Archive number: 2481
Date interviewed: 30 August, 2004
Gulf War I, USNS Comfort
Senior Surgeon, Australian Contingent, UNAMIR
You are listening to the interview audio
I was born in 1942 in Malaya. Then I came to Australia for my education in 1957 when I was fourteen and a half years old. I attended school in Brisbane, university in Brisbane. I did further training in Brisbane, then I went to New Guinea for ten years. Then after they had independence,
I returned to Australia and joined the regular army. I've been in the regular army for twenty years. In the last seven years since my retirement, I have been working as a consulting surgeon in Brisbane.
Can you give me a summary of that twenty years in the army?
I started off as a captain in the First Military Hospital. We did our training, then I was posted to a field ambulance,
then from there to Canberra. Then from Canberra I was sent to England for specialist training as a surgeon. I returned from England to command a military hospital, followed by the field ambulance and followed by the field hospital, as commanding officer of the field hospital in Sydney, and then I retired.
What about family?
I've got a daughter and a son. It's a difficult choice with family when you join the regular army, knowing you will be shifted every two years. Actually I went to see a psychologist to ask what effect this would have on my children and he knew the children and he said, "They're pretty robust, they should be able to take it. What they lose in formal education, they normally pick with meeting new people and living in new areas." So my children have lived
in five or six different locations, countries and cities.
Can you tell us some of your early memories growing up in Malaya?
Yes, immediately after the Second World War, they were pleasant memories, because there was no pollution, lots of greenery and there was more jungle than there was civilisation.
Then we had the Communist Emergency, it lasted until '57 when I left. That was pretty restrictive, we weren't able to move around much at all. We were all under what they called emergency martial law, until I came to Australia.
And what was your home like?
We were fortunate because we were richer than the other people, that is why I was able to come to Australia to study. It was a good home. The usual affluent people in Malaya in those days, with servants and cars and drivers.
What area of work was your father in?
My father was a businessman, he was an accountant. He had invested in tin mines and rubber estates and property.
Had you had any military history in your family?
No, not at all. The closest I ever got was in school cadets here, at the Anglican Church Grammar School.
What about brothers and sisters? Did you have a big family?
No. I had two sisters. One was killed during the Second World War. And my other sister lives next door to me here now.
How was she killed?
I have no idea.
So the family didn't talk about it?
And what did you do for fun when you were growing up?
In Malaya? I used to ride my bicycle around, chasing animals, birds…It was a good life. There weren't all….the restrictions until the Emergency started.
So how did life change with the Emergency? What did you know of the insurgents growing up?
During the Emergency, all of the population was restricted into towns and villages with barbed wire around them, so the idea was to stop food going through to the insurgents, starving them out. We were under martial law. If you wanted to travel interstate or to go to another town, you had to get a permit, and they checked your vehicle to make sure there wasn't any food in it. If you did have food, when you arrived at the other end you had to produce it.
This was to deny food and arms to the insurgents. So it was pretty restrictive. But in the towns itself, or in the suburbs, it was quite okay.
What did you think of the situation as a young boy?
It was a part of life and you just accepted it, you didn't know anything else. Didn't know what freedom was really, when you are brought up that way.
And your father? What attitude did he have towards it?
Well, he just accepted it. The [Second World] War came and there were lean times with nothing to eat, and then he grew his own vegetables. And after the war ended he started up again. They were pretty stoic, really, when people have been through lots and lots and it's part of life.
So you were close to your father?
What sort of person would you describe him as?
Fundamentally, he was very modern for his age. We had a strict family upbringing, when we had dinner, we would all sit down at the table and nobody would touch the food until he sits down, then everybody says, "May I start?" And he says, "Start." Then everybody starts. He was strict that way, but he was also pretty liberal in that he could see the world was changing and he sent me to Australia to study and my sister went to England to study.
How did you feel about that initially?
Well, it had to be done and I just accepted it. There really wasn't much choice in those days. Either you educated yourself and improved yourself, or you missed out. There was no social security, if you don’t have a job you just starve.
And what about your mother?
My mother? She was brought up by
a Chinese Indian mission and taught English, so she was one of the very first Chinese women to speak English, and then she ended up as a teacher at the English school in Kuala Lumpur. When the war came, that had to stop. But I believe she kept teaching underground. And then she retired and that was it.
And what sort of person was she?
Do you have memories of going to school in Malaya? What was school like?
School was different there. You were in the school from seven o' clock in the morning until midday. Then from one o' clock the afternoon school started. So there were two schools in the same building. There were fifty or sixty
pupils in a class and it was very competitive. We had to learn English to be educated.
And what were some of your favourite subjects?
Mathematics and Science.
Did you know that you wanted to become a surgeon?
I discussed it with my father who said, "Doctor is a good career. You will always get a job." So I just did medicine.
Can you tell us about the move to Australia and what you first thought of Australia when you got here?
I went to boarding school here and there was a bit of a difference, because we had servants to clean my shoes, comb my hair, brush my teeth, and all of a sudden I was in boarding school.
It was a totally different life, I had to make my bed, it was a good experience.
What was your room like? It was Churchie [Anglican Church Grammer School], wasn't it?
I didn't have a room in those days. I slept in the veranda in Churchie, and we had canvas blinds in the winter that we pulled down, and it was a bit cold.
Did you miss home?
Oh yes, we were all homesick for a while, but after that we got used to it.
How did you make friends at Churchie?
It was very good. I remember the first night I was there, I didn't know what to do and one of the boarders came and offered me an apple or something. I made very good friends.
Are you still in contact with some of them?
Yes. Two nights we were at Rivershow for…Ross, was in the bed next to me at boarding school, he had a unit on the river,
so we went there. We're still in contact.
So what was Churchie like compared to what you were used to?
Academically it was much the same. I don't think there was much difference, academically.
Were there any teachers that were influential for you?
Some characters there, but they weren't influential. I remember them. There was a German teacher there, who taught me German. He was an intelligence officer in the Second World War. He was influential, I suppose.
Did he tell you stories about the War?
Not much, not much.
So he was probably the most influential for you, or…
No. I don't think anybody really stood out there, everybody was a mentor. I just studied and learned from them.
Some people have found it really hard to adjust to boarding school life. Did you find it difficult?
No. I think it was the way we were brought up. You just accept things and there is no use going against it, because this is where you are going to get on with life, and boarding school is part of it, you just got on with it. I never questioned why I was there, like a lot of people do these days.
And you said you joined the cadets? How did that come about?
In those days, in Churchie, it was encouraged. Virtually everybody joined the cadets. There were very few people who didn't join any of the cadets, navy, army and air force. We called them 'space cadets.' Because every Friday afternoon was cadet training, everybody would go to their different corps, their different services, and the space cadets were adjoined to a little room to do their homework.
So which service were you in?
I was in the army cadet corps.
So what sort of things did you do?
We just learned to drill with the old .303 [rifle] and the Vickers sub-machine-gun, it was not long after the Second World War. We learned to march, ambushes, patrolling, the usual stuff.
Where did that happen?
We used to go to Greenbank. I remember the first year I was there, it was my first year in Australia and it was really cold,
and we used to sleep on paliases. Do you know what they are? They were a little hession bag. You would be given a hesion bag and you would walk along and there was another place where there was lots of straw and you stuffed the straw in the hesion bag and you flattened it out, and you were given two or three blankets and that was it.
So what did you like about the cadets?
It was entirely different, it was a good outdoor life.
So having been a child that came out after the Second World War, and going through the Malayan Emergency, what was your concept of war growing up?
I don't remember much of the Second World War, except at the end of it when we were being bombed by the British Liberation. I can remember the aeroplanes dropping bombs on us and then it was all over. I can't remember much of the Second World War.
The Emergency, yes, as I said before it was more of a nuisance to see armed guards at every village and town. The cars were stopped and identity cards were checked. That was more inconvenience than actually seeing the war.
And did the cadets influence your eventual decision to join the army, do you think?
No, not really. I thought that was part of the learning process in the cadets.
You learned to march and drill and a bit of discipline was good, but I thought that was it.
Was it difficult being in a school in Brisbane and being from Malaya? Did you ever get teased or…
No. In all these years that I've been in Australia…when I first arrived there was the White Australian Policy on. And in Churchie there were
five non-white students, and there was no problems at all. Even on the football field and whatever sports we played. We never had any problems.
So your assimilation was quite a popular experience?
Yes, there were no problems at all.
And did you play football?
Yes, I played rugby union at school.
As a ringer.
The football team, I imagine at Churchie was quite a good group to be a part of?
Yes, it was encouraged in those days to either play football or rowing or one of those sports. And it was also good for team spirit and meeting friends…
Had you played football before that?
You learnt while you were there?
So what happened after Churchie then?
I went to the university, I stayed at the college university and I did my medicine there. I graduated in '66, and I did two years at the Royal Brisbane Hospital. Then I went down to Sydney and I did a course in tropical medicine because I was still going back to Malaya in those days, because I wanted to know more about tropical medicine,
I was going back to the tropics. The day that I graduated from the University of Sydney in tropical medicine was the day they had the special riots in Malaysia. May the 13th. That was the day of my airline ticket, but all the airlines had been stopped from flying because of the riots, so I was stranded in Australia, so I had to get a job.
So I went to the EMA [Emergency Medical Attendant] and asked them for a job. They asked me what I had been doing, I told them I had just finished my diploma in tropical medicine, and I couldn’t go back to Malaya because of the troubles. They said, "We just had a job come in yesterday, for a doctor in Rabaul in New Guinea. He just died and his wife would like a locum, with a view of buying his practice." That was in '68, '69.
Then I said, "All right, I will go up for a month." And I stayed there ten years.
So just going back a little bit, did you parents come over for your graduation?
No, I didn't actually attend my graduation, I went home after the exams before I started working in the Royal Brisbane.
So that must have been a real achievement for you to get through that initial degree?
Yes, it was hard work, medicine is a difficult course.
It is not intelligent, it is difficult.
What do you mean by that?
In medicine, there is not much analytical thinking, it is more didactic. In other words you just get taught and you just have to remember and you just have to hit the books and keep reading it and remembering. There is nothing brilliant, there is no Einstein factor in there. Somebody tells you the facts and you just study it.
So what did you find most difficult about your degree?
Just having the willpower to sit down and read the books.
So in the tropical medicine diploma that you did, what was distinctive about that for you?
The course in tropical medicine…..more people die from tropical diseases than we really understand. There are things like malaria, and psoriasis, and many…
gastro-enteritis and things like that. We just studied them. We just learned many life cycles, how to interrupt it, how to treat the people, how to stop the infections, how to stop the transmission…
And what was interesting about that to you?
It is part of medicine and I was going to go back to the tropics. And I wasn't very
(UNCLEAR) with tropical medicine, that's why I did an extra courses, because I was going to end up in the tropics anyway.
So what did you think of New Guinea when you first got there?
It was an extremely exciting place before independence. In Rabaul, was the centre of there…what we would now call insurgents, they were rebelling against
the Australian colonial system. There was a tribe called the Matungans [?], who murdered the British district commissioner and they started taking arms, so there was strife again, but it wasn't to any organised scale.
Did you feel threatened at all?
Fortunately the people liked me, and they left me alone,
most of the time. I think they were trying to agitate for independence.
So can you describe your working environment there and what you had to do when you first got there?
In New Guinea in those days there were a lot of expatriates. Ninety percent of my patients were expatriates. It was just like a normal practice in Australia in those days, except because it was out in the bush, in a different country,
you had to everything from delivering babies to surgery. There wasn't much geriatrics because there wasn't old people there, most people that retired came back to Australia. So it was like a general practice in a country town in Australia, that's how I would describe it, in an exotic setting.
Can you describe that exotic setting?
Rabaul is a beautiful area. It's a town built around the harbour of a volcano.
Rabaul Harbour is a big round harbour in the middle of a volcanic area, which actually was volcanic and recently erupted again. We lived on the water, and you would just walk out in the morning and have a swim, you could dive and get a fish, there were coconut trees and it was very pleasant.
What were the limitations for you, medical-wise?
Well, I wasn't a trained surgeon so I did emergencies like appendix and hernias and things like that, but anything more serious than that had to be sent back to Australia, or sent to a surgeon. Delivering babies, you learn to do caesarean section if it was an emergency, otherwise you just delivered them vaginally.
So what were some of the difficulties for you? Because you were still a relatively young doctor…
Even though we were trained and taught, we were never exposed to such an extent to be able to do this proficiently, but it was a matter of either you do this or the patient doesn't survive.
This was actually what happened in the Australian bush as well, it was very difficult to get specialists, there weren't many specialists in those days…
So what were some of the cases that were disturbing for you early on?
In New Guinea? I can remember a patient of mine dying from pneumonia and I couldn’t stop it, that was a bit traumatic, she was young.
In retrospect I wonder if I could have done more, but in those days all we had was penicillin and streptamison, and there wasn't much more you could do. Delivering a twin, we had lots of problems with the second one. It was very traumatic for a young doctor.
So in those situations were you trying to read up on ways that you could get through that? Or how did you approach those early situations?
We had been trained to do it. We had actually done terms in it, and we just did it.
So you felt prepared for it?
Yes. You know what to do, even though you haven't done many of them before, you had to do it.
And did you have nursing staff with you there?
Yes, there were Australian nurses up there in those days as well. The whole hospital was run by Australian. It wasn't too bad.
So who did you socialise with?
Mainly the expatriate population. There were three or four thousand expatriates in Rabaul itself, and in the plantations around. It was quite a big community there.
So you must have enjoyed it to stay there that long?
Yes, it was. It was fun.
What about it did you enjoy?
Well, we worked hard and when I finished working we could go diving and sailing and fishing…
water skiing, all the sports that were available, flying aeroplanes.
Did you meet your wife there?
Yes, I met Margaret there.
Can you tell us how that came about?
I think it was at a party. We just met at a party in Rabaul, and we got married there. And a few years later when they had independence we came back.
What was she doing up there?
I think she went to see her boyfriend.
So she wasn't working in the area?
She was working in one of the departmental stores, in charge of the ladies wear, in Rabaul, Burns Phillip.
So was it hard to adjust to life back in Australia for you when you came back?
No, we came back to Brisbane, and before I could be processed into the army, I had a few months doing locums around there, but fortunately in those days the medical fraternity was quite small and you knew most people.
So how did you come to join the army and why did you want to do that?
I thought I would do surgery, but when we came back in the middle of the year, the training program was already in process, so I couldn't join the training program. I rang up one of my mentors, Peter Grant, and Peter said, "Well, we've got to wait before we can get you onto a training program. Why don't you join the army for twelve months to fill the time in?" In those days, they were very short of medical officers during Vietnam, so I thought I would join for twelve months,
and I stayed for twenty years. It was a long twelve months.
So you were waiting to do training in another area?
Yeah, I was going to do surgery when I came back from New Guinea, because I wanted to be more confident with surgery, but it just turned out that I joined the army instead.
Can you tell us about your training in the army and what was involved there?
We joined, when you joined as doctors and nurses or lawyers or whatever, you joined directly into what was called 'the Direct Entry Officers Course.' For us it was…Canungra for eight weeks. They taught us everything, how to march, military law, tactics, leadership, all the different courses you had to do to become an officer, and at the end of that you graduated as an officer into the army,
and that took eight weeks.
Was it difficult for you to adjust to the army culture?
I think my previous life, being used to be regimented, after the war, accepting things as they come. And the army disciplinary methods, I just accepted as part of life, and I just fell into the routine.
Like everybody else, the difficult part was speaking the army language, because for a while you just didn’t understand what was being said. Speaking in hieroglyphics and abbreviations and dots and dashes…but after a while, you just wrote and thought the way the army does, it was part of the training.
Canungra was pretty tough. Did you find the training hard?
Physically it was
quite demanding, especially the…but it was not dangerous. And once you realised it was not dangerous, you just do it. You might be jumping barbed wire, or you might be jumping from a tower into the cold stream, there was always a diver in the bottom in case you can't swim, he'll pull you out. But once you know that nothing is going to happen to you and you've got faith in your fellow soldiers, you do it.
After you done it, it gives you confidence. That's why it was called the confidence course.
And what about the other people on the course? Where were they from and how did you make friends?
There were all…there was a journalist. I think he works for the Courier Mail now. There were a couple of nurses, a couple of lawyers,
a couple of scientists and three doctors. And we all got on well.
So how would a day unfold at Canungra for you?
Gee, I can't remember now. We got up early, we did our drills in the morning, then we did our lectures on various topics, then demonstrations and more drill, then adjoin to the bar.
And was the social aspect of it important do you think?
Yes. It was good for knowing your other colleagues…and bonding.
So after your initial training at Canungra, what happened for you then?
Then I was posted to our different units.
And the first unit that you went to?
Was the First Military Hospital here in Brisbane, at Yeronga.
So what sort of things would you do there?
I was a medical officer there and I treated all the soldiers like at any other hospital. We did surgery there as well. It was just like a hospital, we had specialists, consultants, and I was one of the RMs [RMO, Regimental Medical Officer], medical officers that did the day-to-day work.
So after being in such a hectic environment, in charge of a facility in New Guinea, was it difficult to adjust to the work that you were doing in the army?
No, you just returned to hospital work, and the next posting was to the field ambulance, which was like hospital work but on wheels and in vehicles and you had to follow the brigade around.
It was like doctoring but under different conditions. Different, what we called echelons of doctors. For a while, I spent some time with one of the Infantry battalions, 8/9th Royal Australian Regiment, as RMO in their battalion, I looked after the soldiers in their battalion and we had a little RAP, Regimental Aid Post, where you treated soldiers and every time you went on exercises
or wherever they were deployed to, the RMO would take his kit and caboodle and his soldiers and follow the battalion. So that was the RAP [Regimental Aid Post]. So the next level is the field ambulance, where you have a series of ambulances and resuscitation bays so you could follow the battalions and the RMO would treat the patient initially and hand him back to field ambulance for transport and resuscitate them and bring them back to hospital.
It was the different levels that we practised continually, from the RAP in the battalions to the field ambulances to the field hospitals.
So what would happen in the ambulance part of it?
The field ambulance…if the patient gets shot in the battlefield, the RMO from the battalion will patch him up and give him first aid and resuscitate him, then this will continue with the field ambulance,
we will actually have a little tent there to make sure he is not bleeding. If he is bleeding, drop a line in and give him fluids and blood and keep him alive, then ship him back to field hospital where he can be operated on. So it just a continual flow of patients. They've been using this for centuries now, this system.
How different is what you practise there to what you do outside the army?
There are lots of things that are different. For a start, you don't have nice surgery to work out of. The poor RMO has wickerbaskets full of his bandages, and medication. And the field ambulance is always moving, so they have to resuscitate on the move. And the field hospital is more static, so you will be able to do more things there.
And some of the other things that are different for you in that area?
The difference is you never treated one patient right through, you only treated a patient on the way through, and pass on. So you treat him once, you do your best, then you hand him to the next person, so everything has to be standardised. If you are going to give him an injection of morphine, you make sure that it is documented that he has had it at such and such a time, because the next doctor will not know he has had it and might give him another one, and then there might be an overdose.
So everything is standardised, the equipment is standardised, and whichever unit you go to, everything should be in the right position, it doesn't matter where you are in different locations, it is standardised throughout the whole army. The doctor in a field ambulance or a field hospital or RAP, he should know where things are.
You said that has been standard for years. Did anything of those processes change from World War Two to Vietnam?
Yes, they did. Because the field ambulances were deployed to Vietnam, but most of the times they were overpassed by the helicopters, with the invention of the helicopters. So they just bypass the field ambulance. Now the field ambulance does not exist anymore. It has been taken off the order of battle in the Australian army. So medical evacuation is now the…much more modern.
But the theory is the same. You can be passed through different hands, so your procedures have to be standardised. And this is what the medical corps have to do.
So were there courses in place to change from field ambulances to medical evacuations? At that time, medical evacuations were becoming bigger when the Vietnam War was on?
It wasn't quicker, it was bigger. The whole idea is to get the
patient to the operating table as soon as possible. Remember, in the First World War they had hospital trains and donkeys and carts and stretchers, but all that has improved now.
So when the helicopters came in, did that bring in new courses?
Yes, we had to do medivac courses for the helicopters. That was part of the training, I forgot to mention that,
and the DEO [Defence Equity Organisation] as well as part of the medical corps training, to be able to handle patients. To bring them on, resuscitate them on board, take them off at the other end, how you approach the helicopter, it was part of the courses that we do. So I guess that is different from a civilian. You don't have to worry about how to approach a helicopter, the signs, when to come forward, when to go back…
And what other considerations in a medical evacuation in a helicopter?
