Fifty years ago popstar Normie Rowe was conscripted to fight in Vietnam. After serving for two years and suffering mentally and physically in the aftermath of the war, Normie discovered his conscription was a publicity stunt from then Prime Minister Harold Holt in response to waning public support for the Vietnam War, sending ‘Australia’s Elvis’ into combat. Here, Normie shares his story ahead of the release of his cover of Compulsory Hero, 30 years after the original single was released by Aussie pub rock band 1927.

It was many years before I began to wonder if I was the only person born on 1 February 1947 to be called up.

It was the late 1970s. I was driving along in my Mazda RX5 when a policeman pulled me over. I handed him my licence and when he looked at it he said: “Oh, I see you were born on the same day as me. You even drive the same car as me. How about that?” Having a Mazda RX5 was a bit different in those days, it wasn’t your regular Ford or Holden.

And then he added: “By the way, how come you got called up and I didn’t?”

At the time I didn’t give it much thought. I just said, “I don’t know”, and left it at that. I had so much going on in my own life and no real evidence. So life just kept going. What could I do?

It wasn’t until about six years ago that I got any sort of real confirmation. I got a phone call from the son of a military officer who was an advisor to Harold Holt.

His father, on his deathbed, told him: “There’s only one thing I want you to do. Find Normie Rowe and tell him I’m sorry for what I did.” He told his son he was in Harold Holt’s office and that Harold was struggling with popularity and the anti-war movement. And it was he who suggested the idea: “What you need is an Elvis Presley. Get Normie Rowe called up.”

His father, on his deathbed, told him: “There’s only one thing I want you to do. Find Normie Rowe and tell him I’m sorry for what I did.”

I mean, if anybody ever thought it might be nice to trust a politician or a bureaucrat, there’s a good reason not to.

Vietnam changed my life, irrevocably. But the way I see it, every day is a new day. I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I did my time in Vietnam and I can’t change the past. I can only move forwards.

You just have to accept that things happen in life.

And all of these tough things that happen to you will eventually make you what and who you are when your life is full and almost to the end. You’ll look back and say, well, at least I didn’t die of boredom.

And the truth is, the people I met there are now my closest friends. I know that if I’m in trouble, the first people to turn up will be my Vietnam Veteran friends.

Read next… Normie Rowe: How my battle with post-traumatic stress disorder raged on after Vietnam

When I was approached to do a cover of Compulsory Hero, it was such a thrill to get involved in this project. The song has such strong lyrics for me to interpret.

There was certainly an element of catharsis in doing this song.

There was certainly an element of catharsis in doing this song.

The Compulsory Hero song was written for a muted film on the Battle of Long Tan. And if you really listen to the lyrics, the song tells the story really graphically.

I was listening to it this morning and, my god, 1927 were a terrific band in their day. In the 1980s when they first came out, my head was immersed in acting and drama and Shakespeare because I was in drama school at the time. So I pretty much missed the album the first time around.

It was a privilege to work with Michael Carpenter, the producer behind it. He’s probably half my age, and through working together I think he really came to understand the dire situation that existed around the compulsory draft of so many young Australian men.

And it’s fantastic when you find somebody say, “Jesus, I understand.”

Because for many years when trying to find somebody who understood, it was an impossible task. Not only did they not understand but they didn’t want to understand, because really, it was too painful to look at. A lot of people didn’t want to go there. Right up until 1987, when the Welcome Home Parade happened in Sydney, nobody really felt obliged to dig into the past.

Not only did they not understand but they didn’t want to understand, because really, it was too painful to look at.

And the truth is, that’s probably because there’s an awful lot of responsibility there.

We were all picked out as a political move, right from day one. That was the whole point. It was suggested that taking young people and putting them in the army and removing them from two years of their young lives was not going to disadvantage them. But it bloody well did disadvantage those people who were conscripted.

And it’s still disadvantaging to this day. And even now, the government is looking at a way to get rid of some of the entitlements that have been hard fought and hard won by our ex-service organisations.

I hope that, in hearing this song, people can be reminded of what the Vietnam generation sacrificed.

I think it’s really important for people to remember, and keep remembering, the cost of the freedoms that we have today. What it’s cost in lives, and in pain and suffering. Not just those who served but also their families, who sent their loved sons and daughters offshore.

Some to never come back, and many to return very different from when they went away.