Bishop Te Whakahuihui Vercoe, who stood down as Archbishop of Aotearoa last year for health reasons, said he laid the claim because veterans’ exposure to Agent Orange had ruined Maori bloodlines.
“About 60 percent of those who served in Vietnam were Maori,” Bishop Vercoe told Sunday News from his Rotorua home.
“My goal is to protect our children and wives, because if the Government does not care about them, who will? And what would become of those children born without limbs?
“This is about improving the amount that has been allotted to the widows and families of veterans.”
Agent Orange was used to kill foliage which provided cover for the Viet Cong in the war. It also destroyed the health of American troops and their allies, including New Zealand troops.
A Sunday News investigation last year uncovered medical tests which showed the defoliant caused genetic damage in up to 3500 Kiwi vets. The DNA damage was suspected to be so bad it could affect multiple generations with cancer, spina bifida and a host of other genetic diseases.
Bishop Vercoe’s $170m Waitangi Tribunal claim came less than a month after a group of angry veterans announced they were suing the Government and individual ministers for $5 billion.
The vets’ launched their massive suit because they were furious with the $30 million compensation package announced by the Government earlier this year, which was believed to assist less than 100 veterans and their families.
“The Vietnam veterans have asked me to do this and it is hoped that this will back up any claims they have against the nation and the Government,” Bishop Vercoe said.
“(The money) will be used to accommodate the widows and children of soldiers that are suffering as a result of Agent Orange.”
Bishop Vercoe served in the Vietnam War as a chaplain in 1968, often joining the soldiers on the front line rather than sticking to the safety of his office. The 79-year-old is battling a brain tumour but has put his pain on hold to fight for the rights of Kiwi vets.
Sunday News has obtained a copy of Bishop Vercoe’s Waitangi Tribunal claim, dated May 25.
In it, the bishop is quick to point out he believes Pakeha soldiers should also be covered in the settlement.
“I wish it to be known right from the outset that the only reason my Pakeha fellow-Vietnam vet is not standing as a co-claimant with me is the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975,” Vercoe writes.
He told Sunday News: “(Pakeha) cannot go to the Waitangi Tribunal but we are still working with them to make sure that they are not left out. This is not just for our Maori veterans, this claim is as much for the non-Maori I shared foxholes with.”
Representing Bishop Vercoe in his claim is top Waitangi Tribunal and public law specialist Paul Harman – also the New Zealand legal representative for the pending $5 billion lawsuit against the Government.
Harman said the claim was valid under the Treaty of Waitangi Act.
“The sooner the government stops worrying about saving money and starts focusing on ensuring the needs of these veterans and their families are addressed the better,” Harman said.
Bishop Vercoe, a principal companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, led Maori on the 1998 Hikoi of Hope march to Parliament.
But he said the Waitangi Treaty claim was his crowning achievement.
“This is No 1 as far as I’m concerned,”,” Bishop Vercoe said.
“I think the veterans have been treated very badly since Vietnam.
The nation has never recognised them and they went into a war zone that they were told wasn’t a war zone. The local prisoners do better than us. They get compensation and we don’t.”
Published: 2007, June, 03. | By: Kristian South | Article Link: stuff.co.nz | Article Title: Big Vietnam claim to Waitangi Tribunal