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Goff: Not Just a 12-month Tour Speech

Hon Phil Goff
Minister of Defence

26 May 2008

Speech Notes

Speech to launch Not Just a 12-month Tour Exhibition during Tribute08

Members of Parliament, Chief of Defence Lieutenant General Jerry Mateparae, veterans’ leaders and veterans, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

It’s my privilege this morning to launch this exhibition, Vietnam: Not Just a 12 Month Tour, as part of Tribute 08.

Tribute 08 is a celebration and commemoration honouring the contribution and sacrifices of Vietnam veterans and their families.

Much controversy surrounded our military engagement in the Vietnam War.

It was a war to which we committed over 3,500 troops, of which 37 lost their lives and 187 were wounded. Others have suffered long-term effects from the war.

New Zealand’s involvement in the war had a decisive and long-lasting impact on the debate about the direction of our foreign and defence policies. It stimulated widespread support for a more independent approach to international affairs, where New Zealand made its own judgements.

A casualty of that debate, however, was the troops who loyally served their country in Vietnam.

Those troops did not make the decision to support the war. That was the decision of the Government of the day.

They did, however, make the decision to serve their country with courage and to the best of their abilities. For that, they deserved not condemnation but respect.

For those who served in Vietnam, the war was not just a 12 month tour in another important aspect. Their exposure to Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals had long lasting effects, not only for them but also their families.

This was ignored by successive Governments for far too long.

The turning point, however, was the 2004 Health Select Committee Inquiry into the concerns of Vietnam veterans. That inquiry saw Parliament at its best, with the cross-party committee establishing that New Zealand troops were exposed to chemical defoliants and that this exposure had serious health consequences for many of those who served.

The Joint Working Group setup after the report consulted widely across the country. Its recommendations formed the basis of negotiations by Ministers with the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association and the Ex-Vietnam Services Association.

A Memorandum of Understanding was agreed in December 2006 which substantially implemented the recommendations of the Joint Working Group. These recommendations followed the themes of acknowledging the past, putting things right and improving services to Vietnam veterans.

Seventeen months since the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding, major progress has been made in its implementation. A key part of that was yesterday’s apology by the Prime Minister on behalf of the Crown in Parliament to Vietnam veterans and their families for the manner in which their service and subsequent health concerns were not recognised.

This Exhibition portrays the experiences of our Vietnam veterans.

Seen from the perspective of those deployed to Vietnam, New Zealanders can get a sense of how the experience of their return was a source of alienation and hurt.

The Exhibition captures the sounds of Vietnam, from the noise of an Iroquois helicopter to the popular music which mobilised a generation across a range of fronts.

For those of my generation, it is deeply evocative.

The Vietnam War was the first conflict to be broadcast on television. This brought the realities of war, previously known only to veterans of past conflicts, directly into our living rooms. This exhibition provides an opportunity for New Zealanders to see these images and to understand how they re-shaped peoples’ attitudes towards war.

Finally, this exhibition charts the struggle by Vietnam veterans to have their concerns recognised and addressed.

Tribute 08 is about recognising the contribution of Vietnam veterans both at the time of the war and their experience in the years following. It is an opportunity for us to say thank you and to belatedly welcome veterans home. It is also opportunity for us to remember the thirty-seven soldiers who did not return.

It is now my pleasure to declare this Exhibition officially open.
Thank you.


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