I personally find it is very difficult to keep monitoring the patient on a chopper, you can hardly hear yourself talk. But I guess you can look at the patient and make sure he is breathing. It is even difficult to feel his pulse because of the vibration. So we've discussed this at length in the medical corps conferences.
Snatch and run is another approach, just grab them and get them out as soon as possible. Throw them in back and take them out, as opposed to resuscitating, maintaining the airway, blood pressure, all the way back.
What do you think is the better approach?
It depends on the circumstances. If you have time to resuscitate them before you put them on, it is better. But if you don't have time, under hot extraction, you just have to snatch and run.
And that is better than being left there to bleed to death.
So did you ever consider going to Vietnam?
No, I was a bit late, because I was in New Guinea when Vietnam was on. When I joined the regular army they were pulling out already, so I never went to Vietnam.
And what were you hearing about the experiences in Vietnam?
Extremely good for the medical corps. They learnt a lot, the surgeons, from the war experience
in Vietnam that they never had anywhere else.
What sort of things did they learn?
Gunshot wounds, mine injuries, trauma, burns, things that you see in any war. We lost a lot of expertise after Vietnam, as people retired.
Did they come back and pass on these stories to you?
We always learned…they would give talks, "This is what we did in situations." Like I did when I came back. I lectured to army doctors for a while when I was in the army, new doctors in the DEO courses. I taught them how to treat wounds in different situations.
Interviewee: John Teh Archive ID 2481 Tape 02
….the Field Ambulance. What happened then?
I was posted to Singleton Infantry Centre, to look after the medical centre, there was an RAP, a little minor hospital. And we packed up. The furniture had already gone and we hopped in the car, we were just driving off and it was Colonel James saying to me, "Don’t bother stopping
at Singleton, keep driving to Canberra. We've just changed your posting." That is what is called a late posting order. So that's how I ended up in Canberra.
And you had become a father at this stage, how did that change life for you?
We had one child when we came back from New Guinea, then we had a daughter when I was at military hospital. They were quite happy to drift along. As I said, I actually saw a psychologist to make sure they were robust enough to take the moving around, and reckoned they were.
What they lost in the formal education, they picked up in meeting people in other locations. So we went to Canberra and I did a job there as colonel of Professional Services in the Directorate of Army Health.
And what did that job involve?
The colonel of Professional Services is in charge of the medical standards for the whole of the Australian army.
And my job was to make sure that these standards were adhered to. Write policy, vaccinations, what they needed when they were deployed overseas. Malaria prophylactics, policy on various medical problems. Whether that person should be allowed into the army if he is an epileptic or whether he should be kicked out of the army. I was the final arbitrator on whether this would happen.
Was the army responsive to things that you didn't feel were up to standard?
We set the standard, the standard was set by a committee of experts. It was my job to enforce it or alter it was necessary. It was a good system.
So what were some of the new approaches coming in at this point?
We had to debate whether sunglasses should be allowed into the army,
and there was a special type of glasses that went dark in the sun. I can't remember the name…I didn't think it was a good idea. These were the sort of decisions that we had to make.
So why didn't you think it was a good idea?
I was wearing them myself when I found it took some time
for the monochromatic lenses to clear up after you came into a dark room, and in an operational sense you wouldn't be much good. That extra few minutes could be very important. If you're going to wear sunglasses, you wear sunglasses, and not ones that change automatically.
So there was an issue about bringing sunglasses into the uniform, was there?
No, you needed sunglasses. We issued all soldiers deployed to certain areas, like deserts
in the Gulf War with sunglasses, because they needed them to protect their eyes. But whether we needed these fancy ones that changed by themselves was debatable.
I can imagine that is quite a big decision in the army when something like that comes up…
Yes. We had eye specialists, ophthalmologists consultants with the army, and we asked their opinion, then it was up to the directorate
to make up their mind as to which advice to take and implement it. So it is not a one-man decision. We employ consultants to give us advice, then work it from there.
So this is really within the bureaucracy, this job?
Yes, it was a desk job in Canberra. Most jobs in Canberra are?
And how did that change life for you, doing a desk job?
I didn't like it much.
But that is part of life. Fortunately General James heard that I passed part one of my surgical fellowship, by myself, because I was bored out bush and I started reading books and sitting exams. He said, "Would you like to finish your surgical training in England." I said, "Oh sir, I can't afford it." He said, "No, we will send you." And I said, "Oh yeah, that would be fine if you could." So my next posting was
seconded to the British army in the UK [United Kingdom], where I underwent specialist surgical training.
So what was involved in that?
It is a standard format to become a specialist, you become a registrar. You operate, you get taught, you study, you sit for exams, and if you are fortunate enough to pass it, then you get given a fellowship in the College of Surgeons, and then you are a specialist.
So where did you stay when you were over there? Did you take the whole family?
Yes. We were very fortunate in being posted there, the whole family flew over, and we had a house in Aldershot, and I spent the first year at Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot, and the second year I was posted to the Queen Elizabeth Second Military Hospital in London itself.
I left the family at Aldershot because they were attending school then. And I commuted back at weekends.
How did Margaret feel about going to England?
She didn't like it much at first, but in the end she didn't want to come home.
So what were some of the significant memories for you of that experience?
It was good training that the British army had, because it was all round training. In their general surgery
they did everything from neurosurgery to thorasic surgery to orthopaedic surgery, which stood me in good standing when you are deployed in peace-keeping operations. You are able to do a big variety of operations.
What about the English surgeons? Did you connect with them well?
I made very good friends there. I caught up with them in the Gulf War, and in Rwanda as well, many years later.
It was like a big family of medical officers in the army.
So what is unique about being trained as a surgeon in military?
There is really not much difference between being trained as a surgeon in the military or in civilian, because our training was part of the Civilian College of Surgeons, whether they be in London or Edinburgh or Australia. We do the same training
as the civilians do, but as I said, in peace time in civilian you tend to specialise in certain narrow areas. But being a military surgeon, you have to have a wide experience of different specialities because you have to cope. You may not have an orthopaedic surgeon with you, you may not have a neurosurgeon with you. I remember in Rwanda, there was several machete wounds to the head that I had to deal with. So I was quite happy
to deal with it because I've done it before in a British system.
So in that training did you do military exercises?
No. I actually concentrated more on getting the exams before I came back to Australia. I did not go on their exercises.
Was it different working in their system?
They're very much the same system as ours,
because we are an offshoot of the British system, rank, structure, everything is the same.
Was it all theory or did you do practice as well?
It was mainly practice. I was operating there everyday. You learnt by yourself in a specialist post-graduate situation. You just have lots of practice,
So who were you working on?
In the British system they had,
not like the Australian system, they can treat the general public. And because it was a military hospital, as opposed to the NHS, National Health Scheme, the military hospital had better equipment and they were more popular with the general population. Lots of people just walked off the street into a military hospital. We don't do that in Australia, we don’t have the facilities. But they're just like any other hospital in England, except they are run completely by the army.
So do you remember any significant cases that you had while you there?
Oh yes. I remember some soldiers from England being sent back to me, when I was doing orthopaedics. They were in German, this is during the height of the Cold War. They were a pretty tough battalion, their battalion, and they were doing push-ups in the snow with no shoes and no gloves on. So I ended up lopping
lots of little toes and little fingers off. They were all frost-bitten.
How was that difficult for you? How did you approach it?
Well, I had a mentor there. In training, you always had a consultant, you had the registrar, and in cases that you were not too sure of, I would get the consultant and he would say this is what you should do. That was part of the training.
And he taught me what to do, and "We can't save any. Take the toes off."
Having that much medical training, does anything that comes in like that, how do you respond to it emotionally, or even physically?
I think you get hardened. You get upset, everybody gets upset. You get hardened to it, and you just accept it as part of life.
You see horrible things, and that is what affected a lot of our younger soldiers when we deployed.
Yes. Everywhere we deployed.
But in those early days for you, do you think you were hardened by the time you got to military hospital?
Remember I had been a doctor for about eighteen years by that stage. And being a doctor,
you see a lot of trauma and death and sadness. So you get hardened. I wasn't young, I was older than the average soldier. And I'd seen more than the average solider as far as this was concerned. I wouldn't say I was hardened, nobody gets hardened that much, but you build a defensive barrier.
So what was the challenge in that work?
Crossing from being a doctor to a surgeon?
Learning to be a surgeon, you just have to learn how to co-operate and cope with whatever situation arises. That was a challenge. Every operation was a challenge. Things can happen. People can bleed,
the anatomy can be different, you can cut something you don't intend to cut. So the whole training is to minimise this inadvertent effect…they teach you simple things, like make sure there is good lighting, a good assistant to keep the blood away so you can see what you are doing, keep the field of operation dry, keep the patient alive, know when to stop, when to pull out. It is all part of the training.
And how did you kids adjust to that experience?
In England? They loved it. My son went to school in England, and so did my daughter. Yeah, it was good for them. As I said, what they missed out in formal education, for continuity in education rather, there was formal there, they picked up by meeting other people and different attitudes and making new friends.
Were they resistant to going in initially?
No, they were quite young. About seven and three.
And what about your accommodation? What was the house like?
The house was extremely good. We were given one of the British army houses, centrally heated, they had their own rooms. It was very comfortable.
And can you describe the medical facility? I think you said you worked in two?
Yes, one in London and one in Aldershot. They were extremely proficient, well-equipped and well run hospitals. They just happened to be military hospitals.
So could you give us a walk through the hospital? That facility?
The thing that stuck in my mind was, this was at the height of the Irish troubles, the alert was from moderate to high, and this was the first time that I had seen armed guards in a military hospital. Normally, we don't have armed guards in hospitals, not in Australia. But we had armed guards and we had to go through ID [identification] checks.
The hospital buildings themselves…the British Medical Corps is so old, it was quite incredible, some of the things they had. The operating theatre that we were operating was over a hundred years old, and bits of plaster was falling off the roof in places. The officers’ mess was incredible in that there were artefacts that the medical officers have collected from all the various wars of the British Empire.
I remember a clock there in the officers’ mess at Aldershot. It was an intricately carved gold clock. It was given by the Emperor of France to the Emperor of China during the Boxer Rebellion. I think one British Indian battalion sacked the palace, and a British medical officer from the battalion
walked in and found this lovely clock there and told his adjutant, "Pick it up and take it in my cabin on the ship. And to this day…I don't know whether it is still there now, but it was there in my day. It was priceless, they couldn't put a price on it. The company that made the clock still existed, and every six months they would send a person over to service the clock free of charge, and all he could do
was admire it. It was shaped like a lotus leaf, and every half an hour or quarter of an hour the lotus leaves would open, and out would come a ballerina and go around and then it disappeared and closed up again. It was priceless. They had a whole room full of silver, liberated, collected from the various wars. It was very full of history, very exciting.
What did you think of that?
In those days, I guess it was the spoils of war. You pick up a souvenir like that. You pick up a pistol from a German prisoner of war and took it home for a souvenir. They've been doing that for centuries, and they've all got all this silverware and candelabras…there wasn't the marbles from Greece, but it was a post from Egypt
and it stood in the mess as well, in the front door, it was most interesting.
Did they observe any ceremonies that you weren't used to?
No, they were much the same as us, the dining in, toasting the Queen and the regiment, the same as ours.
Were there any surgeons there that you particularly admired? That were mentors to you?
Jack Cool was an orthopaedic surgeon, he was my consultant when I was in the Second Hospital. That is where I met the Queen Mother, at her hospital, when she came around. She was a nice lady.
How did that come about?
It was her hospital, it was named after her and she did a visit one day. I was lined up in the resident ward and I was introduced to her
by Brigadier Cool. "This is Colonel Teh from Australia." And we had a chat. She was a short lady, she was not tall. She was quite short really, I didn't realise how short she was.
What did you talk to her about?
Brigadier Cool said, "Colonel Teh has been here for sixteen months and he has already got a fellowship from our colleges." She said,
"Oh dear, that must have been difficult." And we just chatted. She was quite switched on.
Who was the mentor that you were talking about?
He was an orthopaedic surgeon. He invented several bits of orthopaedic bits of equipment that I still use.
Can you describe some of those?
There was a tool that you put into a cylinder, everything fitted in there, and you could carry it just like…
When you had a broken leg, you just dismantled it and screwed it together, put a couple of screws into the leg and you fixed it. It was called the 'external fixator.' And he invented this, this portable…rather than a great big splint that you would see, the Thomas Splint, he invented this thing.
So obviously that would be great in a military situation?
Oh yes, yes. Now it has been copied and done everywhere now.
We've got it here as well.
What were some of the other things that he invented?
I can't remember now, that was the only one that stuck in mind.
What sort of person was he?
He was a nice bloke, old Jack. A nice bloke. He was very experienced and very nice.
So how did it come time for you to come back to Australia?
It was good. I wanted to come home and get a bit of sunshine, and move on, as part of life.
So where did you get posted to then?
As commanding officer of the military hospital here where I started off. I was there for a short time, then I was sent off as commanding officer of the field ambulance.
So you had moved up quite a bit through the ranks by then.
What sort of leadership style did you adopt in higher ranks?
I listened, made a decision and acted on it. I took advice. I tried to lead by example, which is what we had been taught to do. It was very hard when you're forty or fifty years old, leading eighteen and nineteen year old kids, running up and down hills
and up and down ropes. Get the smallest guy to lift and carry him. I tried to lead by example.
On the whole, how did the younger guys respond to you?
Well, when they see the boss down there doing push up and chin ups and running with them, I'm not a good runner, that is my worst part.
I tried to be in front of them, but it was hard. But they'd respect that.
What was your role as the CO [Commanding Officer] there?
To make sure that everything went smoothly. As commanding officer of the hospital, that the standards were adhered to and discipline was kept and that we fulfilled our roles, whatever we were given to do.
Were there any challenges to you with the younger men? Any guys that didn't cope with it?
Well, the military has everything compartmentalised. If somebody doesn’t cope, you know exactly what to do with him. He has to be counselled and talked to and explained what to do next and given a trial. And again, if he doesn't make it after a few attempts, we just try to find another job for him. It was a route, that everything was laid out pretty plainly.
If you follow the rules you can't really make many mistakes leading.
So any memories of that time, of difficulties in that job?
No. It was a nice job.
And how long were you there?
I was there about a year and then I was posted across to the field ambulance?
And how long were you there?
I was with the field ambulance for two years, and then after…
Now where did I go from there? I went to do my Australian Fellowship, I took eighteen months off, and during that time I was sent to the Gulf War. When I came back from the Gulf War I was sent to Sydney then.
Can you tell us that experience of going to the Gulf War? How that came about? How you got there?
As I said, I was on long service leave,
and study leave to do my Australian exams for the Fellowship, and then after that I had a phone call saying that, "We need you in Kuwait." I said, "When do I leave?" They said, "Next week." So that came up pretty quickly.
How did you feel about that initial phone call?
Margaret got it. She said, "Canberra is on the phone for you," and I knew what was happening and that was it. So I said, "Okay, I will report in." I reported in and I put on my uniform and I left.
Did you want to go?
Oh yes, you always want to go. You join the army to do something different, that is what you join the army for. It was a great experience being commander officer of units, and leadership forces and…you really join the army to do something useful, so you jump at the opportunity.
So after the call, what happened then?
We had to have all these vaccinations. At that stage, we didn't know what Saddam had. The intelligence wasn't really good. So we had to be vaccinated against everything, including plague and some injections I don't even know what I had. So we lined up for all these, we got injected, and then we had to attend a pre-embarkation briefing, it was in Sydney before we went.
What did they tell you at the briefing?
Something about the country, what is happening, what we intended to do, where you would be posted, what they expect you to do….
And what did they expect you to do?
It was quite easy. I was posted to the USS Comfort, which is an American hospital ship, so we didn't have to do any arms drill at all. We weren't even armed as a matter of fact, we didn't carry any weapons at all on the ship,
because it was a declared hospital ship. And hopefully once you declare it, you are a non-combatant. The lights were on all the time, and you don’t have to be camouflaged. You're painted white, with big red crosses, and you're declared non-combatant and nobody should be armed there.
So how did Margaret feel about that?
We didn't know what was happening. There was all the publicity,
we thought he had weapons of mass destruction, gas, we didn't know what to expect. That was the worst part. Not knowing was the worst part, that was what got Margaret nervous, and it was on television everything morning, which didn't really enthuse her very much.
So how did you placate her in that situation?
I wasn't here.
She was by herself, the kids were in boarding school then. The mail wasn't really good. It took weeks and weeks before we got any mail, and that was the only thing we could do. There was a total news blackout. There was no telephones, nothing. That wasn't any good.
Was it a tearful farewell to Margaret?
Yes, it was. She was crying, but she was fine.
Where did you leave from?
I left from the Brisbane Airport, I went straight to Sydney. We were embarking from Sydney so everybody had to congregate. We gathered in Sydney.
Who was going over with you?
I was by myself from here, but on the plane I met the orthopaedic surgeon and the anaesthetist. No, we left from Brisbane Airport, I was the only one. Didn’t meet anyone, I just hopped on the plane and left.
Where did you go first?
I went to Sydney, then we had pre-embarkation induction and training.
And you flew over to…
Yes, we flew over to Bahrain, on the last civilian flight to Bahrain. After that, all the flights were stopped. They waited for us, as soon as we arrived we hopped on the ship and then the war started.
And what do you remember of arriving in Bahrain
and your impressions of the place?
It was just like any other international airport. All these civilian people with short haircuts and all the same bags. We weren't in uniform, but obviously they knew we were in the Military, with the same bags and all the same bags.
And your first impressions of the Comfort?
It was huge. We already some of our team on board.
They had been sailing up and down for months before the actual war started, and I was lucky I didn't have to wait. I went straight on and the war started.
So how did the atmosphere change when the war started?
Everybody was a bit tense and excited that it finally started after the waiting…and one night I heard the
loudspeakers say, "Anchors ahoy," whatever they say, then the anchors lifted and we moved. Then we sailed right up to Kuwait, we didn’t stop, we weren't allowed to stop. All the ships in our convoy went around and around in circles, just to keep moving, to keep ticking over. If you dropped anchor and you were attacked by his air force, then you were caught. But if you're moving, at least you can move.
So we went there and waited. Then when the air war started, as soon as the air war started….no, when the land war started we went right up to Kuwait, and we couldn't really see much because it was black. They set fire to all the oil wells, and every time it rained it was just oily rain, terrible pollution.
Could you hear anything of the war?
No, by the time we got to Kuwait, the army had pushed straight through. It was only a hundred hours or something, it didn't take very long.
The Comfort was an American ship. How did you find working for the Americans?
They had some different techniques, but much the same. Sterility is sterility, saving lives is saving lives, stopping a bleeder…it doesn't matter what language you speak, or which culture you come from.
But there were little things like, when we operate in Australia or Britain, we prepare, we sterilise the patient ourselves. In America, a nurse comes along and sprays them their antiseptic, then a surgeon walks in at the end after everything is done.
And what about their manner?
They were friendly enough, they were very friendly people.
You got on okay with the other surgeons?
Yes. The military is like a big family, especially the people who are at the front.
So you can describe the facilities there?
The Comfort? It was massive. In Brisbane we have twenty or thirty intensive care beds for the whole city of Brisbane. We had a thousand on board. A thousand intensive care beds.
They had CT [Computed Tomogragh, a specialised X-ray] scanners galore, which there is not too many around, and unit MRIs [Magnetic Resonance Imaging, electromagnetic X-ray] in those days. They were going to give us an MRI. It was the latest development at that stage of investigations, we couldn't use it. Because MRIs require a stable platform, the ship was gently rolling like this, so you could never get the magnetic field stabilised.
That's when I found…when we had the opportunity to go on the shore and saw one of their field hospitals…we had been trying to invent a field steriliser for many, many years here in Australia, and when I saw their field hospital and I saw this beautiful portable field steriliser, and I said to them, "Where did you get that from?" They said, "Everybody has got this. It's in the catalogue." So when I came back to Australia
I just ordered one and it popped up. We were trying to reinvent the wheel when it was already there for us.
So what was it exactly?
It was a NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] field steriliser, and all the NATO countries and allies could buy it.. And it was much cheaper than trying to develop. Our prototypes were too heavy, too unreliable, too big, small capacity,
it was just cheaper to buy it.
And what was their field hospital? Where was it and what was it like?
The field hospitals were scattered throughout the Middle East. They were like any other field hospitals, under tentage, with operating theatres and wards. Everything that a hospital has, but under tentage and it was mobile.
