Sorry says Government to soldiers

Forty years after the Vietnam War, Kiwi troops get an official apology for the way they were treated on their return

Grey haired soldiers wept in Parliament as Prime Minister Helen Clark and other party leaders apologised for the way successive governments treated them and their mates who served in the Vietnam War.

Among those crying in the gallery was Masterton caterer “Tweet” Bird, a lance-corporal in Vietnam in 1970-71. “It was emotional – it just got me. After 40 years it’s going to make us a lot happier as it will give us a chance to move on.”

Miss Clark, an anti-war protester in the 60s and 70s, delivered a carefully worded speech that avoided personally saying she was sorry for anything. All her apologies were from “the Crown”.

“The Crown extends to New Zealand Vietnam veterans and their families an apology for the manner in which their loyal service in the name of New Zealand was not recognised as it should have been, and for the inadequate support extended to them and their families after their return home from the conflict,” she said.

In a rare moment of parliamentary accord, all other party leaders also apologised to the veterans.

Speeches were emotional, with Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia talking of soldiers, including her brother, who went to Vietnam driven by duty and honour, and returned to hostility and a country divided. “The veterans of Vietnam were hassled by customs officers; others recalled being smuggled back in the deep of night, hidden from view, covered up, invisible.”

Mrs Turia called on Parliament to also recognise and apologise for the “genocide” and violence inflicted on Vietnam.

Party leaders also acknowledged that successive governments had been wrong to rely on flawed inquiries rejecting veterans’ claims of ill health caused by the widely sprayed defoliant Agent Orange, which contained dioxin.

The 1998 Reeves report and 2001 McLeod report said there had been no Agent Orange exposure.

“These reports were factually incorrect, fatally flawed and deeply offensive to many veterans,” National Party leader John Key said.

NZ First leader Winston Peters said the Vietnam vets had done their duty. “When they returned, their country did not do its duty by them.”

The moment was capped when entertainer Frankie Stevens stepped to the front of the public gallery, which all stood and joined him in How Great Thou Art.

The veterans were pleased – it was something they fought hard to secure and to them it was even more significant that this was reputedly the first time Government had apologised in Parliament to anyone.

Ex-Vietnam Services Association president Terry Culley said it was significant for all veterans and he was pleased the apology was backed by all parties in the House. “I’m not saying today has fixed everything, but it’s a start.”

“This means a lot to us,” said ex-army engineer Vic Gadsby, of Masterton, who listened to the apology with granddaughter Vanessa.

Tribute 08 chairman Chris Mullane, who served in Vietnam in 1971, said the apology covered everything veterans expected. But unresolved issues relating to Agent Orange remained.


“Regardless of what our personal views on the decision to send them were, it is time for reconciliation.”

Prime Minister Helen Clark

“We finally say sorry . . . they were asked by their country to do a dangerous job with honour and dignity. The treatment they received . . . was unfair and unacceptable.”

National Party leader John Key

“These men were sent to Vietnam by politicians. They did their duty. When they returned their country did not do its duty by them. The official treatment of these soldiers has been a blot on our history.”

NZ First leader Winston Peters

“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 impacts manifest in chronic alcoholism, violence and the mental anguish veterans faced on their return.”

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia


The Crown formally acknowledges the dedicated service of the New Zealand Regular Force personnel deployed during the Vietnam War, and those many servicemen and women who supported them in their mission.

Further the Crown records that those armed forces personnel loyally served at the direction of the New Zealand Government of the day, having left their home shores against a background of unprecedented division and controversy over whether or not New Zealand should participate in the war.

The Crown extends to New Zealand Vietnam Veterans and their families an apology for the manner in which their loyal service in the name of New Zealand was not recognised as it should have been, when it should have been, and for inadequate support extended to them and their families after their return home from the conflict.

The Vietnam War was a defining event in New Zealand’s recent history, and one during which significant divisions and tensions emerged within our own society.

Old allegiances and alliances were tested, and New Zealanders began to question the role their country was playing in global affairs.

On all sides, strong views were held with conviction. My own party, the New Zealand Labour Party, opposed New Zealand involvement in the war, and acted immediately to withdraw the troops on election to office in 1972.

Many others also spoke out, often coming under attack from the government and other establishment voices of the time for doing so.

Vietnam itself suffered huge damage from the war _ to its people, its cities and ports, and its countryside.

The consequences there have been long-term and inter-generational. Today we count Vietnam as an Asia Pacific partner, and welcome its leaders to our shores.

Today’s focus, however, is on those who served, regardless of what our personal views on the decision to send them were. It is time for reconciliation.

The Crown is placing on record its respect for the service of the nearly 3400 New Zealanders who served in Vietnam during the war between June 1964 and December 1972.

We honour the 37 personnel who died on active duty, the 187 who were wounded, some very seriously, and all those who have suffered long-term effects.

The service of those who fell and all who served in that conflict should now be honoured, alongside that of other brave service personnel deployed to other conflicts in the service of our country.

For too long, successive governments ignored concerns being raised by Vietnam veterans.

It was the emergence of Agent Orange as a serious health and veterans’ issue in the United States which began to change the way in which issues surrounding Vietnam veterans came to be perceived and then treated in New Zealand.

In 2003 the Health Select Committee undertook its own inquiry into the concerns raised by veterans.

It investigated whether New Zealand defence personnel had been exposed to Agent Orange.

It also assessed the health risks to defence personnel and their families, and the health services available to them.

The Committee concluded that New Zealand personnel who had served in Vietnam had indeed been exposed to Agent Orange, and that this exposure had had adverse health effects not only for the personnel themselves, but also for their children.

A Joint Working Group on the Concerns of Vietnam Veterans was established in July 2005, under the chairmanship of the former State Services Commissioner, Michael Wintringham.

The Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association, and the Ex-Vietnam Services Association participated in the group.

In their report of April 2006, the Joint Working Group proposed that the Crown apologise formally to veterans and their families for the history of pain and suffering experienced by many of them.

That recommendation was accepted as part of a wider package of measures proposed under the themes of Acknowledging the Past, Putting Things Right, and Improving Services to Vietnam Veterans.

A range of steps under each of these headings was agreed.

Today the Crown has offered a formal apology to the New Zealand Veterans of the Vietnam war and their families.

The Crown places on record recognition of the service of those personnel; and acknowledges the many consequences of that service, including the physical and mental health effects.

The failure of successive governments and their agencies to acknowledge the exposure of veterans to dioxin contaminated herbicides and other chemicals is itself acknowledged, as is the way in which that failure exacerbated the suffering of veterans and families.

The recommendation of the Joint Working Group report that the earlier Reeves and McLeod reports should no longer form the basis for policies towards Vietnam veterans and their families is accepted by the Crown.

Finally, there is the commitment to put things right, where government action is the appropriate means of achieving that resolution.

The commitments the Crown has made to the treatment of Vietnam Veterans who were affected by toxic environments in Vietnam and to their families are set out in the Memorandum of Understanding of 6 December 2006, and the Crown will adhere to them.

In concluding, the Crown thanks the members of the Joint Working Group who provided a way forward for dealing with these troubling issues of New Zealand’s relatively recent past.

This has led to the opportunity for the Crown to put on record its thanks for, and its apology to, those brave service personnel who became the Veterans of the Vietnam war, and to pay tribute to those who never came home.

We will remember them.


Published: 2008, May, 28. | Time-stamp:  Last updated 22:43  | By: The Dominion Post | Article Link: Title: 'Sorry' says Government to soldiers

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