From conscription to commemoration

29 July 2023
  • Veteran stories
  • History & commemoration

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the end of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, veteran Kel Ryan shares his story of service and commemoration.

Kel Ryan registered for National Service and was conscripted into the Australian Army in June 1965. He first deployed to Vietnam as an Infantry Soldier in D Company 5RAR the following year.  

“As the saying goes, it rained a lot, and we walked a lot. We did a lot of patrolling, seeking out the enemy in the early days of establishing the Australian base in Nui Dat.  It was a time of constant activity,” Kel says of his first deployment to Vietnam.  

“There was some action – some contacts, as we called them – but it was primarily jungle warfare, which we'd been trained in.”  

Kel Ryan and photos from the Vietnam War

On his return to Australia, Kel decided to stay in the Army, training and graduating as an officer. Kel deployed to Vietnam again, this time as a Captain, and had a vastly different experience.  

“As aide-de-camp to the Australian Commander, General Dunstan, I got to travel the country and I saw a totally different side of the war, which was a great education for a young captain.” 

But the Vietnam War was becoming politically and socially divisive, and many veterans were not treated with the respect and honour they deserved upon returning home.  

Anti-war campaigns, such as the ‘Save Our Sons’ campaign, began to have an impact on veterans returning home in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  

“Bear in mind in 1966-67, there was a general support for the commitment to Vietnam and for the soldiers. But towards the end of the 1960s, it was starting to have an impact; some of my friends were not well received when they came home,” Kel says. 

“A friend of mine came back and went to university but didn't tell anybody where he had been for two years because of the anti-war movement and the influence that was having in universities.”  

Straight after his second tour of Vietnam, Kel served in New Guinea for three years, and with SASR for four years. Because he was serving overseas, he wasn’t exposed to the treatment that many of his fellow soldiers received back home, but he has been a witness to it ever since. 

“Some particularly suffered, with the ‘Vietnam was not a real war’ business. I never experienced that, but I know others who did feel that hurt,” Kel says. 

“It's the sort of comment that people coming back from WWII would not have received. They would have been welcomed back. 

“But many guys came back from Vietnam and were not welcomed as their fathers were, which was and remains a tragedy for them and their families.”  

Kel served in the Australian Army for a total of 24 years, but his service to the Defence community continues to this day. Kel first joined the RSL in 1973 while in PNG and is currently a member of the Cairns RSL Sub Branch.  

“When you get out of the military, there is a natural inclination to be involved. Sometimes people come knocking, like in my case, saying we need somebody to be the treasurer of the Sub Branch. And then it develops and evolves. 

“You then get involved in commemoration and you get involved in helping people. I wanted to progressively become more involved, which I did.”  

Kel went on to serve as a Sub Branch President, District President (twice), State Vice President and State Deputy President. He has also been actively involved in other ex-service organisations on local, state and national levels.  

Kel Ryan at Anzac Square

Kel champions the importance of commemoration among veterans, especially Vietnam veterans, and the broader community, and will lead the Cairns RSL Sub Branch Vietnam Veterans’ Day service on 18 August. 

But it is his contribution to Australia’s history that Kel is most proud of. 

“I see it in the sense that our fathers served in WWI and WWII and were part of the Australian story. As Vietnam veterans, we are now part of that story,” Kel says.  

“It's the fact that I personally contributed to our national story, and I'm very pleased and proud to have done that.” 


Vietnam Veterans’ Day | Honour those who served  

On Vietnam Veterans’ Day (18 August), join us in honouring all Australians who served and sacrificed in the Vietnam War.  

Attend an event at your local RSL Sub Branch or tune into a commemorative service.  

Lest we forget.  

Learn more about Vietnam Veterans Day