And what did you see of people being treated?
We didn't see many. I only treated one and it wasn't a war casualty…
We were told at the end of the war that we were going home because…there were a lot of Iraqis wounded, but we weren't allowed to treat them, because we were non-Halal, or infidels. We ate poor. So we left them to the Arab nations to treat the wounded people and we came home.
So what are some of the significant memories for you on the Comfort?
The immense size of the United States military. Everything that they had was just dwarfs us, immensely. The equipment that they have. We make do with lots of things. We're more frugal, but these people just have everything.
Can you describe a little bit more of what they did have that you didn't have back here?
A thousand intensive care beds, for a start.
They had everything that we have here on a grander scale in that boat. They could afford to put these two floating hospitals, sitting there, not doing anything for most of the time.
Can you describe the operating theatres that you worked in?
They were a good size operating theatres. I think there was twenty of them.
They were very well-equipped, there was twenty of them.
Twenty operating theatres on a ship? How did they do that? Where were they situated?
The USS Mercy is on one side of America, and the Comfort is on the other side. They were actually converted super tankers. They ripped the guts out of it, and dropped in the hospital.
Quite an incredible hospital.
So there were twenty operating theatres. Where were they situated within the ship?
I can't remember now. We drilled a lot…I think they were on the second flight down, because the patients had to come down by lifts, from the helicopter landing bays, to the operating theatres and then the intensive care.
And what about your accommodation?
We were put in the surgeons…they kept these fifty-six specialists on board, surgeons, including a gynaecologist or two and obstrastricians and neurologists. My particular cabin, there was seven other surgeons.
We were five or six flights down. And every day we had to practice being blindfolded and groping our way out, in case we get bombed and the electricity goes off. It is a harrowing experience, trying to grope your way up five stories. You have got to memorise the steps and where to go and what to do. If that steps was blocked, you had to memorise where the other steps are.
I don't know why, you'd think they have torches. We had to do this, this training every day, grope our way out…
And what about the space where you were sleeping?
It was just bunks. I was on the top bunk and there was a guy below me. Six of us in double bunks. Standard bunks you see in American movies where they push them up when they're finished.
How did you find living on a ship?
It was all right I suppose. It was better than living in the bush, I suppose, at least we had toilets. In the army, we had to dig our own holes. On the ship, we had a toilet.
And who were you sharing with in that situation?
Five other American guys.
There was a surgeon and a pathologist and other people.
And how did you get on with them?
Yeah, fine. All American ships are dry. No alcohol. But amazing how these guys can find alcohol.
Interviewee: John Teh Archive ID 2481 Tape 03
In terms of preparations for going to the first Gulf War, you said that you had an idea that you might be going. Can you tell us when you first thought that that might be possible, and what sort of preparations you had seen in the lead up to going?
As I said, I had been on long service and study leave, so I wasn't in uniform at that stage, but because I was regular army they could have recalled me at any time and they did.
I was given a few days to get my affairs together and do my will, which everybody has to do, then heaps of vaccinations, including plague and all the things that I mentioned, and things we don't even know about, which is controversial at present, because we were given injections…I can prove we were given injections,
but there is no record of having been given it. And since I've been back I've been applying to [the Department of] Veterans’ Affairs for Gulf War Syndrome, and this has been going on for three or four years now. It's a bit controversial, whether there is such a thing as Gulf War Syndrome, but they do admit that there was something wrong with my arms and legs, intermittently, they have no answer as to what it was.
And they're still having an ongoing investigation, whether I should be awarded Gulf War Syndrome or not, because I don't believe that Australia really accepts that there is such a thing as Gulf War Syndrome.
Can you tell us a little bit more about that, and what you believe it is?
Well, when I first came back from the Gulf War, a few years later, a year or two later, I started to notice that I would suddenly get pain in my legs and my toes and intermittently in my arms and elbows,
and I just thought I was getting old and I had gout, so I started treating myself for gout, and it didn't work, so I did a few investigations and it wasn't gout. I saw my physician for further investigations and he said, "There is definitely something wrong with you. I don't know what it is." So I applied for recognition for the fact I suffered something from the Gulf War, and overseas had been calling it
Gulf War Syndrome. So the Veterans’ Affairs investigated me and admitted there was something wrong and they didn't know what it was and they rejected me because they couldn't give me an answer. I appealed against this, and they restated the claim again and reinvestigated me again and rejected it again, and I appealed again, and they admitted again that there was something wrong and they were going to investigate it further. It has been going on for three or four years now,
and I don't have time to chase it up.
So what do you believe the Gulf War Syndrome is and what it is caused by?
Well, I read the literature. Gulf War Syndrome is said to be due to the depleted uranium which was used for the shells. As they exploded it was vaporised and it was blown back onto us, into the oily clouds, and we just got drenched with it, not that I was out there much. I don't know whether I have got Gulf War Syndrome or not,
but I know that there is something wrong, and nobody can give me an answer, and that is why I applied for it. They will come to the end of it sooner or later.
What about the vaccinations that you received?
Yes, that was another thing that concerned me. Because I can remember distinctively lining up on board the American ship and all the Australians, we all lined up and we all got vaccinated by one of our colleagues,
who still works here, and I said, "What is that you're giving us." He said, "I don't know. They told me it was flu." And I looked in my vaccination book and there was nothing stamped in it. We just don't know what it was. We were just ordered to take it, to be given it.
So there was no choice about that?
No. I've read the controversies in the second Gulf War, but in the first Gulf War we just lined up and got it. Most of the soldiers did, I guess.
And as a medical specialist, can you tell us about the possible side effects of a vaccination perhaps, that you don't know what it was?
Well, vaccinations are made out of various components of the virus or the bacteria or whatever it is, and we don't know what we were given, so it is very hard to say what side effects you will get. You can get reactions to anything.
How does it make you feel that you were not informed about what you were receiving?
We were informed that we were getting flu injections, or words to the effect, but when you look at the documentation there is nothing in it. It may have been an oversight, we made have had flu vaccinations, I don't know.
Do you believe you were receiving vaccinations for other things?
I don't know. I really don't know…we didn't question it.
It never entered our mind to question it. We were just told…
When you received that phone call and you were given a few days to pack up, how much did you know about what was happening in the Gulf at that time.
All we had was what we saw in the newspapers. And there was quite horrendous reports that he had germ warfare and he had gas, he had didn't have atomic weapons, he was prepared to use them,
and he had set fire to the oil wells. It was a very much unknown quantity that we were going into.
And that obviously concerned your family. What about yourself? How concerned were you about your safety?
Well, we were supposed to be a non-combatant. We were declared, and we let the enemy know who we are and we weren't war-like.
We were out of the war completely. Even then I wasn't too happy that Saddam would stick to his side of the Geneva Convention. It was a bit worrying, especially when you had to do your evacuations blindfolded. I remember standing on deck one day and one of the jets broke
the sound barrier above us, and the heart beat a bit faster, because you don't know what it was, whether it was a missile or whatever. I was told after the war that they did fire a Silkworm, a guided missile, aimed at the USS Missouri, which was five miles on the other side of us, because the Silkworm was not a very sophisticated instrument. It picked up the biggest target, which I believe was us.
But fortunately they shot it down before it got anywhere near us. We weren't told this.
You said that a jet broke the sound barrier one day. Can you describe that for us a little bit in some detail? What you saw and heard?
I didn't see anything, because it was just black, the sun was behind oil smoke, and I was alone and it was dark on the deck,
and all of a sudden there was this great big boom, and I assumed it was one of the jets breaking the sound barrier, but I didn't know whether we were being attacked. The biggest problem with the first Gulf War was the news blackout. The only way we could get news was to get a little transistor, climb up to the top deck and tune in to the BBC [British Broadcasting Commission] or ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] or whatever we could get hold of. There was a complete news blackout. The second Gulf War was entirely different, they had embedded journalists.
And how did that affect you, that news blackout?
News is terribly important to any soldier, I believe, especially when you are out there. You want to know what is happening, get an idea what is happening. Especially the family at home, you don't know what is happening. I suppose it is a two-edged sword. The enemy will know what you are doing, too, if you don't have a news blackout. News is important.
Letters and news. I think that is well known, we've got to learn our lessons from that.
So before you left Australia, what were you told about what your role would be?
Our role was to support the Australian navy and personnel, by being seconded to the Americans. Every time you deploy, you must have medical support. We didn't have a hospital ship, we didn't have the facilities to support our people,
so we were seeded onto the Americans to form part of the support force for our troops.
And what about your own personal position in that group?
I was sent as a specialist surgeon. I didn't have command worries, I just went there as a military surgeon.
And what were you told about how long you were likely to be there?
I was a regular army officer and I was posted there. The posting order was until the end of the war. We weren't sure how long the war would last. But my army reserve colleagues turned up with return tickets in their pockets, which was not very good for morale for the regulars because we knew after a certain time they were going to go home, and we were going to be left there.
Do you believe that you should have had some sort of return date?
No, no. As a regular soldier, I just did what I was told, but it was very hard for morale when you see your colleagues leave you behind. But fortunately the war ended before the first rotation occurred, so we all came home together.
When you had your briefings before going, did they give you any indication about the intelligence on how long the war was likely to last?
They did. But they were only estimates. Nobody expected it to end so quickly.
So what did they believe at that time?
Six months, maybe a year at the most, and we expected horrendous casualties. That's why we had such huge hospital ships there,
and field hospitals there, and we ended up having minimum casualties.
So you were going into that war..
Expecting the worst, yes.
And so you were leaving Australia and leaving your family for perhaps six months, and going into what was potentially a serious war. So what did you think about when you were leaving your family.
I was a bit sad,
but the excitement of going into something strange I guess compensated that. And also I had a lot of faith that…if you look at any wars, the majority of people do come home.
So you said that you were excited. Why were you excited?
I guess it was a boy thing, a macho [male] thing.
You were going to do what you had been trained to do for years, training for a war and this was it. You were part of the big machine. The mobilisation gets the adrenaline going.
Your concept of war? You had some experience of war, but what did you believe war would be like?
My concepts of war were actually pretty old fashioned,
and they were mainly centred around my personal experiences of the Second World War and the emergencies and rather traditional wars. Nowadays with modernisation, with increased military capabilities and sitting back and pressing buttons and demolishing somebody hundreds of miles away, chemical warfare, germ warfare, atomic warfare, I really had no idea…
My concept was still of the Second World War. You jump out and charge somebody, that sort of gung-ho stuff. In retrospect after being to these more modern type wars…I really didn't know what I expected.
As a non-combatant, what were your rules of engagement?
We didn't have much rules of engagement in the Gulf War, but there were…
It was different in Rwanda when we were actually on the ground. We had our rules of engagement there.
So in the Gulf War you didn't have any?
I can't remember having had any, because we weren't supposed to come face to face with contact. We were declared a non-combatant vessel.
And as a non-combatant vessel, were you armed?
No, we were not armed. The only people that were armed were the military police, so we were just in uniform without arms.
And what about preparations for that potential chemical and germ warfare?
Before you left Australia, what preparation were you given for that?
We have always been trained for chemical and biological warfare. We've had always had to train every year in our suits and theory on antidotes to this gas. And before we were deployed, we had another refresher course, we went to the gas chamber again.
And when we were on the warship we practised the defensive against chemical and biological warfare with the citadel system, which is a system where the whole ship shuts down and everybody is hunkered down inside the ship with their gas masks on and the filter is turned…the air is re-circulated with the filters. There are several techniques to keep the chemicals and the germs out
until we've washed it and sailed out of the area. It is a sealed system. So we trained in that quite frequently.
Can you describe that for us in some detail from the beginning? What would happen and what you would do during that system?
We would get the warning in the training of an impending gas attack. Possible gas attack - stage one, and
everybody would go to their station, whichever it was, I would be in the operating theatre and we would go up there and we would the stage one of the suits on, and then upgraded to stage two now, and for the next couple of ours you would be sitting there with a mask and respirator on, and you just sit there and wait. And then when it is declared safe again you could take everything off and go back to normal duties.
And what happens if you are in the middle of an operation?
It did occur to me when I was operating and this exercise came on, it was only an exercise so I just continued operating. But I don't know what would happen in a real situation.
What were you told about what to do in a real situation?
I think we were supposed to continue operating and get out as soon as we can.
So how well equipped were you for that kind of warfare?
In terms of actual physical equipment that you took with you or that you had?
We were issued it when we went on board ship. We were pretty well equipped with gas masks and respirators. I don't think we had noddy suits, just gas masks and respirators.
And as a doctor, knowing what you know about the side effects of those potential types of warfare,
was that something that particularly worried you?
Well, I did think about it. I guess I am worried about it, I didn't give it much thought. I guess I'm pretty fatalistic, if it's going to happen it is going to happen and all I can do is prevent it as much as I can. We had the right equipment, we had the injections, and we were prepared.
That is all you can expect to do. Train and be prepared. We'd done all that.
Exactly how much preparation did they give you regarding the actual culture and history of Iraq and what was happening there?
I don't think there was much talk about the culture of Iraq. We weren't given much information about that. We were just told that the country was made up of so many different peoples,
this was their main religion, the population numbers, the geography, the topography, the usual Intelligence stuff. There was not much culture talked about in the Gulf War as there was in the others.
And what about Saddam Hussein, what did you know about him and his army?
We expected to have much more resistance,
And that is why there was a massive build up and wait until everything was in place before we moved. So we gave him a lot of credibility for what he told us he had. So we weren't taking any chances.
Can you tell us about your very first impressions of when you first saw the Comfort?
Yes, "What a huge boat." It was a huge tanker.
Compared to the other warships, which were small, and this thing just stood out like a small thumb.
How many ships were located nearby when you joined the ship?
There were lots, because we had to travel half an hour to forty-five minutes by a launch to take us out to the Comfort, and we passed a lot of warships from a lot of different nationalities. Australian, Americans, Italians and British…
There were lots and lots of different ships, and small and fast and mobile ones compared to this big lumbering giant there.
Can you describe that scene for us?
It was like going for a cruise through a harbour except the boats were all warships bristling with weapons and electronic gear and we passed a command ship of the American navy.
It was like just a grey steel tomb with lots of antennas and arms, and in the middle of this was this great big white ship with a red cross on it, with people walking around and lights on.
What was it like for the first time to be in a real war-like situation?
I guess we had been to so many training exercises it was almost like another
training exercise. "All right, line up, do this, pick your gear up, go down. This where you bunk down. Report to here for a briefing, pick up your equipment here," etc. We had been doing it so often, it was just like training. I guess that is what the training is all about, so there were no surprises, and just accept that this was the real thing.
And at some point does it hit you that this is the real thing?
Yes, it hit me when the rain started and it was black, and that morning with the big boom across…as I said, the jet went over and I thought, "This is the real thing." And then to put on the blindfold and grope your way out, it drives it home that this is the real thing.
Why did you have to put on blindfolds?
If the ship was attacked and the generators and electricity goes off, and you down six stories in the bowels of the boat and you have got to get out,
there wouldn't be any electricity or lights, so you would have to grope your way out. There could be smoke, it could just be black. It is very dark without electricity down there.
So it was an exercise in finding your way out…
Yes, finding your way out, in case we got attacked and the power went out. We had these evacuation drills quite frequently. Grope your way out, then muster on deck in your group, names get called out, if there is anybody missing it was recorded.
So can you describe what it was like for you,
personally, to do one of those evacuation exercises, while blind-folded? What you would do from the beginning?
You would be in your room and they would say. "Right, you are next to do this." And they would put a blindfold on you and you start groping your way out. Grope, grope, grope. It gets claustrophobic. And if it's the real thing, and you're groping out to save your life…it's five stories to come up, finding your way to the steps and groping your way up.
It's quite an unnerving experience. I can understand why people get PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] doing this regularly.
And you mentioned black rain?
Yes, this was the oil that Saddam set fire on, and the smoke just went up and every time it rained you would get this oily water and it was black. I don't know what was in the smoke.
Whether it was oil or some of the containments or whatever.
And what was that like?
It was a very eerie experience. It's the middle of the day and you can't see the sun, and all this smell and the oil around you and this black stuff comes down on you and it's rain…
And were you wearing any protective clothing during that?
No, no, we didn't have any onboard.
And did you have any concerns about the potential side effects?
I didn't get exposed that much. I got caught out one or twice, but that wasn't much. I was more concerned about what we were breathing in, the odours and the smells were there….chemical smells. It must have been the oil.
And how did it make you feel?
We didn't give it much thought, we just got on with the work we were supposed to be doing and
just accepted it.
But physically smelling that smell and so forth, did it have any…
Fortunately when we went inside there was air-conditioning, so it wasn't so bad. It was only when we were outside, when we were doing our drills or ship evacuation drills that we had to stand around in this stuff.
Can you describe what the smell was like?
It was just like burning oil, rather than petrol. This oily smell
and feeling in the air.
The Comfort. Can you describe for us where things are and what exactly was on the ship?
The top deck was the helicopter landing deck, that is where the casualties would come.
They would be taken down the lifts, and if the lifts were not working, there was a ramp that you could carry the patients down. The next flight down was the triage, where the patients received who needs immediate operations or who is not going to make it, and from the triage you were taken you to the pre-op holding area and then the operating holding area.
On the other side of the operating holding area was the intensive care, and then the rest of the flights down were all the wards, thousands and thousands of beds, or wards. Our accommodation was below that, so we were five stories down. I always remember the long corridors we had to walk down, and there were lots of telegrams and
what we call 'herograms' now, along the passageways, and letters from home. Americans would send cakes and cookies to anybody on board. The kitchens, they were huge affairs. The laundries…everything was on a massive scale.
How many people on board?
I don't really know. Two thousand, three thousand, more…
And do your remember how many Australians you went over with?
I went over with about twenty-six or twenty-seven of us. There was about fifty or sixty of us on board.
And how many of you were surgeons?
Five of us were surgeons, three anaesthetists, nurses, medics and administrators.
What equipment did you take from Australia?
No equipment. Everything was supplied by the Americans. All we did was supply our uniforms, not even weapons, just uniforms.
And can you describe for us a typical day for you on board that ship? How it would begin and what you would do throughout the day?
There were various aspects of that ship…the time when the air war was on and we were circling gently around. We would have breakfast. The surgeons would be given a briefing on how the war went. A sanitised version.
Then after breakfast we would adjourn to our different areas of work, the operating theatre or whatever, then drill, all sorts of drills, evacuation drills, chemical warfare drills, operating emergency drills. They actually ran patients through the triage, they were done up as mock patients,
they went through to test the system, we did it every day and then the evenings after dinner, we would sit there, and because there were so many different specialities we would all give educational lectures to improve out techniques and have surgical discussions. So it was quite an interesting, busy day. And there was certain time out for PT [Physical Training] as well.
And do you remember any of the lectures being particularly useful?
Yes, I certainly do. We had always training on the British and Australia system. If you get shot in the stomach, you bring the bowel out as a colostomy. And the Americans were telling us, "Just join him, don't worry about it." If there was a bowel full of faeces, doesn't matter, just join him up. It was very radical to us. But since then I have been using it, I've been joining bowl up whether it was full of faeces or not.
They are more radical than we are.
So what are the advantages of doing it that way?
First of all you don't have this colostomy bag with faeces all the time, and you won't have another operation to join it up. You just clean it up the best you can, slosh it all out, trim the edges and join up the bowel, so the bowel is continuing. Rather than take a hole to side with a bag, you just join up the bowel.
If you do that, if you have a hole in the side, you have to have a further operation to join it up later on.
And why weren't the Australians and British people already doing that?
Traditionally, in the way we've been taught, because it is a contaminated area, if you get shot in the tummy, there is poo everywhere, there is faeces everywhere, and it is not good to join something up when it is contaminated. That is why we take it out, put them on antibiotics, let it all settle down
and then join it up, after you've cleaned the bowel out. The Americans had had a lot of experience at trauma, they said, "Just join it up. Wash it out, join it up, put him on antibiotics and they'll be fine." And I've been practising that. I believe that works, too.
And you've found that actually works better?
Yes, I have. I've used it several times since then.
And if you're not happy with it, they said you can wash the bowels out on the table, you actually clean the bowel out while you're on the table and then if you're happy that it's clean enough, then join it up. The Yanks didn't worry about that. They just joined it up.
And did you have gunshot wounds, stomach wounds on the Comfort?
No, not on the Comfort. The only thing we had there was when the ammunition…
turrets blew up and there was burns. That was the only trauma we had, otherwise we didn't do much at all.
