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Monday, 22 August 2011
Page: 8921

Mr WYATT (Hasluck) (16:50): It is a privilege to rise and contribute to the debate. I want to endorse the comments made by my colleagues who have spoken before me. I want to acknowledge Vietnam Veterans Day. The Vietnam War has relevance in terms of my own life experiences as I am of that vintage. As young men and women, we grew up at a time when Australia was committing to the Vietnam War and to the conflict there. We know of some of the events that occurred over a period of time but the footage we saw on television for the first time covered the conflict from its beginning to its end. From those images, we had a sense of some of the challenges that Australian service men and women were experiencing.

Over 60,000 Australians served in the Vietnam conflict. Sadly, 521 paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country and its interests. Some 47,000 Vietnam veterans are alive today and it is for them, their fallen comrades and the families affected that we remember them specifically every year. There are many Vietnam veterans in Hasluck. I often believe that, as members of parliament, we have an incredible privilege in meeting, working and talking with the service men and women who served in many fronts and in many campaigns on behalf of this country. Service men and women when called do not ask; they serve. I have had the privilege and honour to meet with some of these men in my first year in office. The pride with which they acknowledge their service, the regret they express at the loss of life and the frustration of their treatment on returning home from Vietnam makes me truly humble. The pictorial representations that were so strong in those days have etched in my memory the way we treated some of our servicemen returning home from that conflict.

Vietnam Veterans Day is an important occasion but one made even more poignant this year on the 45th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. In 1966, 18 young Australians died and 24 were wounded in what would become the stuff of legend. I remember the headlines in the local papers that were common in Perth at that time. I particularly remember a cartoon—and I am sure it was drawn by Paul Rigby—that showed Aussie diggers surrounded, at the end of a campaign just leaning there quietly reflecting on the fact that some comrades had fallen but also looking at the insurmountable numbers that had charged during that campaign.

Keen to inflict a politically unacceptable number of casualties on the Australian forces, the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong planned an ambush of the Australian troops in the rubber plantation area of Long Tan. I will not repeat the details of this well-known battle here today, but the men of D Company, 6th Royal Australian Regiment, the first APC squadron and a section of the New Zealand artillery defeated a numerically superior force, numbering in the thousands. In the pursuing battle, over 24 hours, the Australian courage and fighting spirit was shown to the world.

Most of these men were not regular soldiers. Many of us of a certain age will remember the controversy surrounding conscription and the drafting of Australia's young men into the armed forces. At Long Tan, conscripts faced off against some of North Vietnam's toughest soldiers and they held themselves and their country in high regard. As a result, a long overdue Unit Citation for Gallantry was awarded last week to D Company of the 6RAR. I honour their courage and am pleased that this nation finally recognises the true sacrifice our armed forces made in this decade-long conflict, which shaped the sixties and the seventies. I have friends who served in the Vietnam War and each one has a different story to tell of their service. Some received devastating physical wounds, but all of them were wounded emotionally and mentally in some capacity. It has taken Australian society a long time to understand and acknowledge issues such as post traumatic stress disorder and the impact they have on returning soldiers and their families. I would like to think that we have learnt from these lessons and are prepared for our troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. But more needs to be done.

I held a recent forum with the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Senator Michael Ronaldson. Veterans from the conflicts of World War II, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan came together to talk about their issues. The recurring theme was one of helplessness that our Vietnam veterans felt on return, especially for those who were physically incapacitated as a result of their service, and the impact that that has had on the quality of life. It was very interesting listening to the stories that they shared with us of both their pride of having served their country and the frustration they have for what they termed a 'continuing war', whilst retaining recognition for the rights and entitlements that they were seeking for both the physical, emotional and mental impact that that war had. Certainly, their shared stories brought back to me memories of three people in particular: Peter Keilor, who comes from the town of Corrigin; and two brothers, Peter and David Stone, who are twins, who also served in Vietnam. All three, as I remember them, went away as strong young men. They returned, but Peter lost his limbs, having stood on a mine. David and Peter shared some of their stories but never shared the detail, but certainly indicated their pride in having served.

I would like to thank Senator Michael Ronaldson and the shadow minister for defence, Senator David Johnston, for making it such an informative day for all those who attended, especially those veterans who were in attendance. I am sure that we are all proud of these men because they, as service men and women, fought to ensure that the freedoms we have and we will always enjoy are endured long into the future.

I am equally as proud of the Returned and Services Leagues that call Hasluck home. The Gosnells RSL is a very vibrant group of returned servicemen. The Bellevue RSL and the Kalamunda RSL all represent their members well. I enjoy the camaraderie of the discussions that I have with them on issues that they raise. Issues about ex-Vietnamese servicemen now dominate their agenda, and the coalition continues to work hard to shape appropriate policy in this area.

Earlier this year I held a Saluting Their Service ceremony in my electoral office. I was fortunate enough to be able to present several Vietnam War veterans with a certificate acknowledging their efforts in this brutal conflict. What was really warming, and it quite touched me and my staff, was not just sitting there, listening to them as veterans swapped their stories, their experiences about the challenges that they still grapple with but being able to contribute to that discussion. They were all men of different ages, from different conflicts, with different experiences but, from their perspective, they were all Australians who served their country.

Once again, I want to acknowledge the 60,000 service personnel who served in Vietnam and sacrificed so much in the name of this great country. Our armed forces do not choose where they fight, but they fight when called upon and they must always be honoured and respected. It is the foundation upon which this nation was built. I want to acknowledge their contribution and ask that we never forget what they have given us. Thank you, Deputy Speaker.