The day that Nick Cronan was awarded his Veterans Motorcycle Club “patch” was right up there with his finest days in uniform.
A veteran of combat in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan, Cronan couldn’t remember anything so meaningful since the army had pinned a “Skippy Badge” on him as an eighteen year old.
The insignia of the Royal Australian Regiment signified his place in a brotherhood of warriors. The four-piece rocker of the VMC is a symbol of the legacy that warriors must carry when the battle is done. It’s just as valuable to Cronan as the chest full of medals he wears on Anzac Day, but the patch is an everyday reminder that he belongs to something bigger than himself.
Like many biker vets, Cronan considered joining an outlaw motorcycle club. A number of Australian servicemen returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have joined the outlaw clubs but not, as some police and media believe, to embark on a life of crime. There have been wild media stories about former Afghan vets joining outlaw clubs expressly to use their military skills to wage war on society. (Even more ludicrous have been tales of Afghan refugees coming to Australia to become hitmen for bikie groups but that’s for another post.)
Why does it surprise people that the solidarity and order of a motorcycle club might appeal to a soldier adjusting to civilian life, especially if he was into motorbikes? The dark conspiracy story is more appealing, no doubt.
With “Casper”, the skull and slouch hat patch of the VMC, on his back, Cronan feels he can negotiate a world that some days feels foreign to him.
It was the same for the other two new members alongside him at their induction ceremony in August. For Duncan Carter it was the first time since his two tours in East Timor that he felt a sense of “purpose, unity and direction.”
Cronan and Carter recognized future versions of themselves as they looked out at the grizzled old members of the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club, which had spawned the VMC. Their experiences had been in the jungles of Vietnam 40 years earlier but there was a thread connecting them. “The Bunker”, as the VVMC’s club house in south-east Brisbane is known, felt like a safe haven to them.
Cronan says the older vets understand what he is going through, the dreams, the irritability that rises up without reason and those days when he just doesn’t want to talk.
In the company of these veterans, the post-traumatic stress syndrome he is suffering is “not an ugly secret that needs to be hidden.” The older men have been dealing with it for decades.
Like a growing number of young ex-servicemen, Cronan and Carter are finding acceptance and understanding in the ranks of the Vietnam veterans.
And the VMC is breathing new life into the VVMC, a club that was supposed to die with the last of its members.
In his own words, “Agro”, the president of the Queensland chapter of the VVMC, was “a deadset drunk and a pain in the arse” for years after coming home from Vietnam. He had run away from society to the mines where for 15 years he rarely mentioned his war service. As he battled his demons, he drank himself half to death but Sydney’s “Welcome Home” parade in 1987 where 25 000 Vietnam vets marched was a turning point. The job he had done for his country was finally recognised. He re-enlisted in the military, serving a stint in the air force and begun to seek out other vets.
He put an ad in a Melbourne newspaper calling for Vietnam vets who were into motorbikes to meet up at the Broadford Hotel to discuss setting up a club. Many vets had joined outlaw motorcycle clubs but there were just as many riding alone. Fourteen men turned up that day and they created the first version of the club.
Later a group of seven vets in Queensland formally adopted the slouch hat and skull patch that the fictitious club, The Gravediggers MC, had worn in Stone, the 1974 low-budget Australian biker film. In the film, The Gravediggers had been disgruntled and bitter veterans of the Vietnam and Korean Wars who had adopted the biker lifestyle in protest against society which they felt had failed to recognise their wartime sacrifice.
However, the vets couldn’t adopt the four-piece rocker design for their patch without the approval and permission of the five main outlaw clubs in Queensland.
That style of back patch had been the preserve of the “1 %” clubs, the outlawswhom the American Motorcyclist Association in 1947 had complained gave the 99 per cent of law-abiding riders a bad name.
The two groups had common origins. The first outlaw bikers had been US servicemen returned from World War II who had found adjusting to civilian life difficult after the adrenalin-fuelled camaraderie of military life. Early US clubs like the Boozefighters MC, the Pissed Off Bastards Of Bloomington MC and the Market Street Commandos MC were full of veterans who had developed a love for the Harley-Davidson motorcycles they had ridden in the military.
But some Australian outlaw bikers believed the new MC might pose a threat to the fragile status quo that existed between the 1% clubs.
After tense negotiations, it was agreed on a handshake that VVMC members could wear their patch, but there were conditions. The colours could not be red and white as the Gravediggers had worn in Stone. Red and white are the exclusive property of the Hells Angels MC, so the VVMC adopted black and gold. They also agreed not to wear the small diamond shaped “1%” patch that distinguished outlaw clubs. And crucially there was a sunset clause that stipulated that when the last VVMC member died, the club would cease to exist.
“When they buried the last vet, the club and colours would go in the hole too. That was the only way they could get the nod to become a club,” said one outlaw club member. No Australian motorcycle club has since been allowed to have a four-piece rocker patch. Any group that attempts to do this can expect a stern please explain from outlaw clubs, if not a threat of violence.
