11 March, 2020
War veteran finds Druid’s robes the perfect fit
Chris Mullane’s army career, including service in Vietnam and in the US military, was followed by years of dealing with the delayed effects of wartime trauma, and advocacy on behalf of his fellow veterans. These days, he presides as Devonport Druid. Helen Vause discovers how his quirky, creative side has endured throughout.
The colourful life and times of Chris Mullane are a story of twists, turns, challenges and reinventions.
Mullane is a military man, a Vietnam war veteran, a businessman and corporate troubleshooter, an early player in the world of film and television production, an actor, a poet and a celebrant. Of course, he is also the Devonport Druid.
His story started in an Auckland family of six kids, with a hard-working father and resourceful mother patching together a pretty good life on slender resources.
He was a kid with an eye for an adventure, a quick brain and already quite a few skills picked up in a childhood where all the kids had to learn how to do everything around home.
Back in the 1950s, the Mullane family would amuse themselves and others by putting on shows of song and dance and little Christopher was right in the midst of it.
A cheeky sense of fun and possibilities has stayed with him ever since.
Looking back from his early 70s, Mullane says it’s easiest to tell his stories through the “separate bits”.
Although he’s known by a number of personas in different fields, we begin with the young soldier.
At the end of his high-school years, he decided the army sounded like a good place to start out, to learn life skills and hopefully get access to higher education.
He dared to apply for a place in the Australian Army’s officer-training establishment, Duntroon, where a handful of Kiwis would be accepted for training each year.
Though still very young, Mullane, to the astonishment of himself and maybe others, was among those accepted.
So in his late teens, he headed off to Canberra for four years study for a degree and full officer training, while trying not trying not to stick out as one of the youngest in his classes.
“It was tough but it was an amazing time of learning and growing for me. You come out a different chap,” he recalls.
As a freshly minted officer, he was sent to Singapore with his New Zealand Army platoon, and by May 1971 Mullane was with Victor 6 company in Phuoc Tuy province in Vietnam. He and his platoon were foot soldiers on the ground in the heat and horrors of war in the Vietnamese jungle for six months, before New Zealand troops were withdrawn.
It’s an experience that will never leave Mullane, and has overwhelmed him – as it has many veteran friends – at times throughout his life. About half of his 36-strong platoon died in Vietnam, or as relatively young men from illnesses related to their exposure to Agent Orange.
Mullane came home to move up through the ranks in his army career. Not long after Vietnam, he was sent on an exchange to the US Army Infantry School in Fort Benning, Georgia.
In the short version of what unfolded in his years in the US, Mullane found himself chief of a leadership branch at the school
“There didn’t seem to be anyone else to take up the job,” he laughs. “But they wanted change and I was the man on the spot. I was surrounded by very clever people who would sort of carry me along.”
“I’d only gone to teach them light-infantry tactics, which we New Zealanders had a reputation for being pretty good at.”
He says he felt perpetually out of his depth, but the US military didn’t share the young Kiwi’s doubts. He left them with a new leadership manual, which became widely used, and later the Americans acknowledged him with a medal for his “exceptional abilities and dedication to duty in each of his assignments”.
When Mullane returned to New Zealand, he took up posts in Papakura and then
Waiouru, but he’d begun to have doubts about staying with the army. .
“I was looking ahead and I could see the risk of becoming an institutional man. And I didn’t want that.”
So after 20 years in the army and having risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel, Mullane left for civvy street.
He saw business opportunities in film and television production companies and, undeterred by his lack of experience in the field, he dived headlong into them.
In retelling the stories, these sound like frenetic fun years. But in the early 2000s and a couple of marriages later, Vietnam trauma and stresses caught up with him. Mullane was forced to lie low in a long, slow journey to recovery over a few dark years.
Back on his feet again, with his corporate life well behind him, he found new energy and was ready to join the fight for the recognition of his fellow veterans, and for greater government support for them and their families.
Mullane proved a strong advocate, made headlines advancing the veterans’ cause, and was appointed to a veterans health advisory panel. In 2009, he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (NZOM), for his services to veterans. He had previously received an MBE.
In 2015, his former school, St Peter’s College, named him “an old boy of distinction”.
Wherever he’s been at in life, the quirky, creative side of Mullane’s nature has always shown through. Even in Vietnam, there was a bit of song and dance to lighten things up for the troops.
And in quieter moments, there have always been his poems, even during the grimmest of the Vietnam days.
And in the quiet locale of Waiouru, he was quick to set up a theatre group to perform to full houses on many cold winter nights. “We were certainly in need of a bit of fun down there. There wasn’t a lot to do.”
He’s proud that one of those poems, Poppies and Pohutukawa, so captured the public’s heart that it was put to music in 2008 and is a favourite at Anzac services. “I think it has resonated with people because it is about New Zealand. It’s about us. I feel creativity and performance are important because they add something we need to our lives.”
It was from this line of thought that Mullane, with his retirement years looming, conjured up another niche for himself – as the Devonport Druid.
In ancient Celtic culture, a Druid was a philosopher or teacher, a leader whose role was shrouded in magic and mystery. These days, it is often someone who follows a spiritual path that incorporates creativity, communing with nature and a quest for wisdom.
Donning his now familiar flowing garb, Mullane launched himself with conviction – and plenty of theatrical effect – into the local community.
And it seems there must have been a vacancy to fill, because he’s been busy with the community affairs of a Druid (and celebrant) ever since. Wherever there’s something to be opened, closed, blessed, named or celebrated, Mullane is usually there presiding.
At this time of his life, the role is the perfect fit for someone who loves to be in the thick of things and is never short of a few good words.
“I thought at the time I decided to be the Druid that society at large really needed to chill out and go back to some of the simple, ancient rituals. But it’s been about bringing the community together, and for me it’s also been about taking the chance to put something back into the community.”
Close to his home in Bayswater, he’s a familiar figure, walking the dog around the parks and shoreline. Ever the keen observer of goings on in his patch, he’s quick to put his hand up if something needs to be resolved.
This article originally appeared in the 13 March 2020 edition of the Devonport Flagstaff.