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Speech: Peters - Opening of Vietnam Remembered Exhibition

Rt Hon Winston Peters
New Zealand First Leader
17 August 2012

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Speech: Opening of the Vietnam Remembered Exhibition
Tairawhiti Museum, 42 Stout Street, Gisborne
Friday 17 August, 6pm

OPENING OF THE VIETNAM REMEMBERED EXHIBITION
Thank you for the invitation to speak to this audience, gathered here to remember the Vietnam War and the great sacrifices our troops have made.
Of particular significance, we are here to commemorate the 46th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan, where New Zealand troops fought side-by-side with our Australian allies.
Such events need commemorating.
In fact, it is imperative that they are.
Not just for the sake of our veterans who saw action in the Vietnam theatre.
But also for younger generations, often unaware of the sacrifices of our history.
It was other young New Zealanders that set off to fight in Vietnam.
And Vietnam was a conflict that defined a generation.
Most of them were young men in their 20s.
They had heard stories about the two World Wars.
They knew of the honour bestowed upon those veterans.
Alas, what they returned to was far from a heroes’ welcome.
To this day the scars of Vietnam can be still seen.
These Veterans faced social dislocation, indeed discrimination, upon returning back to New Zealand.
Many struggled to integrate back into New Zealand society and live amongst citizens
who held them responsible for the politics of war.
Some became hermits and loners, others turned to drink.
The culture in the military at the time prevented a lot of our veterans talking about the
demons they faced after returning home.
In one instance a Vietnam veteran was diagnosed with anxiety neurosis.
He insisted that this could not be the case, saying:
“Anxiety neurosis is for frustrated housewives”.
By the time of the Vietnam War, New Zealand already had a serious track record of supporting our allies and fighting on foreign soil.
From the Second Boer War, through to World War One and Two and the conflicts in Malaya and Korea thereafter.
For a young country, we had already committed a lot to regional stability.
So hitherto, returning veterans were no new phenomenon.
But Vietnam veterans were.
Back home, many were confronted with the reality of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
And it would be many years later before the full extent of their exposure to Agent Orange became apparent.
The social dislocation caused by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was exacerbated by the reception our veterans were given by the New Zealand public.
The great shadow of World War Two still hung over their efforts.
And there were numerous instances where Vietnam veterans, upon returning home, were not regarded as “true” veterans.
These men were not given a heroes’ welcome.
Nor were they provided the services or support they needed.
And in the history books, the way New Zealand treated these men will forever be to our national shame.
New Zealand First, since our foundation in 1993, has campaigned for a better deal for veterans.
In particular those families afflicted by Agent Orange and the bomb tests in the Pacific in the 1950s.
Every week we receive correspondence from veterans concerned with how governments have treated them.
As many of you will be aware, in May 2010, the Law Commission released a report:
“A New Support Scheme for Veterans: A Report on the Review of the War Pensions Act 1954”
The report details 170 recommendations that would help ensure veterans from all conflicts are provided adequate and fair assistance and entitlements.
The current War Pensions Act is nearly 60 years old.
In those 60 years the nature of warfare has changed.
We think it is about time legislation reflected this.
New Zealand First has put pressure on the government to implement these recommendations from 2010.
The delays are unconscionable.
We are dedicated to ensuring that veterans have a voice.
And we are determined to raise the government’s responsibilities to veterans as part of a social contract.
No serious observer could dispute that.
Successive governments have been less than up-front with our Vietnam veterans.
Our returned servicemen and their families still face an up-hill battle for recognition.
It took years for anyone to front-up about Agent Orange.
All the while governments continued to pass the buck.
All the while Vietnam veterans were treated as a political hot potato.
The young Kiwis deployed to Vietnam weren’t concerned with politics.
They just got on with it.
Lieutenant John Moller summed up the sentiment well.
Interviewed for Deborah Challinor’s book, Grey Ghosts, the Vietnam veteran said:
“Soldiers don’t start wars. But they have to go and do the job.”
They were soldiers doing a job.
And as veterans they continue to do a job.
In lobbying the government for greater recognition of the psychological and emotional trauma suffered by veterans, they continue to influence how governments address and compensate them for their service
Vietnam veterans continue to fight not just for recognition of their own service, but also on behalf of all veterans – present and future.
Our message to our Vietnam veterans is simple.
Keep telling your stories to future generations.
Keep on the government’s case.
And don’t stop believing that one day soon you “will win”.
Thank you.
ENDS

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