Vets hurt by ‘Clayton’s apology’

Last month’s Government apology to Vietnam veterans – which came as Parliament was about to go into urgency in the last sitting week of the year – was a simple two-page statement from Veterans Affairs Minister George Hawkins.

Attached was a 16-page response to a monster 297-page report by the health select committee probing the exposure of Kiwi soldiers to the deadly Agent Orange during the controversial war.

Veterans and their families reacted cynically to the apology, which Prime Minister Helen Clark left to her struggling minister to give.

RSA president John Campbell said veterans were not so much concerned by the timing of the apology but who delivered it.

They made the point that in 2002 Helen Clark personally apologised to other groups – Chinese immigrant workers, Samoans for New Zealand’s inept governance last century and gays. The apology to the Chinese community was followed by money – a $5 million trust fund to promote the history, culture and language of the Chinese in New Zealand.

The veterans expected more, particularly after the inquiry confirmed the soldiers had been sprayed by the defoliant – contrary to an earlier report to Veterans’ Affairs New Zealand.

But Helen Clark did not even rise to her feet as opposition politicians taunted her about the “Clayton’s apology” in Parliament.

Although the RSA doesn’t believe in a payout for veterans because of the difficulty deciding who should get it, the “apology by press release” has fed others’ enthusiasm for Government compensation.

Veterans have always claimed exposure to the defoliant – designed to kill forests to deny the enemy cover – resulted in widespread illness in both themselves and their offspring, as well as a disproportionately high death rate at a young age.

During lengthy hearings, the committee was told that of 814 members of the Army’s 161 Battery – an artillery unit – 134 were known to have died since the war. Their average lifespan was 51 years and 9 months.

The parliamentary inquiry debunked two previous reports on Agent Orange – the Reeves report requested by the previous National Government and the more recent McLeod report.

The McLeod report, written by Deborah McLeod of Otago University’s Wellington School of Medicine, for Veterans’ Affairs, said there was no evidence exposure to chemicals in Vietnam had affected the health of veterans’ children and that Anzac forces generally served in Phuoc Tuy province where no aerial defoliant spraying occurred.

These contentions outraged veterans, who accused the authors of reinventing history. Embarrassingly, the Army told the inquiry the province was sprayed often and Kiwi troops probably had contact with the agent more than 350 times.

More than 30 years on, there should have been no contention about exposure of New Zealand troops. The frustration felt by veterans is understandable, and calls for compensation equally so.

The lack of movement on a payout has drawn flak from NZ First and veterans including Kawerau’s outspoken John Moller.

The former president of the now-defunct Vietnam Veterans Association said veterans and their children should be compensated by the Government for having to pay thousands of dollars over the years for medical bills.

Mr Moller’s legal advice is that after the apology the veterans have a case for punitive and exemplary damages from the Crown because it was negligent, lacked a duty of care and concealed evidence.

Other reaction was also negative.

Janet Ross of Katikati said it was hollow and victims of the agent needed something more tangible.

Her husband, Colonel Alistair Ross, suffered from the effects of the defoliant and died in September.

“It appears they are just waiting for the veterans to die, so the problem will go away, but there are many of us who won’t let that happen,” she said. “It is hard to believe the Government is sincere, especially when Helen Clark was one of those who protested against the Vietnam war.”

Rotorua 29-year-old Katrina Nicol, whose father Gain served in Vietnam, suffers from spina bifida and a raft of other health effects.

“Once upon a time I didn’t believe in compensation; I just wanted recognition,” she said. “Then I hear about prisoners getting payouts when some of them did really bad things to get into jail.”

Mr Moller is considering legal action using Australian or American lawyers. But first he wants to clear up whether the agent was made here.

Government officials are looking into the question after renewed publicity over whether Ivon Watkins Dow (now Dow AgroSciences) made the agent at its Paritutu, New Plymouth, plant and exported it to the US military.

Dow has denied making the defoliant or exporting its component parts to the US military, although the company did make both 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D at Paritutu. A 1989-90 parliamentary inquiry found no conclusive evidence to substantiate the claim.

But Mr Moller said if the government of the day did in fact supply Agent Orange such a revelation would strengthen the veterans’ case.

NZ First MP Pita Paraone, who made an 11th-hour call for compensation during the inquiry, believes veterans should get a payout to compensate for medical bills incurred by them and their children. NZ First will also support a payout for damages.

The committee made a series of recommendations to improve Government services to veterans. But while the official response listed current Government support, it offered no changes to the system. It did not mention compensation either, and Labour MPs have been quick to point out veterans did not call for compensation at the inquiry either.

Health select committee chairwoman Steve Chadwick said MPs were surprised there were no calls by veterans for compensation during the inquiry.

Ms Chadwick, a Labour MP, damns NZ First’s compensation call as a “cheap political ploy”.

She believes compensation is not a realistic option anyway.

“There’s no price you can put on the effects on those soldiers’ lives and their children. I think we are becoming a society that thinks compensation is the answer for every victim – and it’s not. Often it is about a change in treatment, or a recognition or open access to new treatment.”

Meanwhile, the RSA wants the war pension system improved.

Mr Campbell, himself a Vietnam veteran, said it wanted:

 Free annual medical checks – which should also be extended to veterans of more recent operations such as Afghanistan or Iraq involving exposure to toxic substances such as depleted uranium ammunition.

 A modest trust to pay veterans’ families where an Agent Orange-related condition is proven.

 Law changes to enshrine the support currently offered to veterans’ children.

The association is also considering asking Veterans’ Affairs to double the modest disability payments to those suffering proven Agent Orange-related conditions.

The Government emphasised in its response that veterans could get a war pension unique in the world because it was based on a reverse onus of proof. The presumption is that the disability arises from military service unless proven otherwise.

Children of veterans who suffer spina bifida, cleft lip or palate, acute myeloid leukaemia or adrenal gland cancer can also get fully-funded care. Children can also get counselling and support for mental health issues.

The Government claims its services are on par with what Australia offers its veterans.

Since 1964, veterans of wars have had access to pensions paying anywhere between $8.11 a week (for 5 per cent disability) to $285 (for the severest disabilities like having no legs and if aged over 60).

The pension is not income tested, so is on top of other income such as wages or superannuation. Limited allowances are paid for things like clothing, travel and funerals.

But Mr Campbell said that was the extent of the benefits, besides what the public health system offered everybody.

There are overseas precedents for lawsuits. In 1984, US chemical companies, including Dow, settled out of court with veterans for US$180 million.

Yet in the early 21st century, debate in New Zealand has still centred until recently on whether our soldiers were even exposed to the defoliant in the first place.

Agent Orange is an issue governments will have to grapple with for decades, because its health effects appear to be inter-generational.


Opposition politicians claim the Government buried its “threadbare” apology to Vietnam veterans by deliberately dropping it on December 14 – just before Parliament went into urgency to rush through pre-Christmas legislation.

Under Parliament’s rules the Government had 90 days from the release of a damning select committee report into Agent Orange on October 6 to give its response.

But a spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister George Hawkins – who would not personally front up – rubbishes the opposition claims.

“If we’d waited the full 90 days it would have been January 6, and why would you release anything then when you had the opportunity to release the Government response before that?” said Francis Wevers.

Published: 2005, Jan. 25. | Time-stamp: 9:41 AM Tuesday  | By: Kevin Taylor | Article Link: | Article Title: Vets hurt by 'Clayton's apology'

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