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Wednesday, 15 October 2008
Page: 9296

Dr KELLY (Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support) (11:17 AM) —On indulgence, it gives me pleasure to rise in acknowledgement and commemoration of the life and service of Private David Fisher. It was a privilege for me to be in attendance at the ramp ceremony at Richmond last Friday, in the presence also of the Hon. Warren Snowdon, the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, and the members for Greenway and Parramatta. In particular it was a very moving occasion in terms of the two speeches that were delivered by the minister and also by Major General Tim McCowan, a good friend of mine, currently the commander of the Special Operations Command. They highlighted the service of David Fisher and the importance of that service to the Australian community and our heritage.

In addition to the presence of those people, we also had the members of the SASR, not only members of the regiment as a whole wrapping their family support, if you like, as part of the defence family around the surviving members of David’s family but also the members of the patrol and the unit that David Fisher served with. It was a very moving occasion for them. I do not think the intensity that forms in these relationships amongst these unit members can be well appreciated or imagined. A very special bond is generated by not only enduring those difficult years of training but also surviving those intense contacts and conflict situations. I do not think anybody who has not been under fire can really appreciate just how heightened those situations are and the intensity of the relationships that are necessarily formed out of having to depend on someone next to you for your very life. It was very moving to see their response and their reaction as they formed the honour guard for the casket. For such hardened men, such heroic and courageous men, to see their emotional response to that situation was incredibly moving.

We also had in attendance the surviving members of Private Fisher’s family: his two sisters, Annie Cowdroy and Penny Fisher; a stepsister, Julie; and his stepmother, Margaret Fisher. It was very poignant for me to talk to Annie Cowdroy about the experience they had on that terrible day of learning the news, a day which has been experienced so many times by Australian families who have had service men and women involved in conflicts, when the car turns up, there is a knock at the door and the duty officer and the chaplain appear and pass on the shattering news that you have lost that loved member of the family. I certainly know what that is like because, in my Army career, I had to perform that duty. There is no more deeply impressing and difficult situation for a serving officer than to engage in that sort of duty. Certainly, you get to appreciate the cost to real people of the service and the loss of the incredible people in our Defence Force.

Also present on the day was Brigadier Billy Rolfe, who is involved with veterans and repatriation services. Billy Rolfe is a special person in my life; he recruited me into the Army, in fact. Billy Rolfe lost both legs in Vietnam in a mine incident, and he has always been a hero to me. Certainly, he represents to me just about all of the Vietnam veterans that I have had dealings with over the years. They are a very special group of people. In my training in the Army, they were the ones who provided me with military skills that enabled me to survive the various missions and deployments that I served on in my career. I am eternally grateful for the support of those Vietnam veterans who transferred those skills to me.

In recent times, I have had cause to be grateful to them again, when I entered into this political career. During the course of the campaign last year, there were tense moments when certain things were said in the heat of battle attacking my military service. Certain comments were made about me being a war criminal, a Nazi or a murderer because of my service in Iraq and Somalia. It was the Vietnam veterans who really rallied around me at that time. I note that they lived through some incredibly difficult experiences upon their return from Vietnam; the way they were received by the community and by both sides of politics was one of the more regrettable—in fact, disgraceful—episodes in our history. For them, those comments were very resonant of that experience, and I was extremely grateful for the way they rallied around me and supported me through that time. So I feel a special, personal debt to Vietnam veterans, and one of the reasons I wanted to speak about David Fisher today was not only to commemorate his service and his life but to speak on behalf of all Vietnam veterans. I certainly take it as a special responsibility of mine to represent the interests of veterans, being now, as I am, the only remaining member of the parliament who is a veteran.

The incident, as we have heard the member for Cowan describe it, was a traumatic circumstance. These men were engaged in combat against a superior enemy in terms of numbers. The Special Air Service, in its engagements in Vietnam and the long-range patrols, were involved in extremely tense episodes; short bursts of overwhelming concentration, endurance and courage were required. Normally they were in small groups and it was quite often a risk that they would come across larger bodies of the enemy, and so it was on the occasion when Private David Fisher was engaged in this contact involving possibly over 30 of the enemy. The contact resulted, as we know, in the need for what is called a ‘hot extraction’. During my time in the Army, I completed a helicopter assault course. Those courses themselves are testing in the risk that is involved in the training, but to combine the physical effort of engaging in extractions in these situations with the tenseness, fear and risks involved in having to do that in the face of the enemy, under fire, cannot really be appreciated or imagined.