Some chapters of social riding clubs like the over-40s Ulysses MC have dared adopt outlaw style patches but do so at their own peril.
To emphasise the difference between the VVMC and their outlaw cousins, the club organised a Stone memorial run in 1993.
The original Grave Diggers’ colours were escorted by 12,000 riders led by the VVMC, to a ceremonial burning. That day the fictional Gravediggers died and the Vietnam Veterans MC was properly recognized.
The Queensland chapter was officially formed on August 18 1990 (Vietnam Veterans Day, also known as Long Tan Day) in Anzac Square in Brisbane. There are now chapters in every state in Australia, many of which operate as separate, autonomous bodies, but with a common goal. Apart from the biker-related activities, the VVMCs are a large presence at Anzac Day and Vietnam Veterans Day marches and activities. Charity work is also high on their list of priorities, according to their websites. The VVMC has played a strong role in advocating for the welfare of veterans and has acted on their behalf in negotiations with government agencies.
While VVMC members are not 1 per centers they share the outlaws’ disaffection for authority and a misanthropic view of society.
When they returned from war they had been described as baby killers and spat on by anti-war protesters and these experiences galvanised the new motorcycle club.
Cronan says he and other younger veterans like him feel angry when they hear public comments that Australia’s mission in Afghanistan is futile and worthless.
“I believe they have no right to be talking about if they weren’t there. If it’s futile, then why did we lose 38 lives doing the job that the government asked us to do? Why did we go in the first place?”
“I fear that Afghanistan will be ticked off in the history books as a loss and the job that we did will be forgotten” he says.
A poem on the wall of The Bunker captures the lingering rage that many VVMC members still maintain. It also resonates with the new vets dealing with their own sense of alienation.
“When I came home my neighbours shout.
Your service and your wounds don’t count.
Your presence here we do not need.
Your type this country should not breed.”
As VVMC chapters sprang up around the country, the clubhouses became neutral ground where members of outlaw clubs freely mingled.
The outlaws may be the alpha males of the motorcycle world but they respect the heritage of the VVMC forged in the heat of battle for Australia.
“A lot of people who don’t know much think that we are 1 per centers but when they spend any time with us they realise we are something different,” says Agro.
As fear and loathing of patch clubs has spread, people are less likely to differentiate. The Townsville chapter of the VVMC recently found themselves banned from the local pub where they have run charity raffles for the past decade after a “no bikies” directive from head office.
The VVMC has become an alternative to the RSL clubs for the biker vets. Many veterans have never got over comments by senior RSL figures in the 1970s that the Vietnam conflict had not been a real war.
The club once boasted 1000 members but now its ranks have dwindled to about 500. The average age of members is over 65 and each year more members drop out due to ill-health or death. Fewer and fewer are able to turn out for club rides. Meanwhile at the same time, the VVMC clubhouses have attracted younger veterans who long for a fraternal environment, even if they could not become full members. On any Friday night, VVMC chapters will host veterans from the conflicts in East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Carter says they never “talk shrapnel”, stories about their life in the military or the ugly side of war. That’s done with psychiatrists and therapists. It’s the funny stories about camaraderie and shared experience that get told around the bar, he says. It’s estimated that 20 per cent of Australia’s combat veterans will suffer some form of emotional trauma after their service. Of those, one in eight will suffer long term debilitating effects. Agro was surprised to see how quickly the effects of PTSD were taking hold in the younger vets.
“What took thirty or forty years to come to light in us, is there after 4 or 5 years for these guys,” he says. He thinks the public debate about whether Australia should have been involved in Afghanistan and Iraq may have something to do with it.
The army was Nick Cronan’s life but in 2010 after his deployment to Afghanistan, he knew it was time to get out. At 30, he had previously served in East Timor and Iraq and he felt like his luck would eventually run out. He had been a section commander in Afghanistan and hadn’t lost a man in combat. But back with his wife and young family in Brisbane, Cronan was fighting his war all over again in vivid dreams. In these nightmares he was back in Oruzgan province with his section and his men were being cut down in enemy fire and he was helpless to prevent it. It was difficult for civilians to understand what he was going through so he bottled it up and tried to carry on. In the military, they had learnt to hide their wounds and injuries. If they showed weakness they risked being left behind by their comrades.
“There’s a sense of being shunned if you showed you were sick or injured. It was like people feared they would catch whatever it was you had and they could no longer do their job,” says Carter. “The Green Machine rolls on without you.”
This is familiar to older veterans like Agro.
“In training they turned us, ordinary young men, into killing machines. When you return home, you’re still a killing machine, but you’re expected to go back to being normal. We never got any debrief after Vietnam and nothing’s changed for these young men coming home,” says Agro.
Riding and drinking with the VVMC, even as non-members provided a new sense of belonging.