Can you tell us about that incident?
It was just before I got there. One of the gun turrets caught on fire and people were severely burnt there. I think there were a couple of deaths as well.
So was it on board the Comfort that that happened?
No, it was on one of the warships.
So were you there to treat those patients?
No. They had burns specialists as well, on board the Comfort. They had everything that you could think of.
So could you tell us about all the different types of specialists?
There were neurosurgeons…a majority of orthopaedic surgeons and general surgeons. Orthopaedic surgeons to treat the broken bones, the general surgeons to treat the gun shot wounds, and there were neurosurgeons in case you got shot in the head.
Ears, nose and throat surgeons in case you got shot in the face, every speciality that you can think of. It was a really impressive hospital. It was bigger than any hospital we've got in Australia, with all the different specialities.
And were there any other lectures that you remember being particularly interesting?
They were all interesting because I learnt how other people operated.
And did you find any other major or significant difference in the way the Australians operated compared to the Americans?
No, it was much the same except for minor things. As I explained, Australian and British surgeons prep the patients ourselves. In America,
they don't prep, they just spray a can of pethadine on it and drape it, before the surgeon comes in. Minor things…
But there was that example of joining the bowel. No other examples like that?
Well, the orthopaedic guys had some but I'm not aware what they did. They were quite impressed with what the Americans had.
And how did the Americans view the Australians?
They took us in quite well.
No problems at all.
You said American ships are dry ships but they found alcohol somehow. How did that work on board?
I think it was smuggled on board before they sailed. The false ceilings were full of booze. They had false ceilings and there was some booze in there. After three months you are allowed to have two cans of beer per person, each.
And what kind of alcohol did they have on board?
Spirits, mainly. Beer was hard to get on board.
Did that mean that you were able to socialise and have a bit of a drink?
We had a bit of a drink occasionally, in the evenings after dinner in the rooms. It was just like social drinks anywhere else.
You were in the middle of a war, potentially under attack, although you didn't know. As you said earlier, you didn't really know. How would you describe the level of tension that existed on board?
The tension was mainly in yourself. As I said, I tried to keep calm most of the time.
But there were certain times when you were groping through the dark and blindfolded and the tension builds up, and you wonder what if this was for real? And you're standing outside on a dark and dusky day, and a boom goes off as a plane goes by, it makes your heart race a bit. That's all within yourself. You say, "Don't be silly. That's just a plane breaking the sound barrier." And this experience I experienced again
when we went to Rwanda and we had to circle the airport, a few years later. That sort of feeling, it is all internal and how you cope with it.
So how do you do learn to cope with it?
You have to learn to rationalise it. "This is silly, that is a sonic boom. It is not an incoming aircraft." You just have to reason yourself out of it.
And did you find that you had already learned coping mechanisms or did you have to develop those?
I guess I must have developed them as I went along. Increasing problems as you get older, you cope with them.
Was there any particular difficult or low moments while you were on board the Comfort?
Yeah. When everybody from Australia
had mail except for me. What happened, my wife was told the quickest way to get mail there was to go through America. All mail had to go through America evidently, so she addressed it through New York, but it took a bit longer. I thought, 'Good God, what is happening? There is no news…' As I explained,
the mail is very important…
Can you describe that day for us? Can you tell us what happened?
Well, I wasn't real happy. I can't remember what I did.
And how did everybody else react when they got mail?
I don't know. They all disappeared. Everybody said, "Thank you," and they were gone. "Where is your mail?" It was the wrong advice she was given, because somebody had said to her, "Get your mail, go through America, it is quicker," and it was wrong. But we sorted that out. And we couldn't ring up either. "Hey, what is happening? Where is my mail?"
That must have been really difficult, not knowing what was happening?
Yeah, that's right. Because the kids are home, and you don't know what is happening.
And how long had you been on board the Comfort when people received mails?
It was weeks and weeks, I can't remember how long, but it was a long time. We had been circling around and around. We used to watch the helicopter with the mail come in. The American mail would arrive, and then finally the Australian mail would arrive, I don't know why.
They addressed that later on.
Interviewee: John Teh Archive ID 2481 Tape 04
So you had been on board weeks at the time. What information were you receiving as time went on about how the War was progressing?
As I said, the only time we knew anything was…we had sanitised briefings, which came through the official channels, and then at night-time we used to go up on the deck with our little resistors trying to pick up the BBC or the ABC to see what is happening. Even then they were sanitised.
I remember the land war had started, but there was no mention of it on the BBC or ABC news.
What was your view about Australia's role in the war at that time?
I thought it was a just war. He was a guy who invaded something else and under United Nations law we were doing the right thing. I thought it was a just war, I had no qualms with that.
And how did it feel to be on the other side of the world in a situation where you really didn't know what was going on?
Not very good. I suppose that is what happens in most wars.
Do you think you were prepared for that?
No, I don't think I was really prepared for what was happening. You just think, 'Hmm, that's strange, they're not telling us anything.'
'We shouldn't be here, because according to the news we should be back there still.' But those things, I guess, are part of the military plans.
So as you listened to the BBC or ABC news on the radio, did you find that you were listening to things in the media that were different from what you were hearing from the military?
They were much the same, but I think the timing was a few days late. Because the things that you knew, that this section of the war had started, but it wasn't reported until a few days later, or until they achieved their objective, I think then they were prepared to release it. I don't know what the reasoning is, but I guess there is military reasoning for everything that they did. I just accepted it.
When you were told that the war had actually started, how did that affect the ship in terms of being on alert?
We were actually quite happy that it had started, because we were actually doing something, because for weeks and weeks we had been going around and around in circles, and practising and practising. Then when it started it was just a relief, let's get on with the job, that was the feeling.
And were you apprehensive?
Yes, we were apprehensive when the ship started moving in a northerly direction without going around in circles anymore. We could not see Kuwait, even though we were only a couple of kilometres off it,
Kuwait city, because of the smoke. We were kept in the dark in more ways than one.
And as you headed north, what was the plan in terms of where the ship was going?
There were two hospital ships, USS Mercy and us, and one was to be right up the front, like we were, to receive the casualties, and once we were full we should shift out and the next ship would come in, then we would sail back to Bahrain, offload the people
and then sail up again, while the other hospital ship came back. That was the plan. But fortunately that didn't happen.
And you have spoken about the equipment on board that was pretty staggering. Did any of that get used?
Yeah, we operated on the…the usual thing, when you get a million men there, someone is bound to have a car accident or a plane crash or burns or whatever.
We treated the usual accident things, appendicitis, I did appendix there. A British sailor had an appendix that I fixed up.
Were there any other operations that you had to perform?
No, there wasn't any. I only did one. I was lucky. A lot of the others didn't do anything at all.
Given that situation, is that also frustrating? In a good way…
No, I wasn't disappointed. I was quite happy it was all over, then I could come home.
So how long were you at sea there waiting before things changed?
I think it was a hundred days. It lasted a hundred days. I was there the whole hundred days, and then when it was over we had a few more days then we sailed back and flew out.
And what were you told when it was over? What were you told about that?
That George Bush Senior had declared the war was over and that we could all go home.
So what was the mood on board the ship that day?
Oh, very happy. We were going home. Some of them had been stuck there over there for months. Six months or more. And some of them sailed across from America on that boat.
Was there any entertainment on board during those few months?
Official or unofficial?
Official there was…the black sailors had their choir, and they used to put concerts on, the soul singers. Unofficial? Like anywhere else, blue movies appeared, movies appeared. I don't know where they got them from but we saw some pretty up to date movies, too.
I remember one I saw. I don't usually go to the movies. It was called Pretty Woman. That was before it was released we actually saw it.
And what other films?
There were official movies and unofficial movies. Unofficial movies were some smuggled on board by medical people.
Official movies they had, Pretty Woman…one night I couldn't sleep and I went upstairs and I saw this screen with Monty Python playing, and the whole group of sailors knew every word and sung every song and did every action, I had never seen anything like that before.
What was the mood like during the three months?
There was a lot of grumbling, especially by the American reservists, because they didn't think they would have been called to go to war. And a lot of them were going to resign when they got to the States. But among the Americans, a lot of them were regulars anyway, so they just accepted it as part of the posting and the mood was the same as any exercise.
So the American reservists were unhappy?
A lot of them were unhappy because they were told to go and just like that, they had to go. They had to drop their businesses and leave.
So they didn't want to be there?
A lot of them didn't want to be there. A lot of them joined up and thought it would be nice thing to do, that they wouldn't have to serve, and when they had to serve they weren't happy.
What about the Australian reservists?
The Australian reservists are volunteers. To this day, as far as I know there is no call up legislation, unless
there is a declared war on national security against Australia, we cannot call up the reserves. Any reserves that go are volunteers, so the morale is good anyway. As opposed to America when you join the reserves and the president says, "Go," you go, whether you leave your family behind or you've got no-one to look after the kids you go, and this was the difference. And the morale would not be as good as volunteers.
And did you notice any difference between the Australian reservists and the regular army?
Not in my field because we were all professionals in our field, but no, I really didn't. I know there is a lot of discussion about the reserves versus regulars.
And given the amount of tension that there was on board at times, and the regular drills that you were doing that were quite nerve-wracking,
did you observe any people having difficulty coping with the situation?
No, not that I noticed. You just did it.
So nobody showed signs of stress?
Boredom. "No, not again." "All right, up on the deck. Line up there, wait until it's all clear." And you all hang around for two hours, three hours, then you go back.
So at what point were you able to communicate with your family to say that you were coming home?
Not until we got back to Bahrain, then we all ran to the telephone and rang up from the post office. But they knew before we did that we were coming home.
What was it like to speak with your wife again?
I can't remember what we said. "How are the kids? All right?"
After a few months at war it must have been a good experience?
Yes, I remember now, because my wife had melanoma, while I was away.
Did she tell you that when you were Bahrain?
She told us that when we got there, on the way back. She had already had the operation then.
That must have been quite difficult for you?
Yeah, I didn't know what grade it was, where it was, I had to find out when I came back.
And was she all right?
Yes, she is still here. They diagnosed it when I was away and she had the operation while I was away. I didn't know. She didn't want to tell me.
She didn't mention that obviously in her letters to you. How did she cope with that while you were away? Being alone, with you at war?
Well, it wasn't real good, I don’t suppose. It took a bit of a toll on her.
So can you tell us about the trip home and coming back to Australia?
We landed in Bahrain
then we were put on a Hercules. We came back in a Hercules. Have you been on a Hercules? They are very slow and either very cold, or very hot. It took us a few days to get home. We landed in Cocos Islands for a day or two, then we flew back,
straight to Sydney, Windsor, at the airbase there. We landed there. Then we were given our medals, then we hopped on a plane and came home.
And what was it like to arrive back in Australia again?
It was great. I remember us flying home,
at that stage, Joan Sutherland made a comment in the newspapers that when she back to Australia, all these blokes in turbans were serving in the post office. So I wrote a letter to the Bulletin saying…"I have come back from serving in the war,
and lovely Australian wine on board the plane, food, fresh air, peace." Then I put on the bottom, "I am glad I am not serving in a post office." They printed it. No, it was good to be back, a free country.
And did you have any trouble adjusting to being back in Australia?
No, I don't think so. I went fishing, just out there.
Did you have time off?
No, actually I went straight back to work at the Royal Brisbane. I was still on my study leave. I was called out, I came back and I went straight back to work. It was good, it kept my mind off it.
Was there any sort of debriefing when you got back in to Australia?
Yes, there was supposed to be. They rang me up one day and said, "Can you come in for a debrief?" I said, "No, I don’t have time." I wanted to get my exams over and get on with it. There were debriefings. In retrospect I don't know whether I should have gone. I don't know what they would have told me. Not being a younger person, I already had my own coping mechanisms in place.
I didn't go.
You were there as a medical specialist. Were you aware of the potential for post traumatic stress disorder?
Yes, it was big now. We understand it. We didn't understand it after Vietnam but we do now. A lot of people suffered that.
So at the time you returned from the Gulf War, did you understand the potential for developing those symptoms?
I didn't believe I had it.
When the Gulf War Veterans’ Medical Board (UNCLEAR) for four or five hours, they spat out the thing that I had PTSD. The computer, after the examination, spat out that I had PTSD. I wasn't particularly worried about that. I said, "Righto, I might be a bit nuts, but that's not what I'm worried about. I just want to know what is wrong with my legs." But that is what the board came up with.
Do you know why they came up with that diagnosis?
They said it wasn't from the Gulf War, but it was from Rwanda. I don't know why they came up with this diagnosis. [Department of] Veterans’ Affairs still has my examination and the results.
So how soon after the Gulf War did you start having those physical symptoms?
About a year or two after I started to get pains and aches and swellings and…
And how did those symptoms affect you?
I just worked through them. Sometimes it was hard to work, I hobbled a bit.
So was it quite painful?
Oh yes, it was very painful. I thought it was gout, but it obviously wasn’t because all the tests cleared that, and it also keeps changing, from place to place.
Can you tell us about that in a little bit more detail.
Well, sometimes my ankles would swell and it would be very difficult to walk on, and the swelling would go up the leg and the leg would get puffy. That would last for a week or two, then it would go. Then my fingers, my arm would swell up, my hand would swell up. Same thing, painful. Then the pain would go. Yeah, it just shifts from place to place, so I don't really know what it is wrong.
I don't really have an answer for it.
So have you undergone lots of different tests?
Yeah, I sure have, all the time. Every time I went to Veterans’ Affairs, I'd go to another specialist for more tests, and they would all say the same, "Don't know."
Do you have a theory yourself?
I think it might be gout, I'm not sure.
I have no idea. Nothing shows up. It is painful enough to be. The other thing against gout, gout doesn't usually affect the arms and elbows and places like that, but it can.
And has it incapacitated you at times?
Yes. I perform my duties. I do what I have to do, but it is painful.
And apart from the physical impact, has it had any emotional, psychological effect on you?
No, not at all.
So after you returned from the Gulf War, you went back to your study and Brisbane Hospital. And what happened from there for you?
Then I was posted as a commanding officer of the field hospital in Ingleburn in Sydney. And at that stage, I was reaching the end of my career. I didn't want to go to Canberra,
so I asked them to send me back to Brisbane because I was going to retire soon, and they did, and we came back to Brisbane in '94, just a year or two before I was due to retire, posted back to where I started from in the military hospital. And the next thing I knew I was in Rwanda. It wasn't quite over yet.
So can you tell us about what you knew of what was happening in Rwanda before you went sent there? Before you were asked to go?
My first reaction was, "Where is Rwanda?" I think most of us had no idea where Rwanda was. Then we saw these horrific pictures coming to the television and the newspapers, and that is how we knew about Rwanda. And the next thing the United Nations had asked Australia to send a peace-keeping mission over there, medical support for a peace-keeping mission.
And so how did they contact you, and what sort of preparation or lead up did you have?
I got a phone call and they said, "We would like you to go to Rwanda." I said, "Is it a posting order?" They said, "Yes." I said, "No. If I am going to go to Rwanda, I would like to go with my colleagues, where the Reserves are going.
I am happy to go first, before they get organised, but I would like to come back when they come back, rather than be stuck out there, be superfluous. If I'm there and the other reserves keep coming doing the same job that I'm doing there already." So they sorted this and said, "Well, all right. You can go out on the first rotation as a surgeon." That's how I got sent, but this time with a return ticket.
So you didn't want to go for an undetermined time?
It was a six months rotation for the regulars, and I don't think I would have lasted six months. In retrospect, I did the right thing. In the time that I was there, physically and mentally I don’t think I would have lasted much longer. We were pretty exhausted. There were two surgeons, an orthopaedic surgeon and myself.
And we knew the people in real danger was he and I, because nearly fifty percent of the people that we were seeing were HIV [human immunodeficiency virus] positive. So we were operating on people with shattered bones, sharp sticking bones, bullet wounds, blood, HIV positive. So there was a chance that he and I, and the dentist, were the ones
more exposed to the dangers.
So when you were told that you were being posted, what was the reaction of your family?
Margaret wasn't very happy, after the Gulf War, this was only three years later, just on the eve of my retirement. And I think she broke her ankle, just before I left. I left when she was still in hospital.
Was that on a subconscious level to get you to…
No, she was going to the local priest's funeral and she tripped over a stone in the car park and she broke her ankle.
What was her health condition like by the time you were being posted to Rwanda?
She was pretty fit. But having these things, melanoma when I was in the Gulf War, breaking an ankle when I was on my way to Rwanda,
it was not real good for her.
What about your children? Were they concerned about you going?
What did they say?
They didn't say much. "No Dad, you're not going." "I've got to go. I've got no choice." They were concerned, but they knew it was my job. At this stage, they were a bit older then.
They would have fourteen, fifteen…
And they would have been seeing those images on the television?
And so they…When you say that they said, "You're not going."
That also happened with Timor. This time they won, I didn't go. By that stage, I had retired.
So how hard is it as a father and a husband to leave in that situation, when your family doesn't want you to go?
Well, it isn't fun. But it had to be done, there is no point in arguing about it. I think my family accepted that.
So what sort of preparations did you receive before you went to Rwanda?
We were sent to Townsville for a week or so, then we had all the briefings.
Because we had to carry weapons this time, we had our weapons training, we had our rules of engagement…we had to give three warnings before we opened fire. All this usual stuff. Make your wills, make your power of attorney.
In what circumstances were you told that you could fire your weapon?
In self defence, I've really forgotten it now…
Self defence, if somebody else was being threatened, things like that.
So as a doctor and as a specialist surgeon, what was it like to be going into a situation where you would be armed and you would have to be potentially shooting at somebody?
Once again, as I said, every exercise we go on in Australia, three or four times a year, we always carry our weapons. Every year we had to pass our shooting. So it is a training that…
it's just like another training exercise, except this time you are carrying real bullets instead of dummies. So it is…I think that our training is good. When a real situation comes, it is another exercise, you just role with the punches.
But it is a substantial difference because you are using real bullets?
Yes, and there are real bullets shot at you, not dummies.
Does that change your mindset about what you are going into?
No. One of my colleagues was a padre in Vietnam, the padres in Vietnam were also ordered to carry weapons and live bullets. To ease their consciences, they put the bullets in back to front, so they can't be fired. He came under ambush one day and I said, "What did you do, John?" He said, "We reversed the bullets."
So it is an individual response to what you do…
What about as a doctor, I mean you take an oath to help people, to heal them and to do everything that you can to save a person. Is it hard to reconcile that potential to have to injure somebody?
Easy. It's called self-preservation. If somebody is going to shoot you, I'm going to shoot him first. That is easy to overcome. I might patch him up later. I'm not going to get shot,
I'm going to shoot him first.
Can you tell us a bit more about what training you received in Townsville, in terms of specifically for Rwanda and what you were going into there?
We had weapons training, then we had cultural training where they told us about Rwanda. I had never heard it before, and I looked it up on the internet to find out what it was all about and why we were going there,
and I got an idea why we were going there. They gave us a bit of political background, how Rwanda came about. It was a colony and different tribes and different troubles. Then the legal corps gave us lectures on rules of engagement, warnings before you fire, when you cannot fire. And then we had
a few vaccinations, we did our physical fitness assessment and then we were off.
And what sort of weapons were you going to be carrying?
The medical corps carried the Steyr, but we had a short barrel version of the Steyr, the Infantry has got a long barrel version of the same weapon. I also carried a pistol because I was a coward. No, I found having the rifle on my shoulder made it hard to operate, it was a nuisance.
I put the rifle down somewhere, I didn't want to keep my rifle all the time, so I carried a pistol after that.
And what about equipment that you were going to be taking with you?
We brought everything with us, including this time armoured personnel carriers. The last deployment we did prior to Rwanda was Somalia, where they didn't bring any armour with them, and it was quite hairy without armour.
So this time the general said, "You will take armour with you." So we took armour with us as well as our ambulances and APCs [Armoured Personnel Carriers].
So can you give us an idea of how much equipment and what sort of equipment, specifically, you took?
We took everything to run a field hospital. X-rays, operating, instruments, gas cylinders, anaesthetic machines,
scalpels, everything we needed, pathology labs, the whole lot. We brought it with us. We were trained to do that, it was part of the field hospital that moves. So we moved that. Actually it was the same field hospital that I was commanding officer of six months earlier, so I knew them well. I knew the capabilities well.
So how cumbersome is that amount of equipment? How do you transport that?
It flew in with us. We went in a Russian troop carrier, a huge thing. We drove a couple of ambulances in and we drove an APC in, then we all troop upstairs, all eighty nine of us, the first batch, and there is a whole series of these coming in. We all flew in.
