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Forgotten veterans' hard-won legacy

This morning I want to acknowledge the correction of one of the worst anomalies created by our system of honours and awards and congratulate the Rudd government for this long overdue action.

After 42 years, Lieutenants Geoff Kendall and David Sabin are to receive the Medal of Gallantry, Major (now Lieutenant Colonel) Harry Smith the Star of Gallantry. All members of Delta Company of the Sixth Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment on the 18th of August 1966 will be entitled to wear the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Palm as a unit citation.

This should be the first in a series of actions that completely dismantle a medal quota system which is outdated, discriminatory and unfair.

On the 42nd anniversary of Long Tan I recall the gallantry and perseverance of all who served, suffered and died during the Vietnam conflict and in its aftermath.

This year we acknowledge the 40th anniversary of Firebases Coral and Balmoral which comprised the largest and longest battle fought by Australians during the Vietnam conflict and yet another example of our outstanding military heritage.

Which leads to the topic of my address this morning, the heritage that we Vietnam veterans deliver to those who follow us.

We inherited from our military forebears the ANZAC legend and a reputation for larrikinism. We added to it an egalitarian, can-do baby boomer attitude; and an unmatched skill in jungle warfare.

What then do we pass on, and why?

Shell-shock, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD wasn't something we were warned about or prepared for. It was the root cause of countless suicides and risk-taking behaviour resulting in injury and death. And yet it was a known outcome of combat, killing and destruction.

In World War One it was known as shell-shock yet many of those who suffered were tried and executed for lack of moral fibre. Poets and writers such as Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, John McCrae, Lawrence Binyon and Siegfried Sassoon captured its horror.

They were revered both then and now for their insight. Binyon's words have been heard every day since 1916 and will continue to be heard today and every day as we honour Australians fallen in battle.

In World War Two it was the thousand yard stare. More than 409 thousand US service personnel were admitted to hospital as neuro-psychiatric patients.

How could those who sent us to war NOT have been aware?

The effects of dioxin as a contaminant of the defoliants we used in Vietnam were known by both the manufacturer as vendor and government as purchaser. Both manufacturer and government later denied this knowledge under oath.

The warning labels were removed in order not to alarm those who used it. These poisons were delivered using planes whose propellers cause micro-droplets to be carried on the wind for hundreds of kilometres.

The long-term effects included not only a dramatic increase in cancers of all types, but also genetic anomalies which are passed on through the generations.

The complacency that marked Australia's initial involvement in the Vietnam war evaporated as the body count started to rise. Public concern rose with the introduction of compulsory National Service and as both nashos and regulars continued to die.

At the same time as Australians were becoming aware of just how remote Vietnam was from their everyday experience, television was delivering stark images of that drama to the living room.

With opinion polarised, our service people became the target of industrial action designed to reduce their effectiveness.

The hatred that some members of the public had for the war manifested itself as demonisation of the Service men and women who, by government direction prosecuted that war.

With a change in government and the withdrawal of our troops from Vietnam, Australia slunk away from a war in which it had never lost a battle.

The deposed Liberals had no interest in drawing attention to those who represented a decision which had lost them government.

The resurgent Labor party, having fulfilled its promise to withdraw from the war, wanted to get on with the business of government and establishing its credentials for continuing in that role. It wasn't interested in those who had returned from such an unpopular war and didn't see itself as responsible for them.

That's about where we stood in the 70s. An embarrassment to both government and opposition. Ignored by the public. Unable to understand the suicides and depression. Acutely aware of the problems of our children. Wondering about the blisters and rashes, the respiratory, cardio-vascular, gastro-intestinal and nervous system disorders, the cancers that were taking us even in those days.

The glory and the despair of the Vietnam veteran is that it wasn't those who led us who took the fight to government but our soldiers and NCOs.

Despite lack of formal education they overcame their own problems to become experts in psychiatric disorders and combat fatigue; authorities on chemicals and the results of exposure. They investigated genetics and ingestion, skin diseases and allergies.

They presented evidence at enquiries and a Royal Commission and despite the initial failures history has proven them to be right. Not just morally right, but right in fact and detail.

It was people like Phil Thompson, Tim McCombe, John Printz, John Methven and Lachlan Irvine to whom we all owe a debt that we can never repay.

While much has been achieved, the fight is not yet over. Those who are quick to take the photo opportunity must support the troops when their popularity is not at stake.

While issues like the F-111 Deseal/Reseal program remain unresolved, while veteran and child suicides continue, we have to persevere.

We are heartened by the approach being taken by the Rudd government and look forward to contributing to the process of resolving outstanding issues.

It's unlikely that we will agree with all the outcomes but at least we will know that matters have been addressed rather than ignored.

Already, the legacies of the Vietnam veterans are many.

Australian men and women go to war informed of and having specific support for the psychological trauma to which they may be exposed.

They and their family members have access to the Counselling Centres which are so necessary in working though these issues.

Both government and members of the ADF are acutely aware that every deployment brings the potential for adverse exposures which may not be known at the time.

Depleted uranium and chemical agents are examples, while the jury is still out on what is known as "Gulf War' syndrome. We will not permit these things to be dismissed.

Vietnam veterans have made sure that the public is able to distinguish the difference between those ordering a deployment and those who are ordered to deploy. Australians now support their troops while holding the government responsible for the political decisions.

We acknowledge today's service men and women as the legitimate and deserving heirs of a legacy that for a short time we held and preserved. To you we pass the legend of ANZAC, undimmed and undiminished.

We have shown you that it is not just a right but a responsibility to question authority and demand the truth.

We insist that the larrikin reputation be fully preserved and confirm that acquiring stuff through unofficial channels and illegal modification of your equipment are both legitimate expressions of our Australian belief system and should be enshrined as such in Defence Instructions.

Finally, we Vietnam veterans are concerned that our unmatched reputation for skill in jungle warfare was never very attractive to Navy and Air Force and isn't really much help to you in any of the current Army deployments.

We want you to know that even though we are now in our 60s we are always prepared to pass on those skills, and can talk about them for hours, just so long as you are buying.

Clive Mitchell-Taylor is President, Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia, National Council, NSW Branch. He gave the above Vietnam Veterans and Long Tan Day address at Martin Place, Sydney, on 18 August 2008. It was submitted to Eureka Street as a response to Tony Smith's article about Vietnam War protesters.


Topic tags: Clive Mitchell-Taylor, ietnam Veterans and Long Tan Day, Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia


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