Co-Leader of the Māori Party ‘Tariana Turia’ Apology to Vietnam Veterans

Hon TARIANA TURIA (Co-Leader—Māori Party) :

The Māori Party endorses the apologies of the Crown in this House today. New Zealand military history tells us that between 1964 and 1972 over 3,000 New Zealanders served in South Viet Nam. For those who served for their loved ones, their children, and those to come, it remains the defining point in their lives. Sixty-five percent of those who served were tangata whenua. One of them was our brother. I stand here today in pain and deep sadness, thinking of those who volunteered to serve our country, driven by duty and honour. They went where their Government sent them, but they returned to the hostility and controversy of a country in crisis, a country divided.

And what does that do to the soul of a soldier, to serve on combat lines in a battle that some suggest killed up to two million civilians—civilians who were innocent bystanders to the campaign from Washington to stamp out communism; civilians who were the collateral damage of what the people called the American war? The American war was a genocidal assault on the people of Viet Nam, leaving behind a legacy of genetically deformed children—an attack that has gone on for decades in the haunting impact of trans-generational birth defects—human beings cruelly deformed by the carnage of chemical destruction.

And what does it do to the soul of a soldier to bear witness to the crime of military chemical spraying, then to return home and be told to never again be seen in public wearing the uniform that reminds us of our shame?

Other generations of war veterans returned home to a hero’s welcome. The veterans of Viet Nam were hassled by customs officers. Others recall being smuggled back in the deep of the night, hidden from view, covered up, and invisible. They were refused full entry to the Returned Services Association and instructed not to wear their medals of service.

There were other insidious effects. One veteran, Bruce Isbister, told the Agent Orange Joint Working Group on Concerns of Viet Nam Veterans that their earning capacity had been taken from them by their service to their country—consigned to an income akin to the poverty line, and exacerbated by blatant discrimination. The pain of those who served in this American war is visible in the frantic website traffic of survivors. One veteran summed it up: “Don’t treat me like crap and then think you can come back 40 years later and say sorry, because it doesn’t work like that.” But say sorry, we must; and it is not just say sorry but be sorry, so the world can see from our actions that we mean what we say.

Last year Viet Nam veterans marched on Parliament in protest against what they described as the Crown’s consistent and despicable rejection of Viet Nam veterans’ health and welfare concerns. Wai 1401 was lodged by the late Archbishop Whakahuihui Vercoe, representing about 2,000 Māori Viet Nam veterans and their families, and we think of those for whom the torch of injustice still burns furiously. We are in awe of their commitment, their courage, and their passion for the truth to be told. The Waitangi claim described the torturous impact of the enemy’s bullets in Viet Nam, and what Vercoe describes as a human and environmental catastrophe. We must say sorry for sending our soldiers to a war that is still leaving its trail of destruction in cancer-related deaths, genetically damaged births, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the social impact so often manifested in chronic alcoholism, violence, and the mental anguish that veterans faced on their return.

I read the words of one other veteran, who said: “All I want to do is to forget a period of my life that almost drove me crazy, and they won’t let me forget.” As hurtful as it is, we must not forget the partners who miscarried, the stillbirths, the health-related problems still seen in their grandchildren, and we must not forget the disgrace of successive Governments that denied that our soldiers were exposed to the toxin, and the shock that veterans felt over the Reeves inquiry or the McLeod report, reports for which the terms of reference ensured that justice would not be found—such is the nature of political denials.

We must not forget what the American war did to the Viet Nam people—to their people, their whenua, and their whakapapa. I was thinking about the actions of Prime Ministers of Japan who apologised to China for their actions during World War II—once in 1995 and then again in 2005. I think we need to have the courage to offer our apology to the people of Viet Nam. It was a National Government that involved our soldiers, and today we are really thankful that it was the actions of a Labour Government that brought them back, and today offer the apology to these people. So to you Viet Nam veterans, tēnā koutou, ngā rangatira mōrehu. Kia ora.

Source: | [Volume:647;Page:16443] | Wednesday, 28 May 2008 | Ministerial Statements | Viet Nam Veterans—Crown Apology

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