Todd Vercoe

“Pushing Past Your Limits” with Todd Vercoe

I spent 30 years in the army. I used to play wars with my mates and I was particularly good at dying in those games.

Todd Vercoe
Todd Vercoe

“When I was about 15, I got selected for a Sydney Australian Rules representative team. We went out on the Red Rattler for two days to Broken Hill. A little bit later they were sending the team down to Canberra. We were playing against an Under 19’s team made up of Duntroon cadets. We stayed at Duntroon on stretchers in Junior Class rooms. It was the closest a boy from a housing commission flat was ever going to get to being in a private school. I figured this was the best chance I would ever have to get a free university degree. So I applied for Duntroon and got in there. That set the scene for the best part of the rest of my life.

I spent 30 years in the army. I used to play wars with my mates and I was particularly good at dying in those games. But I’d never considered the army as an option. There was a thing that went on there called “bastardisation” which was sorting wheat from chaff. It was a weeding out process for people who weren’t up to the mark for whatever reason. Around Easter, they started talking about the Easter bunny coming to visit. In the middle of the night, we got woken up and told “those bastards from Alamein company are coming to attack us, go and get them”. We would grab our tidy bin and fill it with water and head down towards where Alamein company lived. You soon realised that there were fourthies from all the companies there. We looked up and saw out of the windows of fourth class cadets rooms were coming clothes, mattresses and rifles. It was 2 o’clock in the morning. They would observe how you reacted. There was no point fighting back because you would be charged. If you were able to go back, gather your stuff up, put it in your room, and just accept it, then it was a good thing. If you couldn’t deal with that, how would you cope with people shooting at you on a battle field?

We learnt who could handle it and who couldn’t. I remember from week two in my first year there, people in my class were submitting resignations. They just realised it wasn’t for them. When I was at Duntroon as a company commander, one of my cadets was a bloke called Julian Knight who went on to perpetrate the Hoddle Street massacre. He shot seven people and he’s still in jail. Apparently I’m on his hit list. In the space of six months, he had about 10 charges. He was allowed to resign from Duntroon and no police charges were ever pressed against him because that’s the way they did things on those days. He didn’t fit in.

It’s only when you have externally imposed pressure that you really learn about yourself and those around you. I learnt there are limits, but that you can push yourself past what you think is your limit in all sorts of different ways. The defence force is very unforgiving. It’s obviously a very hierarchical structure. You know exactly who sits where in the pecking order by what they’re wearing in terms of rank.

I was the first arms or combat support officer in my class to make Major at the age of 29. That was very unusual. But some of my less endearing character traits came to the fore very quickly so for the next 19 years I stayed at the same rank. That was really hard to deal with. When blokes who were good blokes got promoted, I was cool with that. But seeing dickheads getting promoted past me, that was really hard to live with. You would tell yourself if that dickhead is better than me, how much of a dickhead am I?

Steve Gower, he was my commanding officer as a Lieutenant. He was a very smart guy, very good leader. He was very receptive to innovative ideas. He was a great role model for me. He was quite strong without needing to become a bully. He had presence. I’ve never been one that is capable of being quietly angry. If I got angry, I would fire up very quickly. I would always aspire to be calm and pragmatic like him. I know a couple of physically imposing officers that would actually on occasions hit their subordinates. I don’t think that’s the right thing at all.

I remember when I first graduated, we went out on a first exercise in artillery, where we physically dug a seven ton gun into a pit big enough for protection. After three days, people are pretty tired. I remember the fourth morning, there were three junior gunners commanded by ex-Vietnam guys who had ‘run into gun trees’ during the night as they all had black eyes. They probably weren’t doing what the sergeant told them to do, so ‘Whack’. And that worked. If you’re practising for a circumstance where stuff doesn’t get done and you’re going to get killed, it’s got to happen one way or the other. Bottom line is the boss is the boss. The army in particular is not a soft spot because you’re training to kill people.

There’s a great saying attributed to US General George Pattern “patriotism isn’t about dying for your country, it’s about some other son of a bitch dying for his”.

*This story first appeared on ‘Humans of Bowraville’, authored by Lucy Van Sambeek.

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