Can you describe for us exactly what your role, what you were told your role in that group was to be?
I was a surgeon, a general surgeon.
There was an orthopaedic surgeon, a colleague of mine, two anaesthetists. We were the nucleus of this medical support to the United Nations peace-keeping team. And around the four of us was built the hospital with the pathologist, the nurses, the kitchens, armoury, the Q [Quartermaster] store. And around us, to protect us, was a company of Infantry.
There was about three hundred of us altogether, with our equipment. We flew in that way.
So which company were you going in?
I don't remember the company that went with us…Yes, it was from Townsville. A company of Infantry from Townsville. We also had a couple of SAS [Special Air Service] boys with us as well.
And what about the Medical Corps? How many of them had you worked with before?
Most of them. As I said, I was commanding officer of the field hospital, just six months earlier, that was sent. The field hospital was based in Ingleburn.
So that was basically the whole field hospital transferred to Rwanda?
Elements of the field hospital. The field hospital was bigger than that.
So you had worked with all of those…
Most of them. But this was tri-services, there was navy and air force as well.
navy and air force medical personnel as well.
And during training exercises in Australia, were they tri-service training exercises?
I just trained at my unit, at my field hospital and that was it. We went up to the Northern Territory, take the whole field hospital on the back of trucks up there, set it up there, move, whatever.
So was this the first time you'd worked in a tri-service situation?
The Gulf War was a tri-service.
So how had you found that situation?
Good. The Australian medics and nurses are well trained. Now I believe they all train together now. Not tri-service, they train together…
So had you observed any differences in the way the navy and air force did things, compared with the army?
Not really. We make a lot of fun of each other, but not really. Friendly rivalry.
What were you told about what to expect when you got to Rwanda?
I don't believe we knew what to expect when we got there. When we landed, we had an advance party there. They said, "Righto, gentlemen. Pick up your weapons."
And you just get shovelled off.
What was the situation in Rwanda at the time that you were going to be arriving there?
It was still chaotic. There was no electricity, no water, no amenities, no law, no order. There was just a conquering army taking over, and they were stamping their authority on it.
Most of the doctor had fled. It was just chaos, absolute chaos.
And did you have any idea about the types of casualties that you would be seeing?
We expected a lot of land mines, which we got. A lot of machete wounds and gunshot wounds, which we got. And there were a lot of casualties, too, from the civilian population. Most of the people we were treated were civilians
stepping on land mines and getting shot and macheted. There were a lot of things like obstetric problems, labour, infections, cancers, we got them all.
So how well prepared did you feel when you left Australia?
We were well prepared. But unfortunately…we make the same mistakes all over again. I will give you an example.
The second night we were there, one of the Rwandan soldiers was shot through the chest, and I had to operated on him. I put my hand out for a sponge and I got a nappy. And I said, "Where is the sponge?" "We didn't bring any, sir." And this was a unit I commanded and I really went berserk. "What do you mean you didn't bring any?" "We forget." There were lots of things like that. And after operating, he was shot through the chest,
after fixing him up I said, "Put him on the respirator." "We didn't bring any either, sir." I said, "I don't care what you do, just go and get one. Otherwise you will be sitting here for the next four or five days pumping this bag by yourself." And typical ingenuous soldiers that they were, they disappeared and came back an hour or two later with a respirator. They made it up from bits and pieces from this trash hospital, they it together. It was very ingenuous.
Then when I was sewing up the chest, we didn't bring any strong enough suchers to sew the chest up. So I found some nylon curtain wires, I told them to wash them and sterilise them and we used them to show the chest up. So the logistics was really bad, and we did the same mistakes over and over.
In terms of what equipment you took,
who was it up to decide what you needed?
Well, the field hospital, the people in charge of the departments were supposed to do that. As the commanding officer said to me, Pat Mackintosh, "How important is this, John?" I said, "Pat, just like Infantry soldiers deploying with your nice weapons but you forgot to bring ammunition." "Oh, is it that important, is it?" "Yes."
Oxygen…we had to use oxygen for this guy and he said to me, "I think we're going to run out soon. What happens when one of my soldiers gets shot?" I said, "What are you trying to tell me, Pat?" "Well, I think we're using the oxygen and we're not going to get resuppled, and if one of my soldiers gets shot will you have enough oxygen?" I said, "All right, I will turn it off."
The poor soldier that found this guy was a young nineteen-year-old medic. The first night that we were there he was doing a clearance patrol to the perimeter, and he tripped across this body. And he looked down and this body, with this red blood squirting out of his chest. He was a well trained soldier. The first thing he did was put his hand on, stopped the bleeding, called up his buddies, brought him back to the perimeter, ran fluid and blood into him,
then organised the operating theatre, he helped me in the operating theatre getting things ready, then he had to go to IC [Intensive Care] to look after this patient, then we came and turned the gas off a couple of days later. So for a young soldier who had gone through the lot, find the body, helped resuscitate him, helped in the operating theatre, gone to IC to look after him, then see us turn the gas off…it took a little…PTSD, so he is completely out now.
He keeps ringing me up. I keep saying, "The war is over. You're back in Australia now. Try to get on with your life." But he's been validated out from the army now for PTSD. I guess you can understand it.
Was he there for quite a while?
He was there after I left. He was one of the regular soldiers. He had no choice. He had to stay on there.
Did he speak to you about that incident afterwards?
He keeps ringing me up. I say, "What is the problem?" He says, "You're the best commanding officer I ever had. You're the only one I can trust. I don't trust the army anymore. They dropped me…"He was getting a bit paranoid, from his PTSD” I suppose. As I tried to explain to him, "This face and this life is gone now. You have to get on with it."
What about for you? Was that a difficult decision to have to make, to turn off the oxygen?
Well, I could see from our point of view, it could be one of our officers that got shot and I wouldn't have any oxygen to give him. And the United Nations weren't the best people to resupply you. We would be waiting and waiting for more gas cylinders to come up, and we waited. One of our own soldiers that got shot was a Canadian, but he didn't require the oxygen.
You just can't go in there and use up everything and then find your own soldiers haven't got…that's a choice that you had to make. Then everybody passes the buck to the poor old surgeon, yeah.
Did you feel the weight of that responsibility?
Not consciously, no. I don't even think about it anymore. I could see the logic in this, so I just turned it off. Not real good.
But it was better than one of ours.
Interviewee: John Teh Archive ID 2481 Tape 05
When you first arrived in Rwanda, what were your first impressions? What could you see and smell and here?
The plane landed and as we filed off, we were handed our weapons and ammunition. Then we had to wait, like everybody does, and we were handed our little ration packs, and we were told, "Pick up your weapons. You've got your ammo, you've got your gear, you'll be going to the hospital,
the hospital has been trashed, there is a few bodies around, you've got to clean it up, that's where you will be based." So we had to clean up the place, there was a lot of blood around, we had to hose that all away. I found a room. The specialists, the four of us, were allowed to stay there in the hospital, while the rest of the Australian contingent was about a mile away in the barracks
which they over from Rwandan army. We had guards with us, in the hospital. It was words to the effect of, "Clean the place up, hose the shit off, make yourself comfortable, this is where you are going to stay." They found a few bodies they had to dispose of…I found a room that had had the door kicked in.
What had happened was during the troubles, they locked the patients in the rooms and then when the militia came they pointed out which ones were the Tutsi and they killed them in the rooms. So the rooms weren't real flash by the time we got there. Anyway, we cleaned it up, there were holes in the roof, we put tarps over it, the toilets were not working,
nothing was working. We were virtually in a field situation, but in a bombed out building.
Was it much worse than you expected?
I didn't know what to expect, but certainly…I can show the photos, nothing existed, they just trashed everything in sight, human beings, beds, the rooms, sterilisers, everything. We had to bring all of our stuff in.
What was the state of the bodies, you say they trashed everything including the human beings?
The ones that they disposed of just stayed there and rotted. Some we decomposed, we just got rid of them.
So how long did it take before you were fully operational?
Well, that was another point of contention. If I was commanding officer of that place, it would have been operational within eight hours…
the operating theatre and the wards…it took more than twenty four hours, which was a very big disappointment to me. They treated it as an exercise rather than the real thing.
In what way do you mean?
When I was commanding officer, I said, "The first thing that goes up is the operating theatre, because you don't know who is going to get shot. I want the operation theatre ready to take the first patient within six to eight hours."
That would happen. But when we were there in Rwanda, it's four o' clock, so they knocked off the for the day. I thought, "Wait a minute, I can't do anything about this. I am no longer the commanding officer." And the commanding officer was an infantryman, he didn't know. So anyway, I kept my peace and we eventually got it going within the next twenty-four hours, which was lucky, because that was when the bloke got shot.
So that must have been difficult having someone who was infantry trying to set up a medical unit?
We had medical people in charge, too. We've got problems. Like any organisation there is personalities and politics…my name was not really mentioned to go to Rwanda, until the chief of staff said, "Where is Colonel Teh? He is our most experienced person and his name is not on it."
My name was mysterious. People were trying to get their own corps in. Within our own corps, the chap who run it was worried that I was a threat to him. It was all politics, and all that was essential was to get on with the job, so my name eventually appeared rather late, that is why I had such short notice to go."
What did you think of the locals and how involved did they get in the operation initially?
The locals were suspicious of us. Troops appeared from nowhere and took over the hospital, and took over the barracks, ex-army barracks and billeted ourselves there. I guess they were a bit suspicious of us, and they were tense for a while, but after a while they got used to us, I guess.
So when you first got to the hospital, was there a military procedure to go into that facility?
To do peace-keeping, you must have an agreement to help them. You just can't barge in, that is an invasion. So our advance party had arranged for us to refurbish a certain section of the hospital to provide cover for the
United Nations troops, and they would help the native part of the hospital as well, but they would be run by the NGOs [Non Government Organisations]. So there was an agreement was made. We knew where the main body would be billeted, where we could have a dining room. It was all agreed on before we come in. We had to be invited in, we can't barge in, so we knew where to go.
You say the locals were suspicious. How did they display that?
When we used to walk back from the hospital to our billets, they would train their weapons on us and not a friendly thing to do. We would gently, not point them at them, but we would get our weapons in a nice position. We couldn't act in an aggressive manner because we weren't allowed to. When somebody points a weapon at you it is quite difficult to say, "Hello."
I guess it was just the war, and it was a nasty war. And there were still bodies everywhere and they were touchy…
So that would have been the first time that you had real weapons trained at you. How did you react?
Cautiously. We had to be very careful and keep an eye on them.
Smile and act non-aggressive. That was all we could do. We were outnumbered, absolutely outnumbered.
Prior to getting to the hospital, what did you see, if anything, of the villages or the surrounding area?
We went straight from the airport in our trucks to our billets in the hospital. What struck me immediately was, we had read about people starving,
all over the place, dying from hunger, what struck me was this huge amount of avocados and all the avocados trees, full of avocados. I said, "How can anybody starve in this situation?" As a matter of fact, we had an avocado tree just outside my window, which I used to knock off and eat. They were beautiful. The thought of how could anybody starve when there was literally millions of avocados, thousands of trees with avocados on them.
And they didn't make use of that resource?
They probably were outside the city and they couldn't get to them, or whatever, but there was certainly a lot of food where we were.
Did you see any people in the villages?
When we first arrived there it was pretty deserted, and then as the days went on, more and more people came back into town. They all fled. And after we set up, we sent patrols out
to the refugee camps, and I went and operated in the refugee camps as well, and would come back at night.
With the initial set-up of your facility, what were your initial concerns, and how did you approach your job?
My main concern was to have the operating theatre functioning. As I said, I was a bit disappointed because the same crew that did magnificently when I was commanding officer,
all of a sudden decided this was another exercise, and the CO [Commanding Officer] was not the old CO anymore, so I was disappointed in that. I said, "You blokes did better than this when I was CO. You could have set this up in hours and started operations straight away…"
Can you walk us through what is involved in setting up a theatre like that in a situation like that?
The first thing you have do is you have your equipment all ready, you have it sterile and ready to go, all you do is put a bed up, clean the place down, get the anaesthetist's machine. And it doesn't take long to set it up. We didn't bring any tentage. Normally we put up our own tents, our own shelters to put our own equipment in. This time we took over a trashed building, cleaned it up, and it doesn't take long to clean it up, and
set up our operating theatres so we could operate.
So how did you decided where the operating theatre was? Was it already a theatre?
Yes, it was an old hospital. It was just trashed, and we took over the private part of the hospital and refurbished that to an acceptable standard. It would not have passed Australian standards, but it was a field situation. You've got a table, you've got a gas machine, and you've got a surgeon with the knives in his hand,
you can operate, you can save lives. It doesn't take long to set it up. If you have to reach a certain standard where everything is sterile, air-conditioning, temperature with filter-controlled air, that is different. But when you're in a field situation, you can set it up very quickly.
And how soon did you go into the…local hospital?
I went and had a look straightaway, I was interested. Because there was…the Red Cross was there, the NGOs were there and they were operating already, so I went over to see what we could do to help them, and I was operating with them as well.
And what did you notice of their facilities, initially?
They were worse off than we were. They didn't have any equipment. Because they were NGOs.
We brought gowns and gloves with us. All they had was virtually gloves and what they could salvage there. They used the operating theatre there, it was trashed, they used that. Nothing fancy.
So you just walked into the facility and started..?
Operating. We put our tables up, get a bit of the blood out, cleaned it up a bit, the best we could under the circumstances and start operating.
It doesn't take long, especially when they're trained to do it. And the technicians know exactly where to put the equipment and what they need for an operation.
So did you at all feel panicked in that first week?
The first night was terrible. Because we just arrived, we didn't know what to expect, there was no water, we had to carry our own water, no electricity, nothing. And that night there was an earthquake, I didn't know what the hell was happening.
But lucky I recognised it as an earthquake, having lived in New Guinea. And then about four or five in the morning, it was still pitch black, and I heard this, "Roar, roar, roar," coming towards us. I thought we were under attack. Having you ever seen the pictures of Zulu, mass attacks, that rumbling. That's what I thought it was, so I grabbed my rifle and rushed downstairs, and one of my sergeants was down there cleaning his shoes. I said, "What was that?" He said, "It's all right, sir.
These buggers are doing their PT [Physical Training], in the morning." He was a digger in the advance party, so he knew what was happening. So that was a bit frightening. Unique.
How did that first part of the experience for you, from there? From the initial set-up?
It's just show well trained they were, they treated it an as exercise.
You know that while you are getting the operating theatre up, you've got to get clean water. So our engineers put up water tanks, pumped water, purified it so that we could get water. We had to get the kitchens going, everybody has got their job to do. The Infantry has to secure strong points to protect us, and all the Logistic boys were at the Q store, putting it away, so that they could issue whatever we needed.
So everybody had a job and we just went about like a normal exercise.
How prepared did you feel when the first gunshot came in?
We did well. That was the soldier that was shot, the medics stopped the bleeding, got him in, resuscitated him, operated on him, put him in the ICU [Intensive Care Unit]. Did pretty well.
And after that, what were the sort of casualties came in?
After that, every morning you would wake up and
there would be bodies lying outside that had trod on landmines the night before, and we had to operate. The longer we stayed there, there was less and less…machete wounds, gunshot wounds. There was still pockets of resistance and people got shot.
In that situation, how would you treat the landmine injury?
Well, depending on how bad it was.
Usually they had lost half the lower legs already, clean it all up, leave it open, when it is nice and clean, sew it up, and that's it. No legs, no hands, or whatever. Quite terrible injuries.
Was that surprising to you?
No, no. I guess I had seen it before and I had been trained and trained. You know what to do and you just do it.
What about the challenge as a surgeon?
War surgery, particularly landmines, it's very hard rendering, but it is not very hard at all. I actually taught my medics how to do it. I said, "Look, what is dead is dead. There is nothing more we can do about it, so you cut it out. If you leave it there, it will fester and gangrene will set in." They said, "How do you recognise what is dead?" I showed them how to recognise the dead tissue. You just cut and cut and cut
until there is nice fresh tissue and then we let it heal, then we sew it up and give them crutches. There is no Einstein surgery. It is not neurosurgery. It is unfortunately painstakingly just cleaning it up and fixing it.
So there was quite a volume of casualties like that coming in. So how did you decide what you treated and what you didn't?
You treated them all, you treated them all.
We were actually told that we shouldn't be spending so much time on them. The actual words were, "We want you to drop your standards when you are treating the locals." I said, "I beg your pardon, sir. I am not going to drop my standards. I treat everybody to the best of my ability with whatever I have." And the other surgeons said the same thing, then he knew he had a rebellion on his hands. The whole thing was centred around us.
I'm not going to drop my standards, I don't care who they were. I am going to do my best.
Was it overwhelming?
No. They didn't come in masses of a hundred at a time, they came in dribs, three, four, one two three. We coped with it. It wasn't the mass casualty situation that you hear people talk about in a real flat-out battle where everybody gets shot, or a bomb goes off and hundreds come in at once.
We didn't have a mass casualty situation. We just had a steady strickle of patients.
What about disease?
There were lots of people with war wounds, machete wounds, that we had to fix up. Half their faces blown off, and it's all scarred up. Machete wounds to the head, bullets left inside them, shrapnel.
All sorts of things.
What were some of the early cases that moved you?
There was one little boy that, when I first arrived, CARE Australia said, "Have a look at this boy." He had a…I don’t know how old he was, seven or eight. They had murdered his whole family, his extended family, and he was the only one left so they decided to have some fun with him, and held him, feet first, head over the fire,
while they burnt his head, then they threw him away. He was left there, and the CARE Australia found him. CARE Australia bandaged his head up the best that they could and waited for the army to come in. When they took me to see this kid, I took the bandages out, and under the bandages there was a mass of maggots, sitting on bone, there was nothing left, the maggots kept him alive I suppose. Bare bone and nothing else.
Now this young boy would die if you do not cover that bone up with skin or flesh or something else. He needed some specialised plastic surgical treatment in a first world country to do that. Being a military hospital, it is very basic equipment and it is very difficult to decide what to do. So I remembered from years ago in the British training, we used to talk about, "The old days" When they had to get flesh out of bone, how did they do it?
I remembered, so we went back and we did this unique thing. What happened is, when you have bone, you cannot take skin and graft it on bone, because the skin will not take on bone, you have to have some meat underneath it. There is no meat on the bone because it has all been burnt off, so what I did was I got an orthopaedic chisel and I chiselled away a layer of bone until it bled,
then I covered it for ten days. Ten days later I took it off, and the whole thing was now covered with proud flesh. Do you know proud flesh? It is just the healing process. Then I took some skin and I put it there. So that saved his life. I was operating and one of the soldiers said, "The only trouble that you have saved his life now. He's going to be a bald-headed Tutsi."
Another said, "We can always Aruldite some steel wool on it." The first one said, "If it rains, he will go rusty. Have you ever seen a red-headed Tutsi." It was macabre sort of humour, but that was what kept the boys going.
So when you look back at that now, you must feel quite proud of that experience?
I think he would be dead by now.
The other mob would have killed him, for sure.
How did you find out his story?
Some interpreter told us this was what happened to him and how the CARE Australia found him, and they waited for the army to come in with the surgeons and the hospitals, because they had killed every doctor and smashed all the hospitals up. They had no equipment there. The other one was an aid worker,
with a very painful anus. The condition was extremely painful. It was easy to treat. He was in agony for months until we got there. That was one of the first operations that I did. An operation on an Australian aid worker's bum.
What was the condition and how did he get that?
It was a tear in the backside, and everytime you poo you get spasms, and it is very painful. He'd had it for months and it was very painful. He couldn't see a doctor because all the doctors had run away or been killed.
He waited for us to arrive so we could treat him.
And how do you treat that?
It's a minor operation. When he woke up from the operation the pain was gone. He was so pleased.
And you went out into some of those refugee camps. Can you describe what you saw the very first time you went out to one of those and what you had to do?
We had to treat people who were left behind,
most of them had either run away or been killed. There were bones and skeletons and skulls all over the place. But a lot of those who survived had malformed breaks or huge ulcers where the knives had cut them, machete cuts in the head. We treated all that, those who were left behind.
The very first time you went to a camp, what do you remember seeing in front of you?
All of these little shelters made out of gum leaves. You wouldn't believe it. There were more gum trees in Rwanda than normal trees. If you had driven through Rwanda like we did, and there wasn't a soul around, because everybody had fled, and you see these gum trees, you would swear you were back in Australia.
