam Veteran Wayne Lyons with 50th anniversary with Stephen Davie, Managing Director of at the Military Shop in Fyshwick. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

When driving his car, Wayne Lyons keeps an eye out for the enemy on the side of the road, and the former soldier still sits with his back to the wall after nearly losing his life a number of times during the 12 months he spent serving in Vietnam.

A young larrikin, Wayne was keen to join the army and, at the age of 20, the “baggy bottom private” from Wagga Wagga left for Vietnam on 29 July 1970. He returned home a different man, exactly 12 months later, on 29 July 1971.

Now the senior pastor at Queanbeyan’s High Street Church, Wayne says the experience led him down a path that changed his life forever.

“I was just a young boy, but I thought I was a man, so when I was called up for two years’ national service of course I said yes,” he recalls.

“When we arrived in Vietnam and I opened the plane door it was like stepping into a furnace. It was like being in a movie. You could hear guns, and every night there was bombing and helicopters everywhere.”

Wayne’s larrikin ways in the army camp soon earned him the nickname Tiger from one of his mates – who thought he wouldn’t live till he was 25.

Keen to get behind the wheel of a tank, Wayne instead ended up driving trucks, tippers and American semi-trailers, transporting troops deep into the jungle and building roads.

“There was always danger, but I survived it. I was almost killed three times with a gun and knife,” he said.

“I was supporting the combat guys who were doing it tough in the jungle for weeks on end.”

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Like so many Vietnam veterans, when Wayne returned home he found it difficult to go back to normal family life and turned to drugs and alcohol.

“I was drinking and on drugs. I was a bit of a mess when I got back,” he said.

“There was a bit of rejection by the public and the government at the time, but I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t expect a street parade or anything.

“I went to Sydney for six months and just disappeared from everybody. I was in the bikie scene and going in the wrong direction. I think I was easily led astray.”

Wayne returned home to Wagga where he met and married his wife Neita.

He was working hard to make a living, doing anything he could to support his family when, at the age of 31, Wayne says his life changed forever when he “had a conversation with God” alone in his lounge room.

“I had an encounter with God. I didn’t see him, but it was so real, it just changed me. The things I used to do, I couldn’t do anymore. My whole life changed that day,” he explained.

He went off to Bible college, and since then has been supporting Vietnam veteran groups and individuals as a pastor, chaplain and a mate, whenever and wherever he can – at bedsides, reunions, memorials, funerals and public events like Anzac Day.

Wayne says the release of a commemorative medallion to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War makes him feel appreciated, and he hopes others will feel the same way.

“The medallion is really beautiful. A lot of thought has gone into it. I think it’s absolutely perfect and I really treasure it,” he said.

Commissioned by the Department of Veteran Affairs (DVA) and designed by Military Shop head designer Steve Rainey, the medallion is available to every living veteran, widows of veterans and other family members of veterans of the Vietnam War.

While Australia can never repay the debt owed to the 60,000 who served in Vietnam, the DVA says the medallion and certificate are a small but meaningful way to honour their service and to recognise the sacrifice of those who never returned home.

The medallion features the Commonwealth Coat of Arms with ‘Vietnam War’ inscribed at the top and ‘Australia Remembers’ at the bottom on one side, and the words of thanks at the bottom with the years 1962-73 inscribed at the top to represent the years in which Australia was involved in the Vietnam War. The medallion also features depictions of a UH-1 Iroquois’ Huey’ Helicopter, HMAS Sydney (III) also known as the ‘Vung Tau Ferry’ and an Australian soldier holding an SLR.

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Steve says he was honoured to design the gold-plated medallion as a token of appreciation from the Australian Government.

“My father served in Vietnam in the first armoured regiment driving Centurion tanks,” he said.

“It’s affected his life greatly and he’s had mental health issues stemming from the war, so it’s quite personal for me.”

Wayne hopes the medallion will help vets find some healing and feel better about what life they have left with their families.

“This anniversary is so important from a historical point of view and a biblical point of view, because 50 years in the Jewish custom is a Jubilee – the year when everything was returned,” he said.

“Maybe now, 50 years on, we can have our dignity returned.”

The 50th anniversary will culminate with a national commemorative service on Vietnam Veterans’ Day, 18 August 2023, at the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial on Anzac Parade in Canberra from 10 am.

The Military Shop in Kembla Street Fyshwick has also released a collection of 50th anniversary memorabilia, gifts and collectibles as part of its year-long ‘Life and Times’ campaign. Veterans and their family members can apply for the commemorative medallion here.

Original Article published by Katrina Condie on Riotact.

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