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Monday, 22 August 2011
Page: 8916


Mr SNOWDON (LingiariMinister for Veterans' Affairs, Minister for Defence Science and Personnel and Minister for Indigenous Health) (16:23): It is a great honour to speak in this debate. I thank the member for Casey for his fine remarks and his recognition and acknowledgement of the importance of Long Tan Day, and more generally the importance of recognising the contribution of our Vietnam veterans to the Australian nation.

It is hard for us to understand that over a decade 60,000 Australian men served in Vietnam and of those, sadly, 521 were killed in action or died as a result of their wounds, and over 3,000 were wounded. It is very difficult for those of us who sit in a place like this and who have never worn an Australian uniform—whether it is Air Force, Army or Navy—to understand or appreciate what that actually means. Yes, the war in Vietnam was an unpopular war and, yes, almost half of the Australian men serving there were national servicemen, many of whom did not elect to go. But they went and they went to carry out government policy. This was a choice of government and government, as we know, is the voice of the people. Although we might not understand or even be able to imagine the horror of this conflict, our forebears in this place bear the responsibility for having sent these men to war, so we wear that responsibility. We have to understand and appreciate what actually happened and the depth of sorrow and anguish that results from decisions to send people to war and to see and to know what the long-term implications are of an effort such as this where we lose 521 brave men.

Last Thursday I attended the national Vietnam veterans commemorative service held here at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Anzac Parade at which the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition were both present. The Prime Minister gave what I thought was a very fine speech. It was a cold wintery morning, very unlike anything that would have been experienced in Vietnam, but many came to pay their respects to the fallen and remember and pay tribute to the service of so many of our fellow Australians.

As we know, it was 45 years ago to the day that soldiers of Delta Company 6RAR held fast against a large enemy force in the battle of Long Tan. This battle on 18 August was one of the most significant engagements by the Australian forces during the war. There were others. But the importance of this bloody engagement cannot be underestimated—108 Australian and New Zealand soldiers fought a pitched battle against an estimated 2,000 determined North Vietnamese and Vietcong enemy at a rubber plantation near Long Tan. On this terrible day 18 Australians were killed, the most killed in any one engagement of the war in Vietnam.

To recognise their extraordinary gallantry in action, veterans of Delta Company were presented with the unit citation of gallantry by the Governor-General, Her Excellency Mrs Quentin Bryce. The special parade was at Gallipoli Barracks Enoggera in Brisbane on Thursday afternoon. I was honoured and privileged to be in attendance. The veterans there were hosted by the current 6RAR who themselves have only just recently returned from Afghanistan as Mentoring Task Force 1, MTF1. MTF1 was also presented with meritorious unit citation for outstanding service in warlike operations on Operation Slipper in Oruzgan Province in Afghanistan between 20 January and 30 October 2010. It was indeed a proud and very special moment for all involved to see the younger veterans and our Vietnam veterans together on parade and receiving recognition together for their service.

Australian service in Vietnam spanned over 10 years and we pay tribute to the service and sacrifice of Australian service personnel during that entire period. These battles in Vietnam were difficult battles. They were close pitched and intense, fought in difficult conditions. Our service personnel fought in the Anzac spirit, with great courage, conviction and valour.

It is worthwhile pointing out that a number of years ago we still had four MIAs in Vietnam. We have discovered where those MIAs have been. We have recovered their remains and we have brought them home. So their final resting place is in the holy soil of Australia, their home. Sadly though, as we well know, in times past as a nation we have not recognised the service of our veterans from this war as we should have. Vietnam Veterans Day provides the nation with an opportunity to pause and reflect, to remember the service of our Vietnam veterans and pay tribute to those gone before, and to learn from our past so that we may better look after our ADF personnel of today and the future. This is not the time to talk about what we need to do for our current serving personnel but we need to do more.

I am a child of this generation when the war was deeply unpopular here at home. I knew people who were conscientious objectors. I knew people who were national servicemen who went to war. I knew people who were injured by that war, either mentally or physically. Sadly, as they get older, sometimes their difficulties increase. We have yet to come to terms and really understand the depth of hurt which many of these men carry with them today and appreciate what that means for us. As the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, and I am sure as with previous ministers for veterans' affairs, I speak on behalf of the nation when I say to these veterans that, despite your experiences of the past, we are absolutely committed to providing the best we possibly can for your welfare and for your health and that of your families as you get older.

We know that in this country we are living longer and for the many people with challenges that remain, with demons which they cannot expunge, we will work with them to help them get on top of them—and we will. We will continue to do what others have done before. But the message here is very clear to us: as I said at the outset, we in this place bear a special responsibility. It is governments that send people to war. We wear a special responsibility towards our past veterans and today's veterans. We cannot do as was done in the past and ignore their pleas and ignore their needs. We need to accommodate them and work with them to satisfy them. I am committed to doing that.

This day last week was a special day for Australian veterans who served in that war, and for their families. For so many, the families are the ones who bore the burden of the hurt and many still do. We have a special obligation to defence force men and women and their families. Whatever their service, we need to continue to diligently apply ourselves to making sure that they get the very best we can offer.