The Vietnam War divided the country a generation ago and as the Government launched a belated healing process this week nearly 36 years after the last troops came home, its toxic legacy continued to divide the veterans who served there.
Many welcome the Crown’s apology for their treatment and official commemoration of their service over Queen’s Birthday weekend as part of what Prime Minister Helen Clark calls a comprehensive settlement.
A lot do not. Still angry over their exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange and callously offhand treatment by past governments, they say the attempt at reconciliation is too little, too late, and it’s time to move on anyway.
In the words of one veteran army officer, weary of years of recrimination, who says he will not march in Saturday’s long overdue welcome home parade through the streets of Wellington: “There are too many people picking at scabs at the moment.”
But Chris Mullane, chairman of the weekend’s events entitled Tribute 08, says: “It marks the point at which Vietnam veterans and their families receive proper recognition, with dignity and respect, for their service, which the nation has sadly denied them in the past.”
And the militant Vietnam Veterans Action Group, which is based in Queensland, dubs the settlement a “band-aid solution that requires major surgery” and continues to deplore “decades of misfeasance and failure of duty of care”.
It was the first time New Zealand forces had fought, killed and died in a war that was not fully supported by the people back home. But it was not just anti-war protesters that cold-shouldered them.
The troops believed they were not properly backed by the 1965 government that bowed to pressure from the US to join the war for diplomatic and trade reasons and then made only a half-hearted commitment to their logistic and moral support.
The troops were made to pay income tax – unlike veterans of two world wars – on the specious claim that war had not been formally declared. Their overseas allowances were cut on equally false justifications and soldiers were forced to beg, borrow or steal everything from generators to medicines from well-equipped US forces.
As a result, the army left Vietnam in 1972 with its morale badly shattered and the soldiers came home to a hostile environment. Unlike returned servicemen of previous wars, they were not met by flag-waving crowds, but flown in at dead of night, told to take off their uniforms and not tell people where they had been.
When Auckland put on a home-coming civic reception for the gunners of 161 Battery in 1971 they were jeered as “baby-killers” and daubed with red paint symbolising spilled Vietnamese blood.
Their commanding officer John Masters was subjected to a citizen’s arrest by a peace group and charged with offensive behaviour for leading his men down Queen Street.
Even RSA members shunned the returning soldiers, encouraged by the government’s tax determination that Vietnam was not a “war” but some kind of military “sideshow”.
Veteran officer David Moloney had to point out to an Anzac Day service in Rotorua that the young soldiers who came back from Vietnam spent more time on operations and being shot at in 12 months than most World War 2 vets had in five years overseas.
Cold-shouldered by the RSA, the returning troops established the Ex-Vietnam Services Association (EVSA) and the two organisations did not come together until they negotiated the so-called Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Government which spawned the Government’s apology and this weekend’s commemoration.
The MoU, signed in December 2006, contains a raft of measures designed to heal the wounds, including a trust to give financial help to needy veterans and their families funded by the interest on a $7 million endowment for 30 years.
Many hard-up veterans who envisaged the trust easing their plight, have been disappointed.
“We’re not sitting on a bag of gold,” said trustee John Masters, noting that its February meeting had claims totalling $1.2 million and only $50,000 to give away.
Masters, 73, like a number of vets, has suffered a range of cancers in recent years and has no doubt they stemmed from exposure to chemicals widely sprayed by US forces to defoliate the jungle and deny cover to Viet Cong guerrillas. “I was fit as a fiddle when I went to Vietnam,” he said.
Successive governments rejected veterans’ claims that they and their children suffered serious health problems because of exposure to Agent Orange, denying that it had been used around the Anzac base at Nui Dat. It was only after Masters discovered a map stamped secret showing that 1.8 million litres of herbicide was sprayed over 31 months with a total of 356 probable occurrences where New Zealand troops had moved through contaminated areas that a parliamentary health committee rubbished two government-sponsored studies of denial.
The MoU provides for a one-off payment of $40,000 for veterans suffering one of five “prescribed conditions”. The vets wanted 10 more included, including prostate cancer, which Australian research shows is more prevalent among men who served in Vietnam than in the rest of the population, but the health ministry – “a pack of snivelling so-and-sos who tell lies” says one angry sufferer – vetoed them.
The disaffected Vietnam Veterans Action Group, which objects to a $95 registration fee for the Tribute 08 reunion weekend, says the MoU helps only about one percent of veterans and “it appears the government are waiting for us all to die”. It is talking about a class action against the government to seek compensation.
RSA president Robin Klitscher, who flew helicopters in Vietnam, says this is unfair and the association is pursuing issues like payments for more “prescribed conditions”. The apology does not close the Vietnam issue and the MoU includes a number of provisions, like long overdue reviews of the War Pensions Act and the often criticised Veterans’ Affairs department, that will benefit all military veterans, he says.
“It establishes a new starting point in the relationship between New Zealand and its veterans. This is the first government even to recognise that there was a problem, let alone looking at what to do about it.”
The biggest single issue that angers veterans is the Government’s refusal to refund the income tax – estimated at about $8,000 a head – that New Zealand troops, alone of all allied forces in Vietnam, were made to pay.
“That rankles with everybody,” says David Moloney. “It’s a point of principle. Had they done that, the naysayers would have been shut up.”
John Masters says: “If they gave every person who was in Vietnam $8,000 it would not only silence all the critics, they’d think they’d got a wonderful handshake from the Government and they’d all vote Labour at the next election.”
Published: 2008, May 28. | By: NZPA | Article Link: newshub.co.nz | Article Title: Vietnam vets divided over apology