KARRAGARRA ISLAND’S JEFF GARRETT A DESIGNATED VIETNAM WAR ‘HERO’ FOR GOOD REASON! Karragarra Island’s Jeff Garrett has a Vietnam War record that is not just impressive, but outstanding in its audacity and effect. After hearing his story, it is no wonder he has been featured in countless books written about a war that is still so vivid for so many, for varying and different reasons. And it is no surprise that Jeff’s legacy is that he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and, ironically, was one of the first Australian returned servicemen to be ‘diagnosed’ with the disorder before it became universally recognised. He also is highly decorated, earning 2 Meritorious Navy Unit Citations, a US Army Commendation; The Vietnam Cross for Gallantry; has been ‘Mentioned in Despatches’ and in private life has also a Commendation for Brave Conduct involving a major rescue at Yamba. By the way, Jeff is still to be awarded the Naval Commendation 50 years after it all ‘went down’. So, how does a boy from Dungog NSW and the son of a farmer (he is also a cousin of Australian cricket legend Doug Walters) get to join the most dangerous area of Australian Naval forces. “I wasn’t called up, I signed up for a nine year stint in the Navy as a ‘regular’ in 1965. I was 18. “I joined the Navy Clearance Diving team; it was polar opposite to my life on the farm in Dungog,” Jeff said. Jeff Garrett served from 1965 starting out as an ordinary seaman, and ‘passed out’ in 1977 as a Petty Officer and clearance diving instructor of high distinction. Jeff was attached to the Australian Navy’s Clearance Diving Team 3, the most highly decorated Australian unit of the Vietnam War. He rose through the ranks quickly becoming the first Leading Seaman under four years and the first Acting Provisional Clearance Diver. His early years involved the highly physical and mental training to become a Clearance Diver. He was attached to the infamous HMAS Melbourne aircraft carrier for four months as part of his early training (all Australian ships have Clearance Divers for maintenance and ‘mine’ clearing) He got to Vietnam in 1969 for a six-month stint where he crammed more action into his life than he would for the rest of his life. He and his unit were attached to US control where Jeff worked closely with the US Navy Seals. The group lived in a cave in Phuoc Tuy province and the Australian area of operation, Vung Tau. Jeff was involved in several major actions that saw him on four occasions under direct fire from the Viet Cong. “I got so close to the enemy that I could see and smell what they were eating for lunch.” Jeff wasn’t just shooting at the enemy,. He was required to be basically on his own, in the Mekong River, activating charges under bridges and getting very up close and personal with the enemy. “There were four major trips down the highly volatile Mekong River where we were constantly and directly under fire.” Jeff was also involved in a famous incident that thwarted a Viet Cong subversive attack on the USS Hickman. All hell broke loose when Viet Cong swimmers had attached a mine to the US ship. Jeff entered the water and found a metal container suspended between the pier and a US craft MV Heredia. The mine exploded as Jeff was reporting its location, but he entered the water again to locate another mine that was to have a profound impact on mine detection for the rest of the war. Jeff got hold of the first undetonated Soviet BPM-2 mine that was able to be analysed and used to later effect great results. For this he was Mentioned in Despatches. It was in these actions that the first signs of PTSD began to emerge. “There is nothing more frightening and fearful than being shot at directly in a hail of bullets. “My anxiety went right through the roof. “And it never goes away,” Jeff explained. Jeff today is comfortable talking about PTSD, but it wasn’t always that way. So much so, he is often asked to speak at offical events and functions about the trauma condition. “I have since discovered that the high stress levels brings about a physiological and chemical change in the body. It is unchangeable.” There were other highlights in Jeff’s Naval life as a Clearance Diver. One of them was being involved in the search for former Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, who ‘went missing’ on 17 December 1967. “We were flown to Portsea from Sydney via Canberra within a few hours of the disappearance. “After we saw the place and the conditions, there was no way Mr Holt was ever going to get out. “Our experienced divers were dashed against the rocks in horrific conditions.” Jeff Garrett left the Navy in 1977 but has never forgotten his wartime experiences, as it is for most ex-servicemen and exservicewomen. He went on to maintain lighthouses in Queensland and the Northern Territory,;to marry three times; and to own several businesses including a restaurant and window tinting business. He is accomplished at timber work and is proud of the 50 ft yacht he built and his very ‘nautical’ home he has built on Karragarra Island. Jeff Garrett is a ‘straight shooter’ and enjoys a chat. If you see him around, say ‘G’Day’. He attends the Naval Association of Australia (Qld) service every year commemorating the Heroes of the Royal Australian Navy Clearance Divers at the Jack Tar Memorial in South Brisbane each October, and Anzac Day services.
• Jeff Garrett with his proud blazer and service medals.
• Jeff (3rd left) in Vietnam with his diving crew mates.