I was only 19 was released in March 1983 when discussion of the Vietnam War, which had so fiercely divided public opinion a decade earlier, was generally avoided in polite conversation. A generation of veterans had been left feeling isolated and with a belief they had been forgotten by their country. I was only 19 provided a fresh perspective, presenting a compelling sympathetic account of an Australian soldier’s experience of the war and its aftermath. Concentrating on the toll paid by those who took part rather than debating the merits of the war itself, it became the quintessential song of the Australian Vietnam War veteran.
John Schumann – who was the lead singer of Redgum at the time the song was written – based the lyrics on the experiences of his brother-in-law Mick Storen, who served with 3 Platoon, A Company, 6 Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) in Vietnam in 1969.
The song’s alternative title, A walk in the light green, refers to patrolling in a patch of jungle known by troops as “the light green”, due to its colour on topographical maps, indicating lightly wooded areas presenting little cover and a high likelihood of land mines. The song refers to events that occurred during Operation Mundingburra, a search and destroy operation conducted between 14 July and 18 August 1969, during which Mick Storen’s platoon patrolled in the light green to the east of the Long Hai hills.