Love under fire
The Australian Women's Weekly|November 2021
Keith Payne VC is an Aussie hero, bravest of the brave, but managing the pain beyond the glory has proved a tough battle for Keith, his unfailingly supportive wife, Flo, and their five sons.
SUSAN CHENERY

Florence Payne was making the bed when the army car pulled up outside early in the morning. Clutching the sheet, she took a deep breath. “How many men are there?” she asked her 14-year-old son, Ron. “Two,” he said. Was one of them a chaplain? “No.”

Flo slumped with relief. Her husband, Keith, had only been wounded, not killed.

It was 1969, Keith was in combat in Vietnam, and it would not be the last time the army car would arrive with bad news. She lived with the dread every day, trying not to watch the news. “You just hope and pray and every night ask the good Lord to bring him home safely,” Flo recalls.

Keith was not an easy man to be married to. Because of his army career the family was constantly moving. Flo has lost count of how many times, but in 1965 alone it was three. He was away so often, for the whole year of 1969, that she had to be both mother and father to their five sons. She could be strict, says their son Colin, “when she had to be”. And when Keith did come home, when it was all over and he was a war hero, having earned the country’s highest military honour, the bravest of the brave, he was a changed man. “I was not all there” he admits. “I couldn’t switch off from the state of vigilance I’d had to maintain in Vietnam.” He would automatically reach for a rifle, his sons learned to come in bending down low to wake him up in the morning.

Keith was still at war but now it would be with himself, with his own demons and trauma. And that battle was only beginning. Drinking and taking pills to self-medicate, full of pain and rage, any little thing could set him off, unable to forget those left behind, waking up from nightmares screaming, frighteningly short-tempered; his sons remember being lined up and blasted about a toilet roll being hung the wrong way up.

“You just never knew when he would go ‘boom’,” Flo remembers. There was no place in the civilian world for a damaged hero, people wouldn’t understand what he had been through; a man used to commanding a platoon. He ended up cleaning drains and sweeping streets for the council, cringing inside every time someone went past and waved. All of his sons would suffer PTSD as a result, but back then no one had put a name to it. “There was no recognition by hospitals, there was nothing out in society about posttraumatic stress,” says Keith. And the Department of Veteran Affairs (DVA) didn’t want to know.

So Keith would launch a new campaign, this time against his own army. He knew there were thousands of others like him, “turning to drink or drugs, or killing themselves”. Keith and Flo would fight for them all. A leader looks after his men.

Flo had known what she was getting into when she married an army man 67 years ago. She was a soldier herself in the Women’s Royal Australian Army Corps. But still, it is an unpredictable life. “I knew these jobs would come up. You just accept it,” she says. Keith had just come back to Brisbane from fierce fighting in the freezing cold in Korea, where his face had been shattered in a truck accident under fire. He met this “doll in uniform” in the army mess. Their eyes met and it was pretty much game over. She was 19 and he was 21 when they married in December 1954 at the Banyo Presbyterian Church in Brisbane. “It was a bit of a shock” to see her in a bridal gown at the altar, says Keith; he had only ever seen her in uniform. Once they were married she was discharged from the army. Married women were expected to stay at home and keep house.

The Paynes are speaking cheerfully from Mackay, North Queensland, where they finally settled after decades of packing and moving. Keith is now 88 but not too old for a bit of a light-hearted banter on Zoom, apparently.

There were postings to Malaya, where Flo earned the Duke of Edinburgh award through being a scout mistress, and New Guinea, where she discovered there was an unexploded 500lb bomb under the garage where she was working when her boss decided to excavate the ground floor of his workshop. Keith, who had joined the army at 17, was a military man through and through. “Every day of the week we were lined up at the front door for inspection before we left the house,” says their son Colin, “I’m not joking.”

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