All these little shelters made out of gum leaves, and skeletons, left behind as they fled. Most of the kids that survived had all congregated to a village. It was a village full of kids and one or two adults, with four hundred kids. They were surviving, looking after themselves, raiding the fields and picking up whatever food they can. These traumatised kids.
All the adults were killed, but the kids escaped by running into the bush.
So when you first get to those camps, can you describe how you would set up your medical facility?
(UNCLEAR), myself and a few Infantry soldiers, because we weren't a full hospital. He had an anaesthetic machine and I had a sufficient amount of disposable equipment.
We went to a Catholic school, monastery, and we took over one of the rooms. Just an ordinary room, put a stretcher in it and started operating. Then as it got dark, got out. We didn't have light, we used daylight. It was pretty difficult. We were working under primitive conditions.
You said before that you treated everyone.
It must be difficult to have to stop at a certain time of day and go back. There is a time when you have to leave things behind.
Yes, and you hoped that they would not get murdered when we were gone. But that was the way they lived. There's a picture there, of a man who heard a knock on the door, he opened the door and someone shot him in the face. So he ended up with me. With these sort of things, you don’t know what is happening
in turbulent times.
How did you deal with that situation?
That was another innovative thinking. Normally with a gunshot wound, like with a landmine wound, you got the dead flesh, and you just lay it open, let it all heal up clean and then you sew it up. You can't open the face up and allow it to heal. So I spoke to one of the NGO surgeons, who was a very famous war surgeon. He said, "Don’t lay it open. If you cut across there,
to lay it open, you will cut across his nerves and his face will be paralysed." So instead of doing that, I had to clean up the track. He showed me how to inject down the track where the bullet went through with hydrogen peroxide and flushed it all out. He was all right, he could still smile, he wasn't paralysed and he went home, in about three or four days. So we had to learn to adapt.
When I was in the Gulf War I learned how to join the bowel up without cleaning, here I learned how to treat gunshot wounds without having to lay it open, and close it four or five days later.
So when that situation came in, was the NGOs somewhere close by?
They were in the public hospital. I was actually operating at the local hospital. I said,
"If I lay this wound open to let it heal, I will cut the nerves." He said, "Don't do that." He said, "Use some hydrogen peroxide, squirt it in and flush it all out this way."
So the other photos we saw earlier were on the young boy with the eye. Can you explain that?
Yes. The first few days I used to walk out to the local hospital,
I used to come back to our checkpoint, this little boy would follow me, you see. I thought he was a funny looking boy, and he used to follow me everywhere I went. And one day the guard said to me, two or three days later, he said, "Sir, are you going to do something with that boy?" I said, "What?" He said, "Look at his face. His eye is pointing out sideways." I said, "I'm not a neurosurgeon. I don't know what to do." I said, "All right, bring him in." So I had him X-rayed, I took notes…
What did the x-ray show you?
It showed a fracture through the skull. What had happened is, there was a break in the bone and the fluid from the brain had seeped in behind his eye and pushed his eye out to one side. The only thing I could do was suck out the fluid. So I sucked out the fluid and the eye came straight again. After that he thought I was great. This little kid had, in all of the world, he had one plastic bag,
a Woolies [Woolworths] plastic bag with one blanket and one shirt, that's all he had in his life. So, when this happened, I wrote my notes down and I modumed this back to the satellite back to Australia, to a university here, and they diagnosed it and they seen what the problem was.
It was the first time ever that tele-medicine as we know it now was used in real life. We talked about it a lot, but it was the first ever that we did something through the airwaves. I was four thousand miles away, and they were giving me instructions how to treat him.
What were some of the other innovative techniques you used?
There were sad cases, where a young twenty-three, twenty-four year old law student, perfectly healthy looking, completely blind. I checked him all over and all I found was a tiny little nick in the side there. A tiny shrapnel wound, no bigger than three or four millimetres, that cut both his optic nerves,
internally. He was completely blind. That was sad. This should not have happened. You have got to be really unlucky to have a tiny little shrapnel wound cutting both optic nerves to leave you completely blind, otherwise physically a hundred percent.
He was a local?
Yes. He was a law student graduate when the war started.
What was the demeanour of the local people?
They were quite incredible. When the hospitals started working again, some of the nurses that were working there, turned up again and offered to work. You think they would be full of hatred. No? Smiling and singing as they were working along with us. It was strange.
But when it got dark, they scurried back to their place. It was quite incredible.
Did you feel threatened when you were going out into the towns?
We were usually going in groups and we were all armed anyway. We felt quite safe. In the towns, we were quite protected.
And what about your accommodation? Can you describe where you lived?
I lived in one of the rooms in the hospital. There was a hole in the roof. I found a bed, not much of a mattress, but I put my sleeping bag on it and that was it. It was pretty good. Better than putting a tent in the bush out in Australia.
And what about food?
For a long time we were on ration packs, because we had to get organised to get fresh food from Kenya.
And the other places. The ration packs get a bit boring after a while. But we managed to swap with the French. The French had very nice ration packs. They had pate in it and different types of cheeses.
So why did they swap?
They liked our meat.
What about the UN [United Nations]? How was it working with the UN?
With the UN, it was a very difficult situation, because the only thing I had to do with them was to get my re-supplies from them. And they're re-supply was not very good, it wasn't real flash. That's why we had to turn the oxygen off, because we were running out of oxygen cylinders, we couldn't get re-supplied.
So they were affecting your capability of keeping people alive?
Yeah. You've only got to turn off the oxygen when the poor bugger is on it.
Not real flash.
So how would it work with the re-supply then? What would you have to do?
I don't know, eventually it came through from Kenya, I think.
Well, where would you go to collect materials?
They would have been flown in, then we'd send our trucks out to pick them up from the United Nations.
So did you ever have to go to the United Nations?
No. The only time we went to the United Nations headquarters was when they had a barbecue on one day, a party of some sort.
And how did you work with the staff under you? How did you organise human resources?
I wasn't a commanding officer anymore, so I had nothing to do with that. I just went there as a specialist surgeon. So the logistics, the command and control, they were all done by the Infantry at that stage.
Did you feel that you had enough support by way of nurses and…?
Yes, they were all well trained and excellent. We didn't really have much work of our own to do, with United Nations soldiers. We had a lot of locals who were hurt and damaged, and the nurses actually went down there to help them out. We were not supposed to do that, we were supposed to look after our United Nations.
That was the mandate, to provide support to the United Nations soldiers. But we just went down there. The nurses found a lot of infections in the wounds in the local hospitals, so they went down and found out what the problem was. The problem was they were going around dressing all the wounds with the same thing. So the nurses said, "You can't do that." So they taught them how to do it. They did a lot.
You said before that someone came under threat of AIDS [Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome],
can you tell us about that?
That was our dentist. He was doing a tooth filling on a Canadian major, and he had a needle stick. As routine, we always take blood for HIV. The Canadian chap was HIV positive. So,
our dentist had a bit of a harrowing time for a few months. He's all right. So there were always dangers. I had a needle stick myself, when I was operating on that chap with the gunshot wound to the chest, the electricity went off. Before the auxiliary could kick in…I had a harrowing time, pushing the blood out, but it turned out fine.
Did you know if the fellow was HIV positive?
He was local. There was a forty or fifty percent chance that he would be. It didn't matter anywhere, if you get a needle stick from a HIV positive person, your chance of getting a needle stick injury and HIV is about one in two hundred. It's not that high. But if you don't panic, and you think about it logically, "Now what is the chance of me getting HIV from that?
Even if he was positive? There is the chance that he may not be positive, even if he was, it's one in two hundred." Your chances are pretty good. If you are a betting man, you put your money on it. That is the only way that you can rationalise it to yourself. Don't panic, there is nothing you can do it about. So I had my blood taken, a few months later I had it taken again.
What were you seeing of the spread of HIV and the treatment for that?
We didn't have any treatments there at all. And it just spread because of the war, and people were being murdered and raped. HIV went berserk. They were quite brutal on their own people.
What did you think of that brutality?
I don't know how to say it, but the human nature…
Even animals wouldn't do that to themselves, why the hell do we do. Bodies that have been raped, and bellies slit open to get the baby out from pregnant women. It is not necessary.
You wouldn't have seen anything close to that level before, I don’t imagine?
I read a load about it, but I'd never seen it.
It's really sad for the younger people.
How did you see it affecting people around you?
When we were there, we had a job to do and it was fine. We didn't have any problems. It was when we came home, and the pressure was off, and then they start to get the signs and the symptoms. I think we lost quite a few. Really young, eighteen or nineteen year olds.
You seem to deal with it quite well, but you could understand people coming back and…
Oh yeah. Some of our healthies, 'drain sniffers' we called them, the people that look after the health and hygiene, they were sent out to villages, to check on the hygiene of the villagers, what was left of it…one was telling me that they came to a village and everybody was gone and there was a body there, he said, "Oh, we'll bury that later." So they did more inspections and came back
and the body was missing. They looked around, it was there under the other tree. "Okay, we'll have lunch then we'll bury it." When they came back, it was missing again. The dogs had been eating it and dragging these bodies everywhere. The dogs had not been fed and they were finding bodies everywhere. I said, "Are you telling me a ghost story, Bluey?" He said, "No sir, it's true." I said, "Why was the dead body moving?" He said, "The dogs were eating it." I still see Bluey.
Interviewee: John Teh Archive ID 2481 Tape 06
Could you tell us, from the beginning of the day, how your day would unfold while you were in the hospital in Rwanda?
Yes, the four of us actually slept there in the hospital. In the morning we would get up, and before fresh rations came, we used to have our ration pack breakfast,
then we would walk down to check that there were no United Nations soldiers wounded. If there were not, we would just walk over to the local hospital and do what we could over there. At lunchtime we would stroll back to our area and have something to eat, then go back and give them a hand again.
So what did that involve going over to the local hospital and helping them?
Normally the locals that were wounded were left at the hospital, from the night before. In the mornings,
the NGOs would come over and start operating on them, and we would do the same. We would join them and help them.
Did you operate on them there?
Yes, we operated on them in their hospital.
So can you describe that hospital and the conditions?
It was a pretty modern hospital, before the war started. But I believe it took a mortar round right in the roof before we arrived. And it was all trashed.
The rebels had come in and smashed everything inside, the lights, the tables. Whatever was salvageable was salvaged and used. It was pretty primitive. But it was just better than nothing. There was no air-conditioning, we had to improvise the lights, and repair the lights and use them again, use whatever we could.
What sort of equipment did you have?
There was a fair bit of equipment left over by the government in the hospital itself. And as I said, most of it was trashed, but we were able to salvage what was not, and re-use it. What they didn't have, we supplemented from our own resources.
So can you give an example of what was missing or lacking in terms of what you would normally find in an Australian hospital?
Well, they didn't have an X-ray for a start, which is pretty basic. The sterilisers were down, damaged and broken, eventually they were repaired and others brought in. Scalpels and arteries and forceps were still there, and we cleaned them up and used them, but there wasn't much sophisticated stuff there.
So what would you find when you went over to that hospital in the morning?
Can you describe what you would see there?
Well, they usually left their wounded in a line in front of the operating theatre. We would pick up the most seriously badly damaged ones and worked on them first, and then treated whatever came along then.
And you just treated them there at their hospital?
So you never went to their hospital and brought patients back?
On the odd occasions we did, like the boy who had his head burnt. We had to treat him in our hospital, because they didn't have any more sophisticated equipment there. Sometimes their high-ranking officers demanded we treat them in our place rather than their own, so we brought them in for diplomacy.
How did they demand that?
They just talked to our commanders
and said, "We want you to look after one of our politicians or generals, or whoever." So for diplomacy, "Yeah, all right, bring them in and we'll treat them."
Can you remember any examples of specific senior…?
I can't remember their names, but some of them had pneumonia and wanted to be treated privately by the doctors there.
So apart from seeing these wounded people that were left, can you describe for us
what the room was like, what was there, where everything was located?
The operating theatre room?
When you went across to the local hospital, can you describe that for us?
The local hospital wards were like in army barracks, singles, a long building with beds on either side, there are no walls, sanitation is…if there is any at all. It was very basic. There was no food.
Their relatives supplied their own food. There were usually no sheets either, they just laid on bare boards or mats. Their operating theatre was a fairly advanced operating theatre before the war started. They had proper operating theatre lights, air-conditioning, hot and cold running water, everything you would expect in a normal hospital, but when we reached there, most of it was non-functional.
The NGOs had to get a lot of that going themselves. Sterilisation was minimal. We did make a few of their sterilisers go, functional again. And basically that was it…
What did you see of the sanitation in the wards?
Oh it was terrible.
Can you describe what you mean by that?
Their hygiene was not very good. There was no proper toilet facilities. Their toilets were outside of the ward. The ward was fifty metre long hall with some of the roof blown off, walls with holes in it, no windows. Beds were just laying there, bare boards. People were not washed and cleaned like you and I would know in a hospital here.
They were just typical third world conditions. The dressings were done and overdone by the nurses, which were not really up to standard, but they did the best they could with what they had. The relatives would stay next to the bed, or sleep under the bed.
And what sort of food did they have?
They used to bring their own food. Bananas and fruit and whatever they had. I didn't take much notice of what they had.
Did they cook there?
Yes, they cooked outside in the open fires. That was the thing we found when we travelled to the camps. The people when they were walking, they would put three stones together and they cooked, like a portable barbecue, except they used the local materials.
They used the same at the hospitals. They would go outside the hospital, outside the wards, they would put three stones together, some twigs, and they would cook.
What percentage of your patients came from treating those people in the local hospital?
More than ninety percent, because we had very few United Nations casualties. Most of the ones that were sick was normal sickness, like flus and colds and pneumonia,
bronchitis…not that many. So the majority we treated were on the other side of the barbed wire in the local hospital.
You in fact were there to support the UN. So was there some dilemma or conflict regarding treating so many of the locals?
Yes, we were told our primary duty was to look after the United Nations soldiers. When we had to treat the locals, and we were using our own equipment. At one stage we were told that we had to drop our standards, to meet the third world standards, which is very hard for professionals to do.
Who told you that you had to do that?
Our commander. I guess he was looking at it from the logistics point of view.
Did that cause some conflict?
There was a lot of conflict. Because I just stood up and I argued the case that I was not prepared to lower my standard. And so did the other surgeons. And he said, "Well, do what you have got to do."
So what was your relationship like with the commander?
It was fine. He used to work for me.
Did you have any other conflict with him about the way things were done there?
He realised this was a specialist matter and he left us alone after that. I guess he tried to save our material. We just could not splash all our disposable equipment on the locals in case something happened to our own soldiers.
You mentioned that case before the example of the young medic who brought in a patient who you helped and you eventually had to turn the gas off. How often did that happen where you had been treating a local patient and then no longer…?
Sustain with our equipment? No, that was the only time, because oxygen was a finite resource and we had X number of cylinders. And we had virtually used half of that on one patient who wasn't ours.
So was that the only time that you know that that happened?
Yes, as far as I know. Most of the other cases that we treated were mainly gunshot wounds and minor injuries and machete wounds that did not require ongoing resources. All we needed was a knife, a pair of scissors and a couple of suchers.
We've spoken to some people who were in Rwanda in the medical corps in other positions, who spoke about doctors going across to the local hospital and bringing patients back,
almost as if they were going shopping for a patient and bringing them back and trying to help. Was that happening at the time when you were there?
No, I only brought those people back that required ICU, Intensive Care, which they did not have over there. Or badly needed some specialised treatment like X-rays, that they did not have over there, or specialised orthopaedic procedures,
which we could do. We weren't…not when I was there, when we initially arrived.
So what could you offer them in the Australian unit that you could not offer them if you were operating on them in their hospital?
Well, there was a case where the artery was cut and we had to repair the artery, with arterial grafts. They certainly did not have that. So, we supplied that.
What did that involve?
This lady was cut by flying glass, it severed her artery and a segment was missing. We had to join up the arteries and we had to have arterial grafts to join it, and they did not have that. So we brought her over to our place, did it and then sent her back again.
How complicated is that kind of surgery in a field hospital situation?
It's not terribly complicated. It's like joining two bits of tubing.
What would have been the most challenging types of surgery that you were performing in that kind of situation?
Oh, gunshot wounds, in chest and heart, arteries…
Can you give us some specific examples of a particularly challenging operation?
It's not so much the operation that is challenging. All operations are pretty mundane, there are certain procedures you follow. It's what is before and after. I will give you an example. There was a gentlemen with a huge swelling in his scrotum, which when I felt I thought was a testicular cancer. Now, in a first world country we would do tests to confirm that this is a testicular cancer.
Then once we've done that, we decide to do a certain operation where you stop the blood first so the cancer cell doesn't disseminate, doesn't spread. Then you remove the cancerous testicle. Once you remove it you send it for analysis under pathology examination, under microscope to confirm your diagnosis, depending on what cancer it is, then you have to treat him accordingly.
Radiotherapy or chemotherapy. Now we had none of that, there was no way I could diagnose the cancer pre-operatively. During the operation there was no use me…I did stop the blood so it did not disseminate. There was no way I could follow up by treating a dissemination with chemotherapy or radiotherapy. And there was no way I could get a proper diagnosis on the cancer that I removed, which was like an apple in my hand.
So it is not so much the procedure, the actual operation was simple, anybody can do that, you just take your knife and remove it. But to treat it correctly, you must have the proper operative and post-operative procedures to give this man maximum chance of recovery. All I could do was remove the lump, throw it away, because I could not get it analysed because there was no pathologies. Even though we had a laboratory, we didn't have a pathologist.
There was no way I could give chemotherapy or follow-up therapy, and just sewed it up. He's very happy, the lump has gone, he has healed and he has gone home. But I know in my mind that he is going to die sooner or later, because I could not follow it up. That is the challenge. The challenge is not the actual surgery like you were alluding to, like you see in movies, with blood flying everywhere. A good surgeon doesn't have this, it is all controlled. You control the bleeding, and you control the field of operation
and you do what you have to do and you get out. That is no problem. It is nothing exciting.
But in this situation, the fact that you couldn't follow up, to treat him properly. As a doctor who would normally do that, how did that make you…what impact did that have on you?
A doctor is a fatalistic…what can you do. You do not have the facilities to find out exactly what the cancer was, whether it had spread.
There was no cat scan or CT scan, to check for the nodal spread. There were things that you just could not do. If you tried for every case that happens, you would not make it through. It was very physically demanding.
And was he a local person?
Yes, he was a nice young man. Under thirty.
So what was the most demanding aspect of your job there?
I don't know. I suppose being on call all the time, twenty-four a day, seven days a week for the whole time that you were. And doing things, as they say in my profession, "Out of my comfort zone." I had not delivered a baby for years, and then have to do a caesarean section and pull out a dead baby, in the middle of the night.
Once again, it is no mean feat to do. It is not difficult to do. I just accepted that I did not feel comfortable to do, because I had not done it for years.
Were there other things that you had not done for years?
There were a lot of people with head injuries, with brains hanging out, and I had not done that for years either. But we had to clean it up and sew it up and repair it the best we can. Under very primitive conditions.
Can you describe some of the things that you were able to do under primitive conditions?
Well, we did the mundane trauma stuff. Landmines were the most prolific. And we were getting good at that.
Let's take the example of a landmine victim. Can you describe for us from the time that that person would arrive in the hospital. What would happen to that person and how you would treat him or her?
in the morning we wound find…they usually stumble on a landmine at night and he's blown both legs or one leg off, below or above the knee, and they would bandage it up with their filthy rags to stem the bleeding, put him in a wickerbasket and just leave him in front of the hospital. What we would do was find the one who was most seriously injured,
bring him in the operating theatre, take off the dressing, stop the bleeding, do what you call a primary wound (debrom?-UNCLEAR) on him, take off all the dead tissue, wrap it up in sterile bandages and put him in the ward. We would keep him in the ward for four or five days, and every day we would sniff it rather than examine it, to make sure that it is not starting to become offensive. If it does, then we know we have left some dead tissue behind,
and we take him back and we do it again, until we are happy that it is all clean. When it's all clean, we take him back to the operating theatre, take the bandages off and close the wound up and fashion a stump so he can walk on it. When that stump is healed, we try and make some crutches for him to go away and come back later, to try and fit a prosthesis, if the NGOs are there to do it.
We weren't able to make prosthetic legs for them, but there was an NGO group that was making legs for them.
And how was that working for them?
They were pretty effective enough. It wasn't a nice looking leg, it was a bit of wood and a stump at the end of it, but it worked. It was nothing sophisticated.
How many of the landmine victims were children?
Quite a few of them, over half of them were children.
