When Tony Dell sat in the Sydney Cricket Ground change rooms before his Test debut in 1971, not one of his Australian teammates knew he had served in the Vietnam War.
It was never talked about, not even within his family. In fact, it wasn’t until years later that Ian and Greg Chappell, teammates from his debut in the seventh and final Ashes Test of the 1970-71 series found out. As of today, Dell is the only person alive to have worn the Baggy Green and served in armed combat.
For 40 years, Dell suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of his 12 months of service in the jungles of Vietnam. He admits it was the reason why he turned away from cricket.
You’re only as strong as the weakest link in your team was a motto Dell adopted during the war, which he subsequently carried into his professional life. Resenting the feeling of letting down his co-workers down while off playing cricket for Queensland, Dell soon retired, despite being convinced by Queensland captain Greg Chappell to play on.
“I just suddenly decided that I was the weak link back at my work because I was off playing cricket. I just said to Sam Loxton (selector); I don't want to play anymore. In the back of my mind, I now know that PTSD was there. Greg [Chappell] talked me into playing one more season so that I could open the bowling with Thommo (Jeff Thomson) which in hindsight, was pretty special. Not too many people having opened the bowling with Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. But I just walked away. It just seemed the right thing to do at that time for me.”
The towering left-armer played two Test matches for Australia and 41 games for Queensland from 1970-75. He starred in his Test debut against England, taking five wickets. However, the match was overshadowed by a controversial decision by England captain Ray Illingworth to eject his team from the field of play after fast-bowler John Snow clashed with a spectator.
Dell had a turbulent career in advertising post-cricket as a result of his PTSD. It included a number of highs and lows, as he immersed himself in his work as a way of coping with the trauma. He struggled with flashbacks, sleeping disorders and anxiety in crowds. By the 90s, things had taken a turn for the worse. An Australian recession plus an innate trust in a suspect client, meant Dell lost everything, including his family.
After years of trauma, it wasn’t until 2007, well into his sixties where Dell was finally diagnosed with PTSD. He credits cricket for saving him after he was invited by two retired colonels in Defence Services Cricket to be their guest at the International Defence Cricket Challenge in Canberra. He received a standing ovation. Before leaving the tournament, they insisted he replace the War Medals he no longer had. After visiting the Vietnam War Veterans drop-in centre at Maroochydore, he was diagnosed on the spot.
“Forty years after coming home, I finally knew the reasons behind why my life had been like it had for so many years,” Dell said.
From then on, Dell dedicated his life’s work to raising awareness for PTSD and mental health. While sitting in a hospital bed following a knee reconstruction, Dell devised Stand Tall for PTS, a not-for-profit founded to help other Vietnam Veterans with similar conditions. Within a few years, the organisation expanded to included veterans of all conflicts and first-responders. Through cricket and with some help from the ACA, Dell was able to alleviate most of his debt which had acquired over the years in order to propel his new idea forward.
Tony tells his story about the jungles of Vietnam, representing Australia and starting mental health not-for-profit Stand Tall for PTS
“As I was laying in hospital, I thought I needed something to do and I've been told that there are thousands more veterans like me who had no idea what their problems were and why. I was also $80,000 in debt. One of the colonels in defence cricket got me on to the ACA and I got $20,000 out of the Hardship Fund just to help me get solvent again.
“As I spoke to more and more people, I started to become aware of the size of the problem, and was told that I couldn’t just concentrate on Vietnam Veterans. Other veterans and the serving military too, they are also affected. The list grew every time I looked.”
Stand Tall for PTS gained public attention as the official charity for the Prime Ministers XI’s match against England in 2015, and sparked the catalyst for the international conference PTS15. With Angus Houston as his patron, former Chief of the Australian Defence Force, the pair sought to unite a number of mental health not-for-profits under one banner, to raise awareness for PTSD. Its success was enormous and led to a follow up conference in 2017, and then again in 2018 in cooperation with the Invictus Games.
“The agenda was about creating more awareness. I have no doubt in my mind was what we've done. Our logo says; from awareness comes knowledge and from knowledge comes action. It was also about talking to the government and just saying you got to do more, you've got to do more, you've got to do more.”
By 2019, Stand Tall for PTS and the PST conferences had become a raging success. He was backed by a number of sporting and military personnel, including Kim Beazley AC (Governor of Western Australia and former Minister of Defence), Sir Angus Houston, Cate McGregor (writer and former Defence Force) as well as both Greg and Ian Chappell and Ian Healy. Despite delays due to Australian bushfires last year, and the COVID-19 pandemic, Dell is spearheading this year’s conference in September, PTS21, which will focus on creating more positive outcomes.
“At the time, we felt that they were absolute successes. But when you look back, they were sort of academics and researchers talking to one another, with no real concrete action out of them. By September, we should have the most amazing array of the presenters and people in roundtable situations, coming up with irrefutable recommendations to give to the government on transition, on suicide and models of care.”
At 75, Dell has come to peace with his demons. Although they will never leave him. His work in the mental health space is helping find both reason and amity. He speaks passionately about assisting members of the wider public, from ex-military personal, to victims of natural disasters, people in rural areas of Australia and First Nation’s people.
“What started out in 2010, with me just wanting to help other Vietnam veterans in the same boat as me has just grown and grown and grown. You can't ignore all these other things that are there, that you weren't aware of originally.”