“Keith has arguably done more since he was awarded the VC than he did to get the VC.”… General Sir Peter Cosgrove.
Those words by our former defence chief and recent Governor-General go to the heart of the story of one of our greatest Australians and our oldest Victoria Cross recipient, Keith Payne. Fifty years since Keith earned the highest honour for valour by rescuing 40 men in a bloody Vietnam War battle, he’s still fighting – to improve and even save the lives of men and women suffering post-traumatic stress.
Television legend Ray Martin and producer-director Max Uechtritz criss-crossed Australia with Keith for the last year documenting the life of the indefatigable and unconventional 86-year-old war hero turned civilian warrior against PTSD.
Capturing incredible images were some of Australia’s most awarded cinematographers Andy Taylor ACS, Ben Emery, Trent Butler ACS, Andrew Hyde and Steve Davis with sound from David Springan- O’Rourke, Jo Bursill and James Petch and editing by Lenard Cassimatis.
It’s a story rooted in steely resolve to overcome his own darkness of alcohol and PTSD that threatened to destroy his marriage and family. The man that emerged is an inspiration for veterans and school kids alike, from his hometown of Mackay to Canberra and Kununurra and Nowra to Narrabeen.
“Keith is a little bloke with a huge heart who’s made and continues to make a massive contribution to Australian society, without fanfare or fuss,” says Ray Martin. “He’s a national treasure yet his searingly honest story still surprises.”
Nowhere is that more evident than in the outback Keith loves. He’s as comfortable charming cheeky indigenous kids or eating damper with their elders on a sacred salt lake and as he is taking tea with the Queen at the Palace or Sir Peter and Lady Cosgrove on the lawns of Admiralty House.
The cameras also capture the reunion with the US Green Beret medic Keith rescued in the famous battlefield action of 1969 which earned him high honours and legendary status in the USA as well. There’s inter-generational reverence shown Keith by WW2 survivors, pony-tailed biker Vietnam vets and shiny, young servicemen and women at the 100th anniversary of the Armistice.
But neither Keith nor the film flinches from the reality of the early torment of the “Victoria Cross curse” wrecking Keith’s own household as he battled an illness then unknown to the medical profession let alone sufferers themselves: PTSD. There’s heartache from four sons alienated by the ugliness of that period then ultimately pride as their dad conquers his demons and helps others do likewise.
Above all, there’s a love story of 65 years and counting. The devotion and patience of Flo, the woman beside Keith through thick and thin, is the core of the man and the film. Flo herself has served the community selflessly and, as then war memorial director Brendan Nelson says: “SHE deserves the Victoria Cross!”