And had you ever come across a landmine victim before?
No, I hadn't before in Rwanda, no.
And is there any comparison with the injury that a landmine causes to anything else that you had treated previously?
No, car accidents, not as specific as landmines. You can actually tell a landmine has taken the leg off. A car accident looks entirely different. It is not as macerated.
So what is the distinguishing characteristic of a landmine injury?
The landmine blows from the bottom upwards, and it blows dirt and sand and bits of your shoe and bits of your feet into your flesh and pushes it up towards your groin. So even though you may have only lost your ankle, when you start cleaning up the wound you find that it tracks further and further up.
Sometimes you lose the whole leg. It might look normal on the outside, but the landmine blast blasts bits of timber and sand right up the groin, and sometimes you lose the groin.
I know that you have to be hardened in this kind of situation, but treating so many children who had lost their limbs, how did you find that experience?
It is interesting, I never asked myself. There is a job to be done, I feel sorry for them.
I think fleetingly what future is there for these kids now in this country with no legs, and sometimes no hands and half blind…as I said, you can't dwell on it all the time, you just give a thought, and you think 'What can I do about it? I've done the best I can.' The operations I've done over there, half of them would be dead by now. Not from their own wounds but some other violence or being left to fend for themselves.
There is no social security there, there is no such thing. It's very hard. What can you do?
And how did you find those children in terms of their character and their behaviour after having suffered those losses?
As I can explained to you, we went into this village with four hundred kids with only a couple of adults there, they were survivors of the massacres. They were happy to see us, they played with us, we gave them lollies. They acted pretty normally,
but you have to think, 'What psychological damage has been done? And when will it manifest itself?' To see your family being massacred, and come back to find their bodies strewn all over the camp. With kids, it's very difficult. There has to be some sort of psychological damage.
In that particular camp, where were their parents?
Most of them were in the refugee camps,
and they were attacked and murdered, and the smaller children ran away and hid in the bushes and that is how they survived. And after the massacre, they crept out and they found strength by grouping together, as a group, and they lived in this little abandoned village, supporting themselves, I guess.
And their parents who had died, where were their bodies?
I don't know.
But there were a lot of skeletons hanging around. When you walked through those camps, you tripped over them sometimes. You walk along the roads and you see bits or arms and legs, femur, humerus, just lying on the ground.
So the children were living and playing in these conditions, surrounded by…
Yes, they would go down into the fields and take out some potatoes and live on that.
Was there an attempt by the UN or the people that you were with to educate these children about the risks of landmines?
Once again, I never gave it any thought. They must, they must, there must have been some program to rehabilitate all these people who've seen all these horrible sights.
What about the children that you had treated who had lost legs, were you able to follow up at all with those children?
Did you see them after you operated on them?
Yes, yes. When they were feeling well again, they we say, "Goodbye," and they disappear out the door, we don’t even know where they go to. I remember one, there was a farmer, he was clearing his field and he trod on a landmine and was severely injured…the British field ambulance found him and brought him to us, we fixed him up,
then we discharged him, we had a problem of getting him back to where he came from. He was just abandoned in the city. So we had to arrange for some sort of military transport to drop him off there again on their way through. I believe things were a bit more organised after we left, there was more of a support system. But it was chaotic. There was no public transport, there was no infrastructure of any sort,
to get people to and from places and to treat them.
About the children you were treating, how would you describe their moods and emotions after having had those experiences of perhaps having lost their limbs?
They didn't weep or cry or gnash their teeth or rant and rave, they just accepted it.
"I've lost my legs and I've got to make the best of it." And we tried to get them back to any relatives to look after them, if there were any left. If not, we try to get them into an orphanage somewhere. I don’t think at that stage, had organised any orphanages. The NGOs would look after them, the Red Cross or whatever for a while.
Some of the photos that you showed us, the children were smiling.
With no legs.
Can you describe the way they were with you?
They were happy, they were smiling and chatting and crawling along with their crutches and hands and knees. They were happy people, but you have to wonder what damage has been done to them, beside physical damage, the mental damage.
Did it surprise you that they could be like that, given what had happened to them?
What other choice have they got? Really there is nothing else for them to do.
I wondered what I would do in the circumstances. What could I do?
You had had ten years in New Guinea before. Did any of the experiences that you had there help you in your work in Rwanda?
The hospitals were about the same.
They had to cook for themselves. There were no sheets, they laid on mats and planks. The standard hospital was much the same, but the wounds and injuries were entirely different.
You mentioned that your British training had helped. Can you explain how your British training helped you in Rwanda?
The British training was broad based training. You did a bit of everything as a general surgeon, you were meant to do everything.
Not just the body, but bones as well, neurosurgery, pharisaic surgery, vascular surgery, all the different specialities. You had to be familiar to be able to repair damage. And that helped a lot in Rwanda, because I didn't have the facilities to refer them to different speciality colleagues. So I had to get on with repairing this artery that was cut, get on and clean up the brain that was exposed.
Patch bone, but I had an orthopaedic surgeon there to put nails in bones. The other surgery that was in my field, like the testicular tumour, breast cancer, gunshot wounds to the abdomen, that was fine. That was in my comfort zone.
What about the things that you had learned on board the Comfort? Was there anything there that you were able to put to use?
Only the bit about joining up intestines. We didn't do much
on the Comfort besides talk a lot. We discussed this. I guess it would have all helped.
You actually talked earlier about performing an operation with the help of a surgeon back here in Australia, at a university?
Yes, it was the first time that we used tele-medicine, where I sent information over and instructions came back over the satellite to our computer.
Can you tell us exactly what happened in that situation?
That was the case of a boy, who had a blow out of the barrier between his brain and his eye, and there was a leak, and the fluid went from his brain to his eye and pushed his eye to one side. I just released the pressure so that his eye came back to normal,
but I was unable to repair the fracture in his skull, because that required neurosurgical skills, but fortunately there was an Australian neurosurgeon who was coming up, or the rotation after me, who did actually perform the operation there.
So can you tell us what you did in relation to seeking information here and what information was sent to you?
First the diagnosis was difficult to make,
but I got the diagnosis from Australia that it was most likely this condition, and this was what I should do to keep him going until we could fix him permanently. It was good advice, four thousand miles away.
So you did you have to wait long for that advice?
No, it was just like an internet. It was virtually instantaneous.
Was it while you were actually treating this person that you…?
The day after I released the pressure, I analysed the fluid and then I sent it back to Australia with analysis and they were able to come back and tell me that it was cerebral spinal fluid, CSF fluid, and putting two and two together, they were able to tell me what the problem was. And then we knew what we had to do next.
You spoke earlier about not having specific equipment that you expected to have. You were sort of mid-operation and you released that you didn't have sponges and respirators…
Did you ultimately receive that equipment while you were there?
No, no, no. The re-supply was really slow. It was our fault, we should have brought it in the first place. There were a lot of problems with medical supply, re-supply and logistics, because within the army…once upon a time, the medical corps, the users of the equipment,
ran and brought the equipment. Now the army logistics corps have take over supply, unless they have changed it recently, I'm not sure, and now they do the supply, purchasing and supply. Like they would purchase an aeroplane or a tank or ammunition…it has been an ongoing argument within the medical corps, and ordinance corps for many years…you cannot treat medical equipment
like a tank or bullets or rifles. Some equipment we use in medicine is outdated in a couple of months, and new equipment has come through. There is equipment that is very expensive that we must have. Just because we may not use it every day, doesn't mean we can't have it. Their argument is, "Well, you don't use it every day, you might use it once a year."
They are looking from another perspective why we should not have this equipment. Some equipment we left because it was inefficient…this is main management.
So how had was it to get by without, say, respirators?
Yes, we didn't bring a respirator with us. We made a whole list of what we didn't bring with us.
That was bad, bad management. We had it all here. We had sponges here for the operations, we had respirators here, we had the correct suttees, but nobody asked to use them. This is a big problem they have. The user has now lost control of what he needs. It is now brought up like in a big supermarket chain, buy so much of this it is cheaper,
rather than saying, no, this is specialised equipment. Like, say, blood for example. Our blood supply we brought with us, and re-supply was supposed to come from some other country, which we never actually saw when I was there. Lucky we didn't have to use it much.
So you were never re-supplied with blood?
No. That's what I'm saying. We were not re-supplied.
So what challenges did you face because you lacked some of that equipment? Say a respirator for example?
Well, it was a big challenge. After operating on a chest, the man is not able to breathe for himself. You need a respirator, otherwise you will be sitting there with a rubber bag, squeezing the bag all day and all night, continuously. That is a must. I said the boys, "You have to get one, otherwise you will be squeezing the bag." They went around the hospital that was devastated and they found bits and pieces and they made one up together, so we had a functioning one by the end of the day.
Can you describe that respirator for us and how that was different from one that you would have had back here?
It was not different. All respirators do is suck in air, blow it in the body and suck it out again. Suck it in, blow it out. You do the same thing with a rubber bag, which you squeeze. When you squeeze, you blow the air in, when you relax it, the air comes out. It is a simple piece of machinery. The boys put it together, they found bits and pieces.
So they just found bits and pieces from around the hospital?
From around the hospital, yes. From around the theatres that were trashed, they put it together.
What had happened to the doctors from the hospital?
A lot of them had run away, many of them were murdered. But there certainly weren't any there when we got there. After a while, one or two appeared again. I think a lot of them ran away when it happened. They were from different tribes. The dominate tribe were fine, but they murdered the non-dominate tribe
and when the other people won the war, the Hutu doctors ran away.
You said some of the nurses came back, did any of the doctors come back?
There were two that I know of that came back.
Did you meet them?
Yes, I did. They were quite nice people, they were well trained. But they had the same problem that we had then, because all the equipment was trashed as well.
And did they talk to you about what they had experienced?
No, we didn't talk to them about it.
What about the Rwandan nurses? What were they like?
They were very nice, friendly people. The ones we had, despite what they had seen happen to their patients, their patients were murdered in their rooms, they were cheerful and happy, until it became dusk, when it started to get dusk, they were all frightened and they disappeared back to where they came from. And the next morning they would be there again. Working and singing, working along as if nothing had happened.
So they would be singing while they were working?
Yes, some of them were singing hymns. A lot of them were Christians, too.
Did you have access to any music?
No, I brought a radio with me, and I was trying to pick up. No, we didn't have much music as well, as a matter of fact.
In the films, we see operations being done to music, I don't know whether that is true or not in Australia.
I imagine it's nothing like the movies, but we've seen films where operations will be performed while music will be played for the surgeons. Not in a war zone, but…
Oh yes, that happens all the time here in Australia. Yes, I like to play old fashioned music. My theatre staff are much younger and want to play the more modern music.
So what sort of music did you like to play while you were operating?
I used to play things like Mario Lanza, a lot of '50s and '60s songs. Not to everybody's tastes.
Obviously in a war zone everything is different, what was the thing that was most different for you?
I've never thought about it. I guess,
the lack of sterility and the lack of equipment, the things you take for granted here. It was third world conditions and infections galore, pus everywhere. The sort of things that you were not used to here, but I've seen it before. It is part of third world conditions, so you just accepted it. It never struck me.
How prepared had you been for the risk of HIV?
We were aware that there was a lot of HIV over there. We didn't realise it was as high as we found out later. The people we were treating were anything up to fifty to sixty percent HIV positive. That was a select group. If we had followed our protocol in Australia, where we had proper gowns, gloves, masks,
we should be pretty well protected, unless you stick yourself with a needle. But over there, a lot of the times I was operating in a pair of gloves and plastic apron and my uniform. I would take it off sometimes, so it was not very good protection against HIV.
And why didn't you have adequate protection?
Most of the times I was operating outside our own area, and the local hospital
did not have disposable gowns, or any gowns at all. We were in refugee camps where there is nothing. A pair of gloves, a knife, a pair of scissors and away you go.
Interviewee: John Teh Archive ID 2481 Tape 07
The makeshift facilities that you have to deal with. Can you describe some of the others in the different locations you worked in, some of the set-ups?
Yes, when we went to the refugee camps, we would just travel with an anaesthetist, myself, and whatever equipment we could carry in our little boxes. We wouldn't have the luxury of operating lights
or operating tables, so we'll operate anywhere we can, preferably in an old building. We used a Catholic convent or a Catholic school on several occasions, we'd use a room, but we would have to stop operating as soon as it started to get dusk. It was too hard to see to operate without lights. They were pretty primitive.
We would operate on stretchers, on tables, whatever…
You often refer to the soldiers that helped you out, how did they deal with the medical side of it?
They were very good, they were well trained. They enjoyed doing the surgery. As I said, I teached them how to clean wounds for gunshot wounds or mine injuries. They were medics.
You talked before about teaching them to deal with mine injuries, what sort of training…?
The training we teach them here is to save lives and save limbs, but whatever they learned from hands-on experience was invaluable for them.
Who were you closest to in that environment?
My orthopaedic colleague, because he and I were the ones who were most exposed to the HIV.
If anybody was going to get HIV it was going to be us, because we dealing with it all the time.
And how did that bring you closer?
We were in constant danger, the same common danger, and we were the only two surgeons there. We had several other GP [General Practitioner] type people,
and the general RMOs and two anaesthetists.
And how was he coping with the situation?
Yeah, Rob did well. I think we were the oldest, old crusty buggers. We would just get on with it, and crack a bottle of whiskey every now and then.
How often did you get to do that?
Whenever we could find a bottle.
We had to go to town and find a shop that was open. The prices were pretty expensive, too.
How much would it cost for a bottle?
About fifty Australian dollars for a bottle of whiskey, but it was certainly very helpful after a hard day, to ease the stress, after a hard day operating on people who can infect you. You're mentally alert all the time.
Can you describe the town and how affected it was by the war?
The town was pretty affected. Most of the buildings were damaged, and the cars had bullet holes through them, brand new cars, abandoned vehicles, dead bodies. It was very chaotic.
What sort of shops did you have access to?
When people started coming back, there were shops in the back streets that were open. Not departmental shops, but little corner shops that sold everything that you could think of, including whiskey.
And you must have noticed a big change being there…
From the day we arrived to the day we left was quite incredible.
When we arrived, you would be lucky to see a soul walking around town. By the time we left, the town was virtually half full again. (BREAK)
That you experienced…
There were not just gunshot wounds and machete wounds, there were normal cases, breast cancer. I saw this young lady there
with what we call a fungating breast cancer, in other words the breast was starting to rot, and she was starting to smell. So the most humane thing to do. And once again, I didn't have any pathology to back me up on this. I just assumed that it had to be cancer, and I just assumed that it had to be cancer to rot the breast like that. I offered to remove the breast or she was going to die, she was going to die more comfortably. So I proceeded to do the operation.
There as an American Catholic or Christian volunteer who came all the way from New York, paid his own airfare over. He said, "Can I help you with this operation?" I said, "Yes." He said, "What do you want me to do?" I said, "It will be a good idea to remove the breast so she dies a happy life…not such a smelly death." And halfway through the operation he said to me, "Do you realise that she is HIV positive?"
I said, "No." "She is also full of pulmonary TB [tuberculous]." At one stage in this operation this American surgeon stuck a needle in himself. So I felt bad about this. He paid his own airfare to Rwanda, and he gets hurt like this. I don't know whether he is still alive. While we were operating on this lady, somebody stole his seven hundred dollar camera.
So his faith was sorely tested. There was some interesting cases, that I haven't seen forever. People with amoebic abscesses of the liver. Big abscesses of the liver, we don't see these in Australia.
I saw this mass and I operated and I didn't know what it was because I had never seen one in Australia, so I had to go back to the text books virtually that night, and I found it was an amoebic abscess, so I finished off the operation and we injected with special solutions to kill the amoeba.
What would that be a result of?
An amoebic abscess is caused by an organism.
The way to kill the organism is to remove the abscess and inject the hole with some chemical to kill it, which we fortunately had. I can't remember the chemical now, that is how rarely I use it. So there were some interesting cases.
What were some other things that you hadn't seen?
Another woman came to see me, and her teeth were growing. She had ulcers in her tongue. The reason she had ulcers in her tongue was because she copped a machete wound across her face.
And it split her teeth and her teeth were pointing, instead of pointing downwards they were pointing inwards into the gums. So her tongue was rubbing against her teeth, so we pulled her teeth out. Things that we would never, ever see here. A woman came in with half her face blown off, she needed a plastic surgeon.
She could still breathe, and still sort of eat and chew, with one side of her face and survive.
What was her face like?
It wasn't very nice, half of it was missing. I've got a photo there. But she survived. Eventually, if the country ever gets back to normality again and they have plastic surgeons, they might reconstruct her face for her.
There were lots and lots of gunshot wounds. They were interesting. They were using Kalashnikov rifles, but because they couldn't afford the long bullets, they were using the short bullets. So they don’t kill them so often, they just damage them more than killed them.
You told us before the process of a land mine injury coming in and what you would do. What is the process for a gunshot wound?
A gunshot wound is much the same.
You have to lay open the track to take out all the dead tissue. If a gunshot went in here and out there, you virtually laid the whole thing open and take all the dead tissue out, and then when it's clean, then you sew it together again. The same with a mine injury. You can't leave dead muscle, dead bone, dead tissue in there. It will just get infected.
I've got a lot of photos there. Once I see them, I can tell you what they are. It was pretty mundane stuff, horrible but mundane.
What is your over-riding impression of that experience?
Man's inhumanity to man. It is not necessary to do those things.
We're still doing it. They are supposed to be Christians, a lot of them, and I can't believe they would do that to their own people.
What do you think happened there? How did they get to that do you think?
It is a long colonial history, where the colonials used one tribe to suppress the other tribe. The minority tribe, the Tutsis
were suppressing the Hutus, who were the majority tribe. And after independence, they swept back. They got rid of them once in the '70s, then in the '90s, they tried to get rid of the remainders, by massacring them. And the ones who were expelled in the '70s came back with their army and they overran the Hutus. It's a political thing.
Are you religious yourself?
I guess I am. I don't know…there has to be a God, but are we praying to the right God. There has got to be someone there who is looking after us. If I'm a Christian, is that the same God that the Muslims pray to, perhaps?
Or Bhudism. They all pray to the one being.
So do you pray?
When I get into trouble, yeah. Many times, many times.
How do you reconcile there being a God with that sort of stuff that you had to see in Rwanda?
Perhaps it might be part of Methusulus, it's there to keep the population down. The biggest pollution in the world is human beings and we're doing it so well.
And we thought they might have killed the gorillas in Rwanda, we actually went up to check on them and they were still there.
Can you tell us about that experience?
Somebody one day said, "I wonder if the gorillas are still there, or have they been shot and used for meat or whatever?"
So we did an expedition and went up to the mountains and found a couple of the old warders who used to work to look after the gorillas and paid them some money to take us up to see the gorillas, and we're very lucky they did. They are magnificent animals. The first thing they told us is, do not bring the weapons with us. The gorillas would recognise weapons and be very aggressive. So we left our weapons behind, with a solider,
and we went up the mountains to see the gorillas. They're still there. They are magnificent, big animals, I am very glad I'm saw them.
Can you describe their habitat?
They live in this jungle. And the first one we came across was a huge female, lying in an open space
getting a bit of sun, and we all crept around to take photos and it was a bit too much noise, and she got annoyed. So she reached out and grabbed a little sapling and snapped it off and hit it on the ground, to let us know that she was annoyed. Then we saw a big silverback buck, he was six or seven feet tall, at least, he was huge.
They weren't aggressive at all.
Did you have many moments like that where you could get away and do something a little bit different?
No, that was the only time we had unfortunately. I believe after we left, the place came back under a bit of control and they were able to go out a bit more.
Did they have any organised entertainment? The nurses were staying in a compound area?
Yeah. Not that I knew of, because we were staying in a hospital, we just used to work.
Did you go to the compound much to socialise?
We would go there for meals, sometimes they brought the meals to us. We used to go there for our PT in the mornings sometimes, to the compounds, organised PTs, we had to learn…
What sort of exercise would you do?
The normal army PT anywhere in the world, you run, push-ups, sit-ups. Up and down stairs. Anything to make us perspire.
How do you think you maintained your sanity while you were involved in such high pressure work?
I read novels, I read a lot when I had time. And we talked to each other. We organised United Nations medical officers’' conferences every week, where we had doctors from the Ghanaian Army, the Canadian Army, the other different armies would come and present cases and they would ask us questions because they didn't have any specialists. My colleague and I were the only two specialists there.
