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Heather Roy's Diary - Apology To Viet Nam Veterans

Friday, 30 May, 2008
Apology To Viet Nam Veterans

Forty-three years ago this week, then Prime Minister Keith Holyoake announced that New Zealand would contribute to the defence of South Viet Nam by sending troops and, on Wednesday - to a full public gallery of veterans in Parliament - the Crown offered a long-awaited apology to those Defence Force personnel for the lack of recognition and inadequate support extended to them on their return.

New Zealand was not the only nation whose people neglected the Viet Nam veterans; John Howard gave the Australian apology in November 2006 at Long Tan in Viet Nam, and former US Senator and disabled US Army Viet Nam veteran Max Cleland has summed up the situation:

"Within the soul of each Viet Nam veteran there is probably something that says 'Bad war, good soldier.' Only now are people beginning to separate the war from the warrior."

This is the speech I delivered in response to the Crown apology:

The ACT Party supports this apology to Viet Nam veterans.

Although our Viet Nam veterans served with as much heroism and distinction as the veterans of all other wars, they flew home under cover of darkness so that their return would not become the focus of demonstrations.

That these men, and a small number of women, had endured great privation in the service of their country never seemed to enter the national consciousness despite the 37 fatalities and 187 wounded.

Our veterans have many reasons to be proud, including the fact that New Zealand's contribution included a large humanitarian component. Our force was also unusual in that it was entirely voluntary, and when our forces went into action they did so with great bravery.

The ANZAC spirit was re-ignited during the Viet Nam War, with the formation of a combined Australia and New Zealand battalion. At the battle of Long Tan Australian infantry distinguished themselves during an engagement with a much larger enemy force, supported by New Zealand artillery. Some of our troops also served with other allied forces in theatre, particularly the US.

We shouldn't forget the breadth of contribution made by New Zealanders in Viet Nam - which included the Navy, all corps and regiments of the New Zealand Army, the Air Force, as well as many civilians. While much has been done regarding medallic recognition of campaign service for these groups, the matter of approval for foreign awards for individual acts of gallantry is yet to be resolved.

Our returning soldiers should, at least, have been treated with respect. They had served with bravery and professionalism, and had a proud record of assistance to civilians. Yet, on their return, they weren't treated with the respect to which those serving their country are entitled.

Whilst it was a government decision to send troops to Viet Nam, it was the troops themselves who frequently bore the brunt of public anger and antagonism. This was both unfortunate and undeserved. There were further consequences for other military personnel, such as the decision for Defence Force personnel in Wellington to wear civilian clothes - rather than uniforms - to avoid confrontation.

Servicemen judge operations not only in terms of success or failure, but in terms of lessons learned. What have we, as a country, learned? An apology now is important in terms of recognition of an injustice, but daily actions are the measure of real intent. Parliament still has work to do to ensure that no veteran of a future conflict ever finds themselves in the circumstances that these servicemen and women and their families did. We need to change the many statutes that determine entitlements and protections for any citizen serving their country.

This weekend's Tribute '08 programme in Wellington is a commemoration and reunion for Viet Nam veterans and their families - a ‘welcome home' for these veterans. This is a long overdue acknowledgement and recognition of the sacrifices made by those who participated in the Viet Nam War wearing the New Zealand uniform.

My own small but longstanding tribute to these fine New Zealanders has been to donate all that I have earned, and will earn, as a Territorial Force soldier to an RSA approved charity. The Tasman Fund's proceeds go mainly to Viet Nam veterans and their families. I chose this charity because these vets were, in my opinion, the most unappreciated in our history.

Few have said it better than singer/songwriter Eric Bogle:

"Though that Asian War's long over, they're still burying their dead, Yet somehow their bond grows stronger with each broken thread ... "

The ACT Party salutes all those who participated in this campaign and thank you for serving your country. And to the families of those who died and who have subsequently suffered we acknowledge and appreciate your hurt and sacrifices.

Kia kaha.
Lest We Forget.


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