In 2000, the state chapters of the VVMC held talks and agreed to allow in all veterans, contrary to the 1990 agreement with the outlaw clubs. Western Australia quickly moved to create the first VMC but the other states decided not to antagonise their outlaw cousins.
Finally, in November last year, past VVMC president Barry Smith, with the support of the club’s national executive, approached the United Motorcycle Council of Queensland to request a new agreement to allow the VMC to be created. The UMCQ had been formed to oppose the state’s draconian anti-association laws aimed at breaking up the outlaw clubs. While the VVMC were not likely to be targeted by the laws, its members had been prominent in the fight against them so the UMCQ were prepared to consider its case. It took some negotiation with the outlaw clubs but in August last year a new written agreement was struck. The VMC could operate as a club within the VVMC. However it could only accept members who had been awarded the Australian Active Service Medal. Other chapters are expected to be considered in other states.
In addition to its three patched members, the VMC has a number of nominees, including two active soldiers who are still fighting in Afghanistan.
Many more are waiting in the wings for admission, but it’s not enough simply to have been in combat.
You have to fit in with the ethos of the club and proving that takes time. A nominee could spend a year cleaning toilets and running errands for senior members, even if he had been a brigadier-general in the service. Above all, you have to be a biker.
Carter and Cronan know numerous servicemen who have joined the bikie scene after returning from overseas tours.
“ I didn’t want to come home to be a banker. I wanted to do something different, like joining a motorcycle club. Many guys coming home from overeseas are looking to replicate that feeling of brotherhood they shared overseas.”
Duncan Carter says he could have ended up in an outlaw club were it not for the creation of the VMC, such was the need for “kindredship”among returned soldiers.
“As a kid in the backyard playing war games I was always in the jungles of Vietnam. To stand alongside them as a full member of this club is an extraordinary honour. I am among my heroes,” he says.
UPDATE As governments and police seek to break up outlaw motorcycle clubs, the barring order has become the weapon of choice. Nightclubs, pubs and clubs are seen as the epicentre of violence and inter-club rivalry, but a campaign to drive the bikies back to their clubhouses has claimed an unlikely victim.
Don “Tippy” Sinclair says it’s another kick in the teeth for all veterans. Wesfarmers, the owners of Tom’s Tavern in Townsville, have told Mr Sinclair and his brothers from the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club they are no longer welcome in the local pub where they have run charity raffles for the past eight years.
The directive was delivered this month from head office in Melbourne without warning. Someone in the bistro had complained that “bikies in back patches” were collecting for charity in the hotel. For the first time in eight years there were no veterans in the pub selling tickets for the weekly meat tray, no money going to the Royal Flying Doctor Service or to meet the expenses of veterans doing it tough.
The VVMC could avoid the issue by leaving “Casper”, their colours bearing the skull and slouch hat at home. That would be humiliating to these proud ex-servicemen who have been dealing with prejudice and ignorance since returning from Vietnam, says Sinclair, president of the Townsville chapter.
“This is not some pretty patch to make people look tough. The letters of gold on a field of black represent the men who haven’t come back. Or who left the best of themselves in the jungles of Vietnam,” says Sinclair.
The VVMC members say they are suffering collateral damage in the national crackdown on the outlaw motorcycle clubs, the so-called “1 per centers.”
There are moves afoot to ban outlaw bikies from licenced premises across Australia.
I have learnt that police have approached all Townsville publicans to ask they exclude members of outlaw clubs from their hotels and clubs. It’s understood that in the past week South Australian police have served notices on members and associates of rival clubs barring them from more than 800 licensed premises on the grounds they pose a threat to public safety.
The hysteria promoted by politicians had led the public to believe that all bikers were criminals, says Sinclair.
Prejudice was nothing new for ex-servicemen, but VVMC members were now facing open harassment on the streets and highways of north Queensland as the state government had enacted anti-association laws to break up clubs.
“As soldiers we fought and died for the freedom to peacefully associate. Now if police see us on the highway they will quickly set up a stop (a roadblock) and we will be breathalysed and our names taken. Would people in cars face the same treatment,” he asks.
Christian clubs are facing the same treatment. Any club with a back patch is likely to attract police attention, particularly those who associate with 1 per cent clubs.
However, the average of VVMC members is over 60 years and there are no active criminals in the clubs. “The only drugs we are interested in are to keep our injuries at bay,” says another member.
A Coles Wesfarmers spokesman tried to quell the anger of the veterans issuing a statement.
“We have not banned the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club from any of our hotels and they continue to be very welcome at our venues. The Motorcycle Club has benefitted from the proceeds of raffles at the Tavern for many years and customers have now told us that they would like the opportunity to support other local activities. We have therefore decided to look at using raffle nights to support a new social club which could benefit all members. We are happy to discuss alternative fund raising opportunities with the Motorcycle Club,” he said.
The spokesman conceded that the company did a have a policy of not admitting bikies wearing club colours but this had no bearing on the decision, he said.
The VVMC members remain unconvinced by what they call these “corporate weasel words.”