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Monday, 18 August 2003
Page: 18739

Mr EDWARDS (4:53 PM) —Today is a very special day in the calendar of Vietnam veterans and their families as it marks the 37th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan, which is now commemorated as part of Vietnam Veterans Day. This weekend I had an opportunity to attend my own battalion's reunion—the 7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment—at Wagga Wagga, where over 500 veterans marched, supported by many spouses, family members and, of course, locals who turned out in support.

It was indeed a very moving march and service. On behalf of all who attended, I want to place on the record our appreciation to Tony Keech and other members of the 7RAR executive for the work they put into this weekend. The march and service, which was held in the main street of Wagga Wagga, was very moving and well conducted by Padre Evans. I want to quote a poem which he read to the service and, in so doing, I want to dedicate it to all Vietnam veterans on this significant day. The poem by George L. Skypeck is entitled A Soldierand it reads:

I was that which others did not want to be.

I went where others feared to go,

And did what others failed to do.

I asked nothing from those who gave nothing,

And reluctantly accepted the thought of eternal loneliness ... should I fail.

I have seen the face of terror;

Felt the stinging cold of fear;

And enjoyed the sweet taste of a moments love.

I have cried, pained, and hoped ... but most of all,

I have lived times others would say were best forgotten.

At least someday I will be able to say that I was proud of what I was ...

A soldier.

I also attended the service at the Vietnam Veterans National Memorial in Canberra this morning. I thank and congratulate the Vietnam Veterans Association and the Vietnam Veterans Federation for the joint manner in which they conducted that service this morning.

Today is the 37th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. Long Tan was not the biggest battle in which Australians fought. I think the Battle of Coral and Balmoral was bigger, but Long Tan was certainly the first and the battle which dictated from there on in how the war in Phuoc Tuy would be fought. There is, however, an outstanding matter of justice and fairness relating to that battle—that is, the fact that, 37 years after being recognised for their bravery, veterans of the Battle of Long Tan are still denied by this government the right to wear the medals and unit citation which were to be bestowed upon them by a grateful South Vietnamese government, which was prevented from doing so on the advice of the Australian government of the day on the basis that the Queen had not approved the awards.

A few years ago this government gave Vietnam veterans who were awarded Vietnamese decorations the right to wear them. The diggers of Long Tan, however, were excluded and still fight today for the right to wear those awards. I have brought this issue up in the House on a number of occasions, and I will continue to do so in the future. I want to thank and recognise Catherine King, the member for Ballarat, and Arch Bevis, the member for Brisbane, for their strong support on this issue. Indeed, Catherine King put forward a motion for debate in this chamber today, Vietnam Veterans Day, but the motion was rejected before it even got off the ground.

In support of the evidence that the then South Vietnamese government were to give these awards to Long Tan veterans, I produce a letter from Harry Smith, who was the battle commander of the Battle of Long Tan. He has fought for a bit of justice for his diggers ever since. He recently wrote, yet again, to the Department of Veterans' Affairs regarding that matter, seeking approval for his diggers to wear those awards. On 8 June he emailed me following the response he had received from DVA. His email said:

The thrust of the DVA letter is that RVN—

that is, the Republic of Vietnam—

never presented the Awards. That is correct, except for my National Order 5th Class, at a later date.

The reason is that Aust Govt stopped them at last minute due no approval by HM Queen.

The awards were already published in the Press in Aust, so that means RVN gave Aust Govt the list of awards to be made as a result of the Citations sent up from ATF—

that is, the Australian task force—

21 Individual medals, plus the RVN Govt was to award the Unit Citation to Delta Company as worn by 8RAR and AATTV—

the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam. It continues:

I have the Cable where Ambassador Border in Saigon suggest to Canberra that the awards be presented and not worn outside country until HM approval was obtained.

The Aust Govt did not apply for approval, forgot or failed, why? yet went on to get approval for some 610 others.

The Files are still secret, even after the 30 years period, in AWM—

Australian War Memorial—

Archives. Why ? Perhaps the RVN Citations are in the Files? We know that RVN Govt was embarrassed by lack of Guard Of Honour and the rejection of their presentation of the awards at the parade where they had to get dolls and cigar boxes in a hurry. Maybe there is a political problem in the Files.

However, it behoves the Govt to accept the “Proof Of Offer” under the 1999 Legislation and to put an end to the petty and childish nonsense that has gone on since I started this battle in 1996 after I was able to get what unclassified files there were, out of AWM.

I also have a copy of a letter that was written by Charles Tran Van Lam, the former President of the Senate, Ambassador to Australia and Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Vietnam. I quote Charles Tran Van Lam:

Dear Colonel Smith,

I refer to your query regarding the Vietnam National Order awards. I would like to confirm that my former Government did intend to present Awards to some 21 Officers and Soldiers of the1st Australian Task Force for their service and gallantry at the Battle Of Long Tan at a parade held at Nui Dat on the 2nd September 1966, However, the offer was rejected by the Australian Ambassador in Saigon at the last minute on the grounds that the Queen had not given approval. Consequently, although embarrassed, our President went to Nui Dat but had to present gifts rather than the awards mooted for the officers and soldiers.

I understood the Australian Government of the day was to seek approval and make retrospective approval so that the soldiers could receive their awards as was the case in future years, and the desire of my Government.

My Government had also intended to present all the soldiers and officers of the Company with a Unit Citation in addition to the awards for selected commanders, officers, and soldiers.

I hope that you and the relevant officers and soldiers are successful in your claim to these awards as I truly believe you deserve them.

I have already had that letter tabled in the parliament some time ago. I also have a copy of a cable which was sent by the then Australian Ambassador to Vietnam to Australia and which was directed to the Minister for Defence. In that cable he confirms that the Australian authorities of the day had prior notice that the Vietnamese officials were going to come down and present those awards. The then ambassador suggested:

... pending formulation of policy on receipt of Vietnamese awards apart from Vietnam campaign medal, Vietnamese leaders should not be placed in embarrassing position by refusal of awards which they might bestow without advance warning.

The Australian government of the day did not want to embarrass the Vietnamese leaders of the day by saying, `Don't present the awards.' But as it turned out they did step in and prevent the presentation of those awards and that led to the Vietnamese President having to send some of his people down to the local markets to buy dolls and cigar cases, which were then given to the veterans in lieu of the awards. This issue has dragged on for a long time. Successive ministers of this government have visited Long Tan, including Minister Vale just recently. Have they learnt nothing from their visits? How can they possibly visit that place and come away lacking the courage to take on the bureaucracy and say, `These diggers deserve those awards,' and to make sure that those diggers get them? (Time expired)

Mr Edwards —I seek leave of the House to table an inward cablegram from Ambassador Border at the time, which shows that the government was aware that these medals were to be presented.

Leave granted.