Stan Potgieter (56), a veteran from Centurion, is embarking on a healing journey beginning on 23 May 2022 at the Voortrekker Monument and ending at the scene of an ambush he and his squad were led to 38 years ago in Southwest Africa.
Stan was in for a rude awakening when he reported for his compulsory military service and began infantry training at Phalaborwa-based 7 SAI. He had just turned 17.
Roughly a year later, deployed to the north of Namibia, on the Angolan border, Stan began performing patrols with his squad into hostile territory and had terrifying encounters. On one occasion, Stan recalls a rifle grenade being fired at the squad, bouncing between them without detonating.
Whilst on a routine patrol on 23 June 1984, Stan’s life changed forever, in the blink of an eye.
A local interpreter, Thomas, led Stan’s four-man patrol to where there was an alleged SWAPO presence. They had crossed a road known as ‘Willie se witpad’, venturing about 32 kilometres from the base and searched a deserted kraal.
Resting briefly, they continued the patrol. It was infantry practice after a rest, to rotate the order of patrol, giving everyone a chance to walk ‘on point’.
Stan was next up ‘on point’ but was chivvied into second by his best mate, Johannes Theunissen, nicknamed ‘Piesang’, who pulled rank as the Corporal in charge. Stan was still rankled by this break from routine when all hell broke loose.
A rifle grenade fired at the squad detonated against a branch, killing 21-year-old ‘Piesang’ instantly. A hail of AK 47 and SKS rifle fire cut down Hennie, another squad member, as he sought cover.
Willie, the other member, had a phosphorous grenade detonated on his webbing, resulting in severe burns to his body. Stan, not realising the extent of his comrades’ wounds, shouted out and fired his R4 at the attackers.
The ambushers fled from the return fire.
Stan was completely unscathed.
After taking stock of their situation, Stan recovered the radio from beneath Piesang’s lifeless body and radioed to report the attack and request a casualty evacuation helicopter. He then tore his shirt into strips to bind his comrades’ wounds as best he could and removed his T-shirt to cover his best friend’s head, hiding the wounds that had ended his life.
An hour later a South African Super Frelon helicopter arrived, hovering over the soldiers, to collect Piesang’s body and the wounded soldiers.
As Stan was not wounded, he was told that he could not be ‘casevaced’, and had to stay put. The chopper took off and flew away, leaving a barely 18 year old scared and traumatised ‘troopie’ alone in hostile territory.
Around lunchtime, a Koevoet [SA Police] patrol arrived on the scene. A request to return to his HQ with them was also denied because the ‘infantry looks after their own.’ For a second time, Stan was left alone.
He passed the time by studying the ambush site. Rifle grenades were still lying neatly in a row, ready to be used in an instant. In the late afternoon, seven hours after the ambush, an infantry ‘Buffel’ troop carrier eventually arrived to pick him up.
Getting back to base in the dark, he was told to report to the unit chaplain who read a passage from the Bible, and said a prayer and that was that. He spent the evening drawing maps, writing a report and contemplating why his friend died in his place. The guilt and sadness, Stan says, was all-consuming.
Moved to a reaction unit, Stan spent the next 8 months clearing up after contacts between SWAPO and the SANDF, recovering the shattered bodies of friend and foe. The futility of war became more and more apparent.
Ruptured knee ligaments saw Stan flown back to 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria for surgery. What confused him even more, was seriously wounded SWAPO being flown out for treatment on the same flight. One day they were required to kill them and the next they did all they could to save their lives. Nothing made sense anymore. Recounting this to fellow soldiers in his hospital ward resulted in a visit by Security Police threatening to ‘lock him up for 15 years for sharing ‘sensitive information.
Eventually, Stan was subjected to sleep therapy where he was heavily sedated for days on end. He recalls waking up sobbing. After hospitalisation, he was eventually discharged G5K5 – Medically unfit.
Life after the military
When Stan left the military in 1985, he found that his medical discharge hindered his job prospects. He eventually qualified as a toolmaker to support his then-wife, Mellisa and their 2 children Sven and Miquette.
Haunted by the ghosts of his past, Stan tried to put his life back together, but the military memories lingered in the back of his mind, affecting his relationships and mental well-being.
A difficult conversation
In 2014 Stan responded to a discussion on Jacaranda FM, which became a turning point in his life.
Asked about his military experience, Stan opened up about everything he had been through, and the mental anguish he suffered as a result. Suddenly painful emotions that lay dormant for over 30 years came to the surface.
Soon after the Good Morning Angels segment, Stan was inundated with phone calls from soldiers with shared experiences and the many families that were affected.
He then decided to launch his own non-profit organization, Wear it for the wounded, to raise awareness and funds for veterans living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and to comfort families of fallen soldiers.
“It is essential for veterans to realise that they are not alone and that they should open up and share their past traumas with family and friends to face their trials and tribulations,” says Stan
A Healing journey
Under the banner of ‘Wear it for the wounded’, Stan has decided to embark on a 2500km journey, starting at the Wall of Remembrance to fallen soldiers at the Voortrekker Monument on the 21 May 2022, to the scene of the ambush in Ondangwa, Southwest Africa on 23 June 2022.
Travelling on an electrically assisted pedal tricycle, Stan hopes to raise R100 000, through a crowdfunding campaign launched on BackaBuddy.
Since the launch of the campaign over R12 000 has been raised with contributions from 17 donors, which will be used to cover stan’s costs and to help families and victims of PTSD
“We need to show our solidarity with those who have fought, suffered and died for a better life for us all. Irrespective of whose side they were on, these men and women answered the call to defend what they, at that time, held dear. Victims one and all. Helpless pawns in politicians’ games.
They deserve our thanks, love, help and support. As do the first responders, Police, Paramedics or Health workers, who deal with traumatic events almost daily.
Support Stan’s campaign on BackaBuddy: https://www.backabuddy.co.za/wiftw-fundraiser
Alternatively donate via snapscan: https://pos.snapscan.io/qr/Wearitforthewounded
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