Dell had seen veterans turn to drink and drugs: You weak bastards, he would think

Greg Milam’s And Bring the Darkness Home is a haunting exploration of how the mental scars of war destroyed the international cricket career of Tony Dell, the only Test cricketer to have served in Vietnam. In our first extract, Dell, who appeared in an Ashes match in 1970 and opened the bowling for Queensland with Jeff Thomson, finally finds out what has been making his life so challenging for 40 years.

THE TELEPHONE call came out of the blue. It was the winter of 2007 and, until that moment, Tony Dell had no idea that he was the only Test cricketer to have served in combat in Vietnam. The man who told him, a retired colonel, thought that piece of history made Dell the perfect guest at the first-ever International Defence Cricket Challenge that summer. Teams from the Australian Army, Navy and Air Force were due to compete with defence forces from New Zealand and the United Kingdom in Canberra.

Dell was in his early sixties, living in the garage of his mother’s house on the Sunshine Coast and in a physical state bad enough to worry his old mates. He had no money. Baked beans on toast constituted a good meal. A concoction of chicken nuggets in chicken noodle soup was a treat. ‘I was living off the smell of an oily rag,’ he said. He had never much bothered with the traditions of being a military veteran. He had never taken part in the annual ANZAC Day parades, never went to reunions, never wanted to return to Vietnam, as so many had done, to revisit the old haunts and try to heal the old wounds. His war service seemed an age away to him. It had left no scars, he thought. No physical ones, anyway. But an event combining military service and cricket intrigued him. He said ‘Yes’ and flew to Canberra.

He stayed for the final three days of the tournament, watching the semi-finals and final at the Manuka Oval. The other guests included the commanding officer of the first Australian Services side, moulded from soldiers, sailors and airmen still left in Europe at the end of World War Two in 1945. They played so-called Victory Tests to packed English grounds, war-weary cricket fans crying out for a bit of normality, the familiar routines of peacetime life. That first services team knew plenty about combat and cricket. In the team was Flying Officer Keith Miller, who would go on to be regarded as his country’s greatest cricketing all-rounder.

At that first International Defence Cricket Challenge, Tony Dell was the sole representative from the Vietnam War. As he was preparing to leave Canberra for home, someone asked in passing if he had received the fifth medal due to Vietnam veterans. The fifth medal was news to him: he didn’t even have the four he was originally issued with. ‘I told them my kids had wrecked them over the years, tearing the ribbons off, and that I had nothing left.’ He was told he could request replacement medals from the Department of Defence. He nodded, said he would, flew home and promptly forgot all about it. ‘I got a call a month later. “Have you been back to get your medals?” I said no. They called in January. “Have you been back?” “No,” I said. I thought to myself I’d better do it otherwise they’ll just keep on calling and it’ll drive me nuts.’

Half an hour up the Sunshine Coast from Caloundra is the glistening seaside suburb of Maroochydore. ‘Pulsing with nightlife, full of bloodthirsty adventure and oozing with soul’ says the tourist blurb. Tony Dell went looking, not for any of that, but for the veterans’ drop-in centre. He found it upstairs in the Cotton Tree library. As he began to explain why he was there, looking for information on applying for replacement medals, the volunteers wanted to talk about cricket instead. Over a cup of tea, the conversation flowed, old veterans chewing over the past, and after half an hour of chatting, they delivered a bombshell.

‘They said, “You have PTS,”‘ remembers Dell. ‘Like all soldiers who think they are bulletproof, I said, “Bullshit.”‘

Until that moment, Dell has said, he was unaware that PTS even existed. Sure, he had seen fellow veterans who had turned to drink or drugs to cope with their demons. ‘You weak bastards,’ he would think. This, though, was his own moment of truth. Perhaps surprisingly, after that initial moment of shock and denial, he said he accepted what the volunteers were telling him. They had been through war themselves, they had been diagnosed with PTS and had learned to live with it. They wanted to help others. Whatever it was that they saw in Dell, they were in no doubt.

Tomorrow: The novelty of serving in a real war stepping up in a sporting one does not go unnoticed

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