In August 2019, I met with Brigadier Edward Bestic, also known as 'Bret', who shared his experiences in the Borneo Confrontation and the Vietnam War.
Brigadier Edward Breton Bestic was born on 27 February 1941 in Whangarei, Northland. He began his military career early, joining the Regular Force Cadets, a voluntary training organisation for boys in the Regular Army, in 1958 (aged 16). He was then selected for the Royal Military College, Duntroon in 1959 as an Officer Cadet, where he studied for four years. He graduated with a Sword of Honour in 1962 for outstanding performance during training.
Two years later, in 1965, Bret joined the 1 Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment (RNZIR) as a platoon commander in Malaysia for the first tour in Borneo. The following year he was “cross posted within Theatre” to the RAF Operations Room at HQ Borneo Operations (“DOBOPS”) on Labuan Island near Brunei and promoted to Captain.
Returning to New Zealand in 1967, Bret was a Plans Staff Officer and an Army public-relations Officer, before being promoted to Major in the Directorate of Infantry.
In 1971, newly married, and a month after the birth of he and his wife's first child, Megan, Bret was posted to Vietnam. He dropped rank to Captain to serve in the Headquarters of the 1st Australian Task Force as an operations officer, on permanent duty. It was a busy job, but Bret said it was "quite safe" as it was in an underground bunker. The 7th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment arrived after four months. Bret was asked by Lieutenant Colonel Ron Gray, who commanded that battalion, to command one of his companies for a couple of months. "This was a great step forward" Bret recalled; "I was the only Kiwi who commanded an Australian Rifle Company in Vietnam."
He also spent a month with 4 Troop NZSAS as a “Second Scout” to broaden his experience of infantry operations in Vietnam, having passed an SAS Selection course in New Zealand in 1970.
Bret recalled some of the more harrowing experiences he had during his service: the uncomfortable heat of the jungle; being shot down in a helicopter while with the US marines in Vietnam and dealing with heat. "It gets quite gruesome," he said. He remembers the harsh conditions he and his comrades faced, carrying approximately 60 kilos of weight on their backs, which was mostly water and ammunition, as well as sleeping on the ground at night among the insects in the jungle and having to speak in whispers for weeks on end to avoid being heard by the enemy.
In 1971, Bret’s “tour” in Vietnam was extended by three months to spend time with the US 23rd Infantry (Americal) Division at Chi Lăng where he qualified as a sniper, he also spent time with the 1st Marine Division at Da Nang.
Bret returned to New Zealand and took up a position as the chief instructor at the School of Infantry. "I had quite a varied tour in Vietnam,” he said.
Coming home was less than welcoming, and the mood was difficult for most veterans. "My wife didn't tell anyone I was gone," he recalled. "We didn't come back as heroes." He also felt that the media reporting at the time, as well as a lack of transparency from the government as to why we were in Vietnam in the first place, contributed to the lack of a welcome for returning troops.
Bret has kept in contact with many of his fellow veterans. "You make very strong friends," he said. "It's quite a bond."
Following his service, Bret travelled extensively, working with the United Nations World Food Program as a consultant from 2001 until 2017. "I've been in a lot of war zones but no more wars," he said. His work with the UN Food Program took him to Yugoslavia, Italy Germany, Dafur, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Liberia, South Sudan, Kenya, the Philippines, Nepal, Panama, and Mongolia. He was busy during this time, but, he says, "never carried a rifle again". Bret still travels widely, and has visited or worked in more than 120 countries.
Bret was presented with a number of medals for his service, among them The New Zealand Operational Service Medal; the General Service Medal 1962; the Vietnam Medal; the New Zealand General Service Medal 1992; the New Zealand Army Long Service and Good Conduct Medal and bar; the Pingat Jasa Malaysia (PJM) Medal, and a South Vietnamese Campaign Medal (1960 clasp). He was also awarded a General Service Medal from Canada for Service in Afghanistan, and a medal from the government of Vietnam.
Online Cenotaph record
Brigadier Bret Bestic's extensive service is noted in his Online Cenotaph record. Thank you, Bret, for sharing your story and experiences with us.
Hall, C. (2014). No front line: inside stories of New Zealand's Vietnam War. Auckland, New Zealand: Penguin Books.
Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Capt Edward Breton Bestic.
Ministry for Culture and Heritage. (2014). Homecoming- No Front Line.
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Edward Breton Bestic. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 4 October 2019. Updated: 8 October 2019.