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Clark: Whakanoa and Welcome Home for Viet Nam Vets

31 May, 2008
Whakanoa and Welcome Home Ceremony for Viet Nam Veterans

Speech notes for Whakanoa and Welcome Home Ceremony for Viet Nam Veterans at Parliament Grounds,Wellington

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I greet all who have gathered here today for this official Whakanoa and welcome home ceremony.

To the Viet Nam veterans, I say welcome home. You have waited a long time for recognition of your loyal service to New Zealand and of the inadequate support extended to you and your families after your return home from the war.

This week and this very weekend bring with them a rollercoaster of emotions, beginning with the Crown apology to veterans and their families delivered in Parliament on Wednesday. The apology was for the failure to recognise loyal service in the name of New Zealand and for the inadequate support extended to veterans and their families after the return home from the conflict.

We feel enormous sadness about what happened to those deployed to Viet Nam and their families. We especially grieve for those who never came home.

We remember the divisions in our country over the deployment too. It was the first time that there had been major controversy over sending New Zealand military personnel overseas, and our society felt that keenly.

We recall the huge damage done to Viet Nam and its people where the consequences have also been long term and intergenerational.

This week is fundamentally about reconciliation.

It is about acknowledging and apologising for the wrongs of the past.

It is about respect for those who gave loyal service.

It is about dealing with the legacy of the past now and in the future.

It is about sharing memories of what happened.

It is about reunion.

And it is about welcoming our veterans home officially – here at our Parliament which represents all our people. It is highly appropriate that this Whakanoa ceremony takes place here.

I am told that in the past, when Maori warriors were preparing for war, they took part in ceremonies which focused them for the task ahead, and which underlined the significance of what was about to happen and the concentration required for battle.

In effect the warriors acquired a state of tapu which dedicated them to the requirements of warfare.

When the warriors returned from war, ceremonies were performed to lift the tapu.

Those ceremonies recognised their contribution to their community, and prepared them for the return to everyday life.

This is the meaning of Whakanoa.

Different iwi had, and have, different ways of performing this ceremony, but all iwi ensured that it was done.

The twentieth century equivalent of this did not happen for our Viet Nam veterans. Far from being welcomed home, they felt shunned.

Today’s Whakanoa Ceremony is about putting that right, and ensuring that veterans receive the recognition and respect which those who have served in uniform for New Zealand deserve. That applies regardless of what our personal views were on the political decision to commit troops to Viet Nam.

Through this ceremony and through the vigil in Parliament until midnight, we also remember the 37 New Zealanders who did not return. They left our country and their family and friends to do their best. We honour their service and their sacrifice and we honour the families of the fallen too.

We also recognise the exposure of veterans to a toxic environment in Viet Nam and the suffering which was caused to them and their families.

The Crown has apologised for the failure to acknowledge that for some four decades.

As well, the Reeves & McLeod Reports have been put aside and do not inform current or future policy for the treatment of veterans and their families.

In the Memorandum of Understanding of December 2006, the Crown has made commitments to the ongoing treatment of the veterans and their families, and the Crown will adhere to them.

The first troops deployed to Viet Nam were Army engineers in 1964. They built bridges, camps and carried out other construction projects.

The first New Zealand combat forces sent to Viet Nam were from the 161st Battery. Their deployment was the first occasion on which a fully equipped New Zealand unit had been deployed into a war zone by a Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 transport aircraft.

The Battery initially served with the United States 173rd Airborne Brigade where it saw heavy fighting in and around Bien Hoa. Their efforts at that time were recognised with the award of the Republic of Viet Nam Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star to the Battery Commander for all ranks.

The Battery’s reputation was further enhanced in August 1966 when they provided vital support to heavily outnumbered Australian forces at Xa Long Tan.

Victor and Whisky companies deployed in 1967 and were thrown into a constant round of patrols and cordon, and search operations.

The 1st New Zealand Services Medical Team also deployed in 1967, and provided medical and surgical assistance to our people and to Vietnamese civilians.

New Zealand military personnel numbers in Viet Nam peaked in 1969 at 543 with the deployment of a 26-man Special Air Services Troop. The SAS mounted over 150 patrols in Phuoc Tuy province.

Over this weekend we pay tribute to all who served; we honour the fallen and all who are no longer with us; and we say welcome home to all who served.

My thanks go to all who have played a part in developing the Memorandum of Understanding between the Crown, the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association, and the Ex Viet Nam Services Association. You have provided a pathway to reconciliation.

I commend also all those who have organised Tribute ’08. You have done a tremendous job in bringing everyone together with a wonderful programme.

May this weekend be for you all a time of reflection and comradeship, and a time of reunion – and for our country, may this be a time of reconciliation.

ENDS

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