These prosaic tasks are all that link the husk of Allan Henry to the man he was in 1981: an optimistic young father with a promising career as an electrician in the Royal Australian Air Force. He insists on mowing and washing-up as if they were the last threads of his humanity, just as he clings to the mundane routine of daytime snoozes, endless doctors' appointments and pottering around that form his twilight existence.
Allan Henry is 46. His wife says he looks 65. It breaks her heart. "Our plan was that we'd still be enjoying ourselves in middle age. The kids would be gone and we could travel. Tomorrow's our 25th wedding anniversary. But there's no party - he can't go to parties any more," says Kathleen Henry, a slim, tanned, intelligent woman who comes from generations of RAAF stock.
"We know they are all dead men walking. It's a reality we all have to face and come to terms with. I know it sounds hard and callous. But it's true. They are dead men walking:"
Allan Henry is slowly, prematurely, painfully fading away because the air force that he loved poisoned him. It exposed him to a multitude of highly toxic chemicals that were used to clean and re-seal the faulty fuel tanks of Australia's fleet of Fill strike-bombers from 1973 until 2000. Since 1981, when he began experiencing mood swings, depression and crippling headaches while working on the planes, Henry's health has steadily declined. He's had dozens of carcinomas removed, his joints have seized, his respiratory and immune systems are shot and for 14 years he suffered weeping lesions all over his body. In 1999, the doctors told Kathleen and their three children, Allan wouldn't survive the year.
But on he fights - as one of at least 400, but by some estimates as many as 800, seriously ill victims of a scandal that resulted from a mind-boggling, negligent and deadly failure in the RAAF's chain of command. It is clear that RAAF commanders at Amberley Air Force base near Ipswich, west of Brisbane, where the Fllls are based,
They didn't just allow two generations of technicians to work with chemicals they knew to be potentially deadly. They made them. Their health, it seems, was a small price to pay to keep the Fllls airborne.
Countless former servicemen who worked on the de-seal/re-seal (DSRS) program at Amberley have died of dreadful diseases. Some have taken their own lives. Other seriously brain-damaged men, lost inside the Kafkaesque maze that is Australia's military compensation system, are frustrated to the point of suicide.
Brothers in Arms
The Government's Game
Story by Paul Daley. Published in The Bulletin. Permission for use given.
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