Les Kropinyeri
Ngarrindjeri Man (Coorong, South Australia) 
Retired Corporal
9th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment
Royal Australian Infantry Corps
Australian Army
Vietnam veteran

Medals
Australian Active Service Medal with clasp Vietnam
Vietnam Medal
Australian Defence Medal
Anniversary of National Service 1951-72 Medal

 

I am a Ngarrindjeri Man from the Coorong region in South Australia. I was born in 1946 and grew up in Tailem Bend, the third eldest of 8 children to my parents, Alban Ricardo and Gertrude Kropinyeri. Dad served in Darwin during the war, and was promoted to Sergeant. After I left school I worked on the Railways and my brother and I joined the CMF (Citizens Military Forces) while my sister joined the WRAACs (Women’s Royal Australian Army Corps).

Then, in 1967, I was called up for National Service. At the medical, the doctor said, ‘Do you want to go any further? You’re Aboriginal, you can get an exemption and go home.’ But I thought, ‘Well, I’ve come this far, I’ll go the rest of the way.’ ‘Fair enough’ he said so I was off to Puckapunyal to do my recruit training and then onto Singleton for Corps training as an infantryman.

They must have recognised some ability in me because I was selected to be promoted to Corporal and train recruits, only 9 months after being a recruit myself! Then they transferred me to 9th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (9 RAR) to do my jungle warfare training at Canungra.

In November 1968, we sailed for Vietnam on HMAS Sydney.  I was made a Section Commander in Charlie Company. We’d be out two or three weeks at a time on operation. I’d be juggling a map, compass and M16 leading my section of 10, navigating through thick jungle, looking out for VC. It was just coming off the wet season when we were there, and it didn’t rain; it bloody rained! You start worrying your rifle wouldn’t fire, and how to keep your ammunition dry. Then the rain would stop, and you’d be sweating in the heat. We never knew when we might be hit, or who was the enemy. You’d see a farmer working in his rice paddy, but at night he’d be Viet Cong.

I didn’t do the full tour because my time was up. But 5 months over there was enough to experience it all.  We saw a lot of death –  of our own people too. Flying home, we had more than 24 coffins in the Hercules with us. We were coming home alive. They were coming home to a funeral.

I arrived home to family in time for my sister’s 21st birthday, and then back to work on the Railways.  There was a lot of stigma about Vietnam, about losing the war, and being baby killers. But I used to think, you weren’t there, how would you know? It took a long time to heal, but that’s all changed now.

After the railways I worked for Welfare and then Health. Robyn and I met and married. We have four children, a daughter and three sons, 12 grandchildren, and 2 great-granddaughters. I’ve done the Department of Veterans Affairs pension and welfare officer courses and I work to assist veterans to get their entitlements and improve their standard of living. So many, like my father, came home and got nothing. Dad had to get an exemption from being Aboriginal just to have a drink with his mates.

I’m on our local RSL committee and a member of the Vietnam Veterans’ Association, TPI Association SA, and the Regimental Association.

In 2006, a group of us veterans formed a committee chaired by Marj Tripp AO for a national memorial that would recognise the service of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. With the support of prominent South Australians we realised that dream in 2013, when the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce dedicated the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander War Memorial on the Torrens Parade Ground in Adelaide.

I didn’t come across any racial discrimination during my time in the Army. Often I’d be the only Aboriginal person amongst my white mates, but we were all in it together. It built a bond between us; one we’ll never forget.