Dr Colin Twelftree’s interest in volunteer dental work in Vietnam dates back to his days as Australia’s only National Service dentist. By Mark Dapin
Colin Twelftree is an affable, jovial orthodontist with a practice in Warradale SA, and a double life as a working dentist in the village of Long Tan, Vietnam.
At 22 years old, Dr Twelftree was one of only two Australian National Servicemen to serve as a dentist in Vietnam. As a soldier, he took part in the Australian Army’s Dental Civic Action Programme, performing up to 100 extractions an hour on South Vietnamese villagers. He came home from the war in 1968, but adopted a Vietnamese child after the fall of Saigon, and regularly returns to the country with the Australian Vietnam Volunteers Resource Group (AVVRG).
The SA branch of the AVVRG—“which is basically me”, says Dr Twelftree—sends teams of dentists and auxiliaries to work in an Australian-equipped clinic close to the site of Australia’s famous battle, and another in the Long Tan primary school. Their goal is to improve the dental health of Long Tan’s children, which Dr Twelftree describes as “very, very poor”.
“A lot of the young children are in almost constant pain,” he says.
Dr Twelftree’s Vietnam experience began when he was called up in the first intake of Australian conscripts in 1965. Since he was still a dental student at the University of Adelaide, he was allowed to defer his entry to the army until he’d completed his studies. He was the youngest in his year, having started his degree at 16, and was only 21 when he graduated.
The normal route into the military for a South Australian National Serviceman began with 10 weeks of gruelling basic training in a hut in Puckapunyal, a notoriously inhospitable camp in Victoria. The alternative—for those who qualified—was an even more exhausting six-month officer training course at Scheyville, NSW. Dr Twelftree was one of the very few Nashos who did neither.
Although he arrived at Puckapunyal as a regular recruit in February, 1967, he gave his occupation as “dentist”. After a few days of being bawled at on the parade ground, he was pulled out of the ranks and ordered to the quartermaster’s store, where—to his great surprise—he was issued with an officer’s uniform and told to go and pick up his staff car.
He had expected to work as an Army dentist “at some stage”, he says, but “if they had thought of planning—which I doubt very much—they weren’t expecting a person eligible for direct commission to come in so soon”.
Dr Twelftree attended most of a two-week induction course at the army School of Health in Healesville, Victoria, and returned to Puckapunyal, after three weeks in the army, as a captain. The other men in his hut were not yet even ranked as privates.
Dr Twelftree and his wife moved into married quarters on “the most prestigious street in Puckapunyal”. It was, he says “this lovely big house in Milne Bay Close”, although “the grenade range was behind it”. At first, he was responsible for the care of his fellow recruits.
“The standard of dental health in ’67 was quite low,” he says. “We noticed in Puckapunyal the dental health of the Tasmanians was much, much worse than the other two states. There were a few recruits who needed all their teeth taken out. It was just poor diet, lack of care, no fluoride.”
A former member of the Citizens Military Force (the forerunner of the Army Reserve), Dr Twelftree had some military training before he was drafted, although he says not much soldiering and no dentistry went on in the CMF dental unit. But, like most other Nashos, Dr Twelftree had to complete the notoriously difficult Jungle Warfare Training at Canungra in Queensland before he could leave for Vietnam—as every Australian soldier, no matter what their rank or position, was expected to be able to fight as an infantryman in an emergency.
Canungra, he says, “was an extremely unpleasant experience, especially if you’re an officer. The sergeant-instructors took great delight in bossing around the officers, and penalising them for minor transgressions. I topped the marksmanship. I was the best shot with the SLR (self-loading rifle). They made me a section leader. So bits of it were good, but it was unpleasant having to do push-ups and that.”
In Vietnam, the Dental Unit was stationed beside the Australian field hospital in Vung Tau. Dr Twelftree had his own driver, nurse and dental technician. They worked on the troops for five-and-a half days a week, and the locals for one afternoon. It was a busy life although, he says, “it wasn’t unheard of to have a beer at lunchtime”.
He says the Australian military practises a high standard of dentistry.
“The army technicians could cast gold inlays in the field,” he says. “The Americans couldn’t believe this.”
He also worked with the US dental unit in Saigon, and relieved the dentists at the Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat. He’d never been overseas before and, although he was in Vung Tau for the Tet Offensive, never came directly under fire in Vietnam. “I had a wonderful time,” he says.
He was the highest-ranking National Serviceman in the army, received much the same pay as a civilian dentist—but tax free—and came back to South Australia with a $7000 war service loan to buy a home. During the course of the war, there were many National Service dentists, but only Dr Twelftree and one other went to Vietnam, as the postings were highly sought after by regular army dentists.
“In the army,” he says, “everyone wanted to go there. At Puckapunyal, the talk in the sergeants’ mess was, ‘Oh, this bloke’s only been in the army for six months and he’s going to Vietnam. I’ve been here for 10 years and I haven’t gone yet.’ They were shitty.”
Dr Twelftree and his wife had two natural children together, and decided to adopt a third. The talk of the time was of a global ‘population explosion’, and taking in an orphan seemed the responsible thing to do. When Saigon fell to the North, jumbo jets full of children were airlifted out. Their son, at two weeks old, was the youngest baby on his plane, and the Twelftrees adopted him at 10 weeks. He’s now 37 and married, and the National Service dentist has a part-Vietnamese grandchild. “I’ve got no regrets whatsoever,” says Dr Twelftree.