They were for education amongst ourselves. I remember this Ghanaian officer came in and sat down, and he said, "Everybody, weapons in that corner." We looked and his and I said, "Don't you move." His pistol was loaded and uncocked. We slowly took it off him. The week before that he was working in a hospital,
they needed a doctor so they called him out, they gave him a uniform, gave him a pistol, and sent him to us, he didn't know how to use it. That was an interesting experience. I guess the medical corps in their army was not as well organised as ours. Ours at least gave us training in the weapons we were supposed to carry. His was loaded and uncocked. We couldn't believe it. We looked at it and said, "Wait a minute, don't you move. We'll just remove it off you." I said, "Why didn't you put it on safety?" He said, "I don't know how to use it.
I was in the hospital last week and they sent me here."
What sort of questions were they asking you then?
They were interested in medicine. They were asking, "How do treat this? How do you do this operation?" There was a Ghanaian soldier that saw me, he had this huge thyroid, a goitre, and I checked him over, I said, "Can you breathe?" "Yeah." "Can you swallow?" "Yeah." "How is your voice?" "Good, sir. Good. Normal."
I said, "You go home to Ghana, and you go to a proper hospital and they will remove that goitre for you. It's not cancerous, it's not obstructing your airwaves, you don't have to worry about it." "Yes sir." He left. The next day he comes back with his medical officer. I said, "I told him. He should really go back to Ghana, to a proper hospital. We're only a field hospital here." And the medical officer said, "He says this hospital is better than any we have in Ghana." So I had to do his operation
without the benefit…normally we would do an ultrasound to see how big it is, whether it is impinging on the voice box or behind the clavicles." We just removed it and chucked it away. He was so happy.
So what sort of communication were you getting from home?
That was great in Rwanda, not like the Gulf War.
Because as soon as we got there, Telstra put up a telephone. You could buy a Telstra card from Rwanda, plug it in, dial home and talk. So we were in contact every day. That was no problem. "Are you out of hospital yet, Margaret?"
And what about care packages?
We were right, because our mail wasn't too bad at all, not that we needed much mail.
After a while we had fresh food, because our logistics system was able to purchase it from neighbouring countries and fly it in for us. So we had fresh food, we had fresh rations then rather being on ration packs.
So in that situation, what did you personally miss from home?
Being able to have a beer at the end of the day. We did have beers at the end of the day, but it was not the same. We had a mess set up there. The first thing we set up was a little mess. It was better.
So family and…
Just home, you know, the weather, being comfortable, you drive along a road without having to look over your shoulder.
You know the people, you know the place. Just home.
Did it get to the point where it upset you at all? Did you get stressed or upset about being there?
I didn't really have much time to think about it. By the time I got on the plane, they actually had to drag me out of the operating theatre, "Come on, we're going now." The next rotation had arrived and we had handed over to them.
I was still operating on the chap…I was putting the skin on his head. They dragged me…I didn't realise how tired I was. I hopped into this horrible Hercules run by the United Nations. It was so loud and noisy and cold. They told me I slept all the way from there to Nairobi. Didn't wake up once.
Did it feel that you were leaving something behind that was still overwhelming?
Oh yes, I just wanted to finish the job off. I handed over to my colleagues and I said, "This is what I've been doing." Twenty-four hours to hand over and they took over.
Can you explain what happens in a twenty-four hand over?
He just follows me around to see what I do. I said, "In the morning we go down there…" ... (BREAK)
John was another general surgeon, he was happy and then I left.
Did you notice any surprise from him, by what he was seeing?
No, John was quite an experienced surgeon as well. John Crossy from Sydney, he took over from me. He was in the army reserves and he had been around a bit, too. He said, "Yeah, that's fine. I'll look after it now. Off you go." So we left.
Were you excited to go home?
Yes. We went home by Hercules. I got home. Margaret reckoned I hopped in the shower for forty-five minutes. I can't remember that. She reckoned I had changed.
I was just a cranky old bugger anyway. Where were the kids? They were in boarding school, yes.
How did she think that you changed?
I don't know. She said I was different now.
But that experience, that would have to change you in some ways…
Yeah, I guess it does.
It makes you wonder what it is all about. We're still doing the same things, aren't we? Right now. Crazy. Protect Iraq, the elections are coming up, protect their freedom. We've got people who don't appreciate us. I guess it made me feel how lucky we are.
Yeah, I've heard that quite a bit. Particularly in the Rwanda situation. It just seems to have had such a huge effect on people. You come home and you appreciate what you have…
As I said, I've got a photo there that keeps reminding me, 'What are you bitching about.'
That's the photo with the children?
When you came home, what did you do then?
I went back to my work again. I started my practice then. I had to…continue working.
You said you had that photo for you to remember. It must be frustrating to come home and treat Australians who were probably not experiencing anything near what you had seen.
Yes, we have people with cancers that we treat, and you can say they are just as bad, if not worse, because they are not used to that. On the other hand, there are people with a lot of minor problems…
…they are not well. It's very hard to say, I feel like saying, "Get on with it. Look at those kids there. They've got no legs and they're still smiling. They're probably dead now." But you can't say that.
What was the hardest thing to adjust to about coming home?
I don't know, I just accepted life, I suppose, and I just kept going.
Think of the future. Make a better life for my family, and just save my money and put it away for my retirement, so I can go and do things that I like. Like everybody else, I have the same ambition in life. I'm not going to change the life of the rest of the world, I can't.
I'm only one person.
When did you leave the Army then?
I retired seven years ago, when I turned fifty-five.
And how long was that after you came home from Rwanda?
Three years, two and a half years after I came back.
So what did you do for that last two and a half years?
I was posted to the military hospital here in Brisbane.
And I started a little practice on the side.
What did you miss about the army when you left?
It's a part of your life, after a long time, through the highs and lows. I haven't severed my ties with the army. I go every Thursday to operate on the soldiers there.
I see soldiers that I was in Rwanda with. I remember he was the sergeant, he was driving me along. He was the guy who was cleaning his shoes when I thought we were being attacked the first night. And he had come back as a warrant officer class one. He had reached the top of the tree and come back. We sat there and talked about old times. I said, "Do you remember the day you were driving me along and you stopped the car and shoved a rifle in my hands and told me to keep a look out?"
What was happening was he was driving me along this deserted street, the whole town was deserted. There was this beautiful Landcruiser, brand new, full of bullet holes. And in front of it was a brand new electric winch. So Eddie said, "Hold the rifle. Keep a look out." So he hopped out with a spanner, threw it in. I said, "Have you still got the winch, Eddie?" "Yes, sir."
Things like that, it makes you go back.
Is there still a special connection with the people that you knew in that situation?
More than that. He was in my unit and we had known each other for years, we had been training together. We went to war together, we came back together, progressing in the army, retiring together. It is a big family.
People say, "What are you going back in the army for?" I say, "It's good to see the boys again." The army has changed now. It's not the same anymore. They don’t have the pension anymore, did you know that? Once upon a time, when you've done twenty years, you get a pension. Now they don’t have that anymore. They're like anybody else,
you wait until you're sixty-five for your pension, so a lot of people don't stay. The problem now is the retention problem. You've probably had people talk about it before.
We've had different people talk about other areas of the services and the changes. But we've haven't really heard from…?
A lot of people like myself, after the fifteen-year mark says, "Why am I wasting my time here? I've been there, done that, I've been to war.
Done everything else." You know a lot, which is useful. But then if you want to get on with your life, you get out. But a lot of people stay on. "I'll stay another four or five years and get a pension." So they do. Now they've lost that. I've tried to tell the politicians, but they're not really interested.
What other changes have you seen in the army?
The new total quality control. TQM, or whatever they call it these days. How they can apply it to the army? But they're doing it. New corporate procedures. I don’t' know, I might be out of date, it might be the way to go.
More intelligent people have thought about this more than I have and they have said, "This is the way we have got to go."
When you came back, did you train other people with regard to your experiences in Rwanda?
Yes, I gave a lot of lectures. And I still give lectures on how to treat gunshot wounds. This part of the thing. Every medical officer who joins the army goes through the DGO [?] course where they discuss…and one of the core modules is to learn about gunshot wounds, treat trauma, fractures, burns…
You were saying before that when you started your training in the army, some of the surgeons from the Vietnam War talked about the experiences and the changes. What sort of changes do you think have come out of more recent peace-keeping situations?
The trauma is the same, there is not much difference. The antibiotics are better. In orthopaedics, instead of using the splints, they use
external fixaters, where they put screws in and bolt it up like a Meccano set. That is a new innovation. Resuscitation is much better. Transportation is much better. Medical evacuation…
In what way is resuscitation much better?
We have better fluids to replace them with. Instead of just normal salines, we have colloids and stuff like that that we didn't have in the old days. And blood, you can get blood on the front line now.
Oh yeah, the technology is much better, and we've got telemedicine of course, where you can ask advice from thousands of miles. They've got a station out in America, they can have a surgeon sitting back in Boston operating on somebody in the battlefield. They move that, and the robotic arms on the other side operate.
Have you had that situation where people have called you for advice on a situation?
No. Evacuation is…the guy who got shot in Timor who ended up here, in Brisbane, they did the final operation here. The initial wound surgery was done in Timor by another surgeon, he was evacuated back to here, and we looked after him here.
How long would that round trip have been?
From Timor back to here? Only a few days. Less than that.
Because we can't operate on him for at least four or five days after the initial wound surgery so we can sew everything together. We've got to leave it open, until everything is clean, then we sew it together. No problems.
What happened at Timor? You were invited to go once again?
I had retired by then. My family didn't want me to go. I thought I had better listen to them for a change. I would have loved to have gone.
Why is that?
I don't know. It's a macho thing…I don't know, it's a thing that I have been trained to do. You can do something good and it's an adventure. It's the macho thing to do. It is in your blood, the adrenaline rush.
We've talked about some of the changes in the army. How did it benefit you in your life,
being part of the army?
Well, I get a pension. I made a lot of good friends for life. Situations that a lot of normal people won't go through, and after you've been through that, you get a good bond, good friendship. In the army is like…
a big club, I suppose. Any army in the world. When I was in England, I did my fellowship in England, and I wrote to the Edinburgh Castle Officers Mess, and I said, "Dear Sir. Can I please stay in the officers’ mess, because I am to do an exam in Edinburgh." They said, "Oh, colonel, welcome to our mess. Seven pounds a week full board."
So I lived in Edinburgh Castle for about three or four weeks, at seven pounds full board. It was fantastic. As I said, it's a club.
What are you most proud of with your extensive career?
I don't know, I suppose…
People depend on you. It's good to know that after all the years, they say, "Sir, you're the only one I trust. I don’t trust the army, but you're the best commanding officer. You're the only one I trust, I want to talk to you." I have to say, "It's finished, it's finished. Go away.
Start your new life."
And what are you most proud of with your time in Rwanda?
I'm not proud of anything, just the fact that I've done the job, come home in one piece. I don’t think I've done too much to change…I think of the one hundred and forty eight operations that I did, most of them would be dead by now. One way or the other. What have I done? Nothing. What is one hundred and forty eight in a thousand?
Nearly a million there were murdered. I haven't done much.
I think you've done some incredible things…
I saw the gorillas, that's pretty good.
What did it teach you, do you think?
The whole affair? Humility.
How small we are in the world, and how insignificant we are. Yeah. If you can do something good, I guess. But I haven't done anything much.
Again I would have to disagree with you. When you left the army, what did you do then?
I just started working as specialist surgeon in a civilised community, taking out appendices and fixing hernias and operating on people with bowel cancers and breast cancer and thyroid cancers and being sued by the public. That's another story. That hasn't happened, but I've always been scared. I can fight with HIV, but these lawyers I just can't handle.
These people who look and all they can think about is, 'How can I sue this bloke.' I worked for the public service, and I remember going out in the middle of the night to operate on a drug addict who had stuck a knife in his belly, and all he could think about was how he could sue us. I felt like leaning on the knife and going back to bed. I said, "How ungrateful can these people be? He is full of drugs on our pension money that he hasn't paid a cent to.
Now he's trying to sue us so he can get more money to buy more drugs." And I think of the people in Rwanda, I look at the photo sometimes, and I think, 'This is crazy, this is crazy. What are we breeding here?' But we give them the money to buy the drugs. I also meet some interesting people like one of my patients owns the franchise to…
The second hand place…Cash Converters. And he said, "I don't have anymore goods." I said, "Why?" He said, "As soon as the government gave everybody three thousand dollar allowances, they brought every DVD [digital video disc], every video, every stereo in the shop. I've got nothing left." That money is meant to bring the kids up. So once again, I said,
"What the hell? What can I do about it? Join a political party? I'm not going to change them. They gave this money for pork-barrelling, you know and I know it." So what have we done there, nothing. I'm very pessimistic.
Interviewee: John Teh Archive ID 2481 Tape 08
Having had most of your career as a doctor and a surgeon in the army, how do you view that sort of experience compared with say, now that you've spent some years in the civilian world, how do you think your life might have been different if you had been a surgeon in the civilian world rather than in the army?
I think the army has given me a lot of qualities.
They taught me leadership, man management, honesty with oneself and being able to have more, what they call, guts to do what is right. Much more so than I would have if I had just joined the rat race and just followed the crowd and become a surgeon and made a million dollars and live a life of luxury and not know what the other side of the world is all about,
and how people suffer in wars. It has given me more confidence in myself that I have been able to do that, save life in adverse conditions, and how small I am compared to the scheme of things. I know a lot more about the army now. It is not a homogenous thing that one would expect. It is very part of a different course, fighting each other for control of supplies and power…
It just makes you a better more rounded, full person, instead of saying, "Gee, I must have missed out on something there." I haven't miss out on anything in life. I've done everything that I really wanted to do. I was a scuba-diving instructor before, fly aeroplanes. I am just happy. And the army has done that, too.
You have a son who is a doctor. Would you recommend to him to join the army?
I would be happy if he did, but he is a different personality, and it is different times now. To join the army, it is really a twenty-four a day, seven days a week job. But now the younger doctors, the younger surgeons, the younger people, want their lifestyle, their freedom,
no stress life, enjoyment. It is a different generation.
Even your daughter for example, would you be happy if she joined the army?
I'd be happy. She would be good in the army. She would be more suitable for the army.
Do you need to be of a certain character do you think?
Or does the army train you…
You have got to be what you are. The army can do that much. That's all the army can do. If you're just not meant for it, you're not meant for it.
Having participated in two major conflict situations, when you see a situation where we're in at the moment, where we're involved in another war, Gulf War II, a continuation of that war, even though the war is supposed to be over…
How does that impact on you?
It doesn't really. As I said, I just roll with the punches. It is happening, there is nothing I can do about it. The incredulous thing is that we are still doing the same barbaric things we're doing to each other again. Cutting off heads, shooting people.
It's barbaric, and we're still doing it. The only way I believe we can do it is educate the whole world, and instil a sense of ethics and things like that.
When you look back on those experiences in the Gulf War and Rwanda, what is the most satisfying or rewarding memory that you have?
Coming home alive, I guess. Done the job, coming home.
That is rewarding.
And you said before that you felt insignificant, that you had performed a hundred and forty-eight operations but the fact of how many million people died. Didn't it give you satisfaction that you were helping some people?
Yes, I helped them. But as I explained before, in lots of cases I never finished it.
I could not give him his chemotherapy after his cancer of the testes. I couldn’t follow up the soldier's thyroid and what sort of goitre it was. You do the best that you can, but it is not what you would have liked to have done, but you can't do anything more and you just accept it. If you start soul searching, it is just too much.
Do you think the Australian army learnt from that experience, so that things would be done somewhat different in the future?
We learn from every war and we forget when the next one comes along. That is what happened in Vietnam, that is virtually the same thing that happened in Rwanda. We said, "What is the most important thing? Ammunition. Put it first, in case we forget that." Then you get over there and what do you take out first? The shoes and the shoelaces and ammunition. Virtually the same scenario.
We're doing the same thing here. Logistics are so important, we write reports, everybody writes report. When I came back, as I said, I was summoned before the logistics general and asked why did I go public on the lack of equipment that we had. He carpeted me and said, "Colonel, about your alleged deficiencies" I said, "Excuse me, sir? I was there, the equipment wasn't.
To me that is a deficiency." Cheeky bugger. "Colonel, about your alleged deficiencies…" It's the system.
Was there any ultimate reaction from the army to that, to your concerns about the deficiencies?
Nothing. Lots of complaints.
It's a big organisation and for everybody, when you reach a certain stage, it becomes more political. You've probably heard this from other people as well. When you reach a certain rank, it is very political. I just like the army for the people.
What sort of debriefing did you receive after Rwanda?
Nothing. Once again, there were debriefings with lots of people, and I just didn't bother turning up.
I don’t know whether I am stupid, but I didn't turn up.
Knowing what you know of PTSD, and you spoke earlier about the fact, you said that Veterans Affairs had diagnosed you with PTSD. What symptoms, if any, do you have of that disorder?
I don't know. I do have dreams. Everybody has dreams. What's the big deal. Sometimes they're good dreams, some of them are bad dreams. You can't say everything is PTSD and expect a pension for it. I guess I should have accepted it and run.
What do you dream about?
Some things in the army.
Not so much the dangerous situations that I had. I dreamt that one of my soldiers was killed driving one of my trucks, or…just crazy, mad dreams. I think, 'What am I worried about that for? I'm no longer the commanding officer, they're no longer my responsibility.' I try to put it behind me. And you dream of, 'Now was that the right decision I made?' I wake up, I'm no longer in the army, what the hell are you doing?
So after all these years, it's a part of you. You're green.
When did you feel most threatened while you were in Rwanda?
Every time I operated, because of HIV positive. It's an enemy that you can't see. Every time I picked up a scalpel and cut, the blood was there, and there was the danger that the smoke I was breathing could have HIV in it,
or I could stick myself or something could splash onto me. That was a danger, that was a constant danger.
So that was a much greater threat then when you travelled around?
Yeah, well, at least it is something physical. If somebody shoots at you, and I was in the middle of the soldiers in the convoy, if they ambush us, they ambush us. The situations where you can't do much about, like dealing with HIV,
or when we were arriving in Rwanda and the plane was held up and we were circling the airport, that was a bit scary, too, because you have no control over it. Knowing the war in Rwanda started when the president was shot down when he was circling the airport. And there was a history we knew there, that was really concerning. And the other thing that was concerning me was practising with a blind fold groping your way up from five stories down, trying to get to fresh air if the ship sunk. So it was the situations where you can't control.
The situations where you can control, you're looking around, you've got a weapon in your hand, you're in the middle of soldiers and you're quite happy with it, I wasn’t concerned about that.
Because you had some control over what was going on?
Yes, yes. Strike back. If you get a HIV needle in the wrong place, there is no way you can strike back.
Have you ever thought of going back to Rwanda?
No, no. I don't really want to see that place again. Horrible things happened there. The world is so unhappy, so why find unhappy places to go to?
Do you like to travel to other places?
Oh, I used to. I much prefer to travel around Australia. Join the grey nomads in a couple of years time,
and drive the caravan around Australia, this is a happy country.
What does Anzac Day mean to you?
I attend every dawn service. I march in town every Anazac Day. It means a lot.
Yeah, it is good.
Why is it good?
I don't know.
I just get a good feeling. I've done the job over there, I've come home, safe, the place is safer I hope.
Do you meet up with friends then?
Do you talk about your experiences together? Or what do you talk about?
We talk rubbish mainly. We very rarely talk about what happened. We know what happened.
Despite the stories you hear, you win the war every time, you're going to see them again. How are you? How are the kids? where are you going fishing next time? Anything but…I don't usually talk about it.
Have you spoken to your family about your experiences in Rwanda?
Do they ever ask you?
Oh yes, I show them a few photos. "What's that, Dad?" I say, "They got hurt, got shot."
It's no big deal.
So now that you are continuing to work as a surgeon now, what are your hopes for the immediate future?
Well, I hope to retire when I still will be able to do some travelling around Australia, driving my caravan, and fishing, throwing a line in, having a beer. Simple things.
I don’t want to go to five star hotels or fly around the world. I am just happy to do normal things. I go fishing with my friends, on Fraser Island, like we did last month with my friends and family.
So do you have a final comment that you would like to put on the record for, perhaps, future generations about your life experience or your experience in the army?
Not really. I've done what I've had to do and that is it. Nothing spectacular. Things have happened, nothing has changed.
I think you have had a very significant role in that particular conflict.
The real conflict was the one of the Gulf War where we did nothing.
We wasted all the power. We had all the beautiful hospitals and we weren't allowed to treat the people who were wounded because we were different religions. That is crazy.
Thank you so much for your time today.