Thursday, September 14, 2023
Mackay and Whitsunday Life
By Amanda Wright
Amidst the discarded echoes of a distant war, a remarkable tale of renewal and hope emerges.
Mackay local Chris Shepherd's recent holiday in Vietnam led him to an encounter that has since rippled through communities on opposite sides of the world. The journey took him to the Long Tan Cross, a solemn memorial standing a few kilometres from the former Australian task force base at Nui Dat.
The Long Tan Cross holds a unique place in the hearts of Australians, as it is one of only two foreign memorials permitted by the Vietnamese Government. It stands proudly amidst the red mud of the surrounding rubber plantations, a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made by Australian soldiers.
During his visit to the Cross, Chris Shepherd crossed paths with Jason Fenech, a former infantry soldier with a remarkable mission. Jason, who now resides near the Cross in the Ba Ria Vung Tau province, has taken on the role of the "self-appointed caretaker" of this sacred memorial.
But Jason's commitment goes far beyond caretaking. He has embarked on a noble mission to support underprivileged children in the Nui Dat and Long Tan areas, ensuring they have access to education. Last year alone, he covered school fees for 41 children, provided essential stationery, and brought joy to their lives with Christmas and Lunar New Year presents. Not stopping there, Jason continues to deliver monthly food parcels to these children, offering them ongoing support.
“We can’t change the world, but we can change their world,” Jason said.
What makes Jason's mission truly remarkable is the fact that he funds it entirely from his own pocket and with the help of donations collected along the way. He funds this endeavour by turning scrap into salvation. Using the detritus of war left by Australian and New Zealand soldiers, otherwise destined for the scrap heap, Jason crafted jewellery from brass shell cases, once fired by the Anzacs during their occupation of Nui Dat. These items included commemorative dog tags, crosses, hearts, and a unique 2kg bell forged by a local in Vietnam. The bell, created from the very shells that once echoed with the sounds of conflict, now symbolises hope and change.
To raise funds for his ongoing mission, Jason organized an auction for this special bell. The auction took place on Vietnam Veterans Day, August 18, and the Mackay RSL, along with a generous contribution by Chris Shepherd, secured the winning bid in the final seconds. The proceeds from this auction will be dedicated to supporting the education of children in the Nui Dat area, ensuring they have the opportunity for a brighter future.
The bell now sits proudly with Mackay’s RSL, forging a link between Mackay and Nui Dat, creating an everlasting tribute to the ANZACS who gave more of themselves in conflict than we will ever fully know.
Jason operates independently, free from affiliation with any group or organisation, and he doesn't receive external funding for his endeavours. You can support Jason through his Facebook page, Diggers Rest.
Chris Shepherd, Hason Fenech and Ken Higgins OAM. Rear: Members of the Mackay RSL. Mr Fenech auctioned a brass bell made from brass shell casings gathered in Vietnam, the auction was won by the Mackay RSL with the assistance of Mr Shepherd. Photo credit: Amanda Wright