The fact is that Private Fisher plummeted to the earth as a result of who knows what situation. The understanding that I have from talking to some of his fellow servicemen on Friday is that, while the karabiner is usually connected to the bowline in this sort of situation, it was possibly connected to an incorrect part of the rope and Private Fisher came loose as a result. Certainly, it was a 60-metre fall, so it is highly unlikely that he suffered in the end; it is likely that he would have died instantly from his contact with the ground.

You can imagine the absolute horror and grief for his fellow patrol members in experiencing that situation as well. Certainly, it was not something that they were prepared to let idly go by—just waving goodbye to Private Fisher and not attempting to relocate him. It is a bit of a sacred task and duty for every defence member in the Australian Army to try and bring home your colleagues and leave no-one behind. Certainly a massive effort was put into the attempt to relocate Private Fisher or at least his remains. The members turned around, after having been out there enduring great hardships on their patrols, immediately volunteering to go back out there and try and find Private Fisher. A massive effort was put into that. Unfortunately, notwithstanding that massive effort, they were not able to relocate him.

So, for all these years since that dark day on 27 September 1969, Private David Fisher has been lost to us as a defence family and lost to his own personal family and to his colleagues. It was a burning hole in their existence that he had not been brought home, but he was never forgotten. I think it is another enduring trait for defence members in the Australian Army, and indeed the Australian Defence Force as a whole, that you will not be forgotten.

Recently, of course, we had the formation of the Operation Aussies Home organisation. Jim Bourke and the wonderful people who have been involved in that have been supported not only by this government but by the previous government in their efforts to try and bring home those wonderful service personnel who we had not managed to bring home so far. Certainly, when I used to go on my jogging runs past the Vietnam War Memorial and see the references there to the missing, it always left a little tug in my heart that there were these members of the Defence Force of our own community in a foreign land who we were not able to bring home. It was just wonderful to see that through the efforts of Operation Aussies Home we have been able to relocate a number of the remains and bring home many of our personnel.

In 2007 three sets of human remains were located and recovered, including those of Lance Corporal Richard Parker and Private Peter Gillson, of the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment—‘True Blue’, as we call it—which I was privileged to serve with in Somalia. It is a very proud unit, and it was a great joy to all former serving members of the 1st Battalion to have been able to bring Lance Corporal Parker and Private Gillson home. In addition, we were able to locate and bring home Lance Corporal Gillespie, an Army medic involved in an aircraft accident or downing in Vietnam. His body has also been recovered.

With the repatriation of the remains of Private David Fisher, we have brought home the last of the Australian Army missing, but the job is not completed at this stage because we still have two of our people out there, two RAAF helicopter crewmen, and we are determined, of course, to continue our efforts to bring them home.

I must commend and give thanks for the efforts of the Vietnamese government and Vietnamese veterans in this effort. We had the pleasure of having the Vietnamese Prime Minister visit us recently and of having dinner with him here in Parliament House. The efforts and cooperation that we have had from the Vietnamese government have been outstanding. We certainly would not have been able to recover these remains without that assistance. I thank them very sincerely on behalf of the government and all Vietnam veterans as well.

It was heart warming to see the cooperation that we had from the veterans of the Vietnamese army. It was interesting to note that a Vietnamese soldier had actually attempted to bury Private Fisher’s remains in respect to him. He had moved his body into a shell scrape and attempted to effect a burial. There was respect there, and there is great respect now between the Vietnam veterans of our own Defence Force and the Vietnamese veterans. That is a wonderful link, a healing thing in itself, that we continue to encourage and see grow and flourish. I think that will be a feature of our relationship with Vietnam, as it has been a feature of our relationship with Turkey in the bonds that have been forged from conflict, notwithstanding that we were on opposite sides of those conflicts.

The story of how Private Fisher’s remains were identified was an interesting one in itself. I will not go into all the details of that, but it was a tremendous forensic effort as well, and it must have been a great joy to have been able to identify the fact that some of the equipment there was unique to the SASR and its service in Vietnam. That has led, of course, to the confirmations that we have had since then.

David John Elkington Fisher was a special individual, so it is important that we remember the individual himself. He was a very, very dedicated member of the SAS Regiment. He was a volunteer during a period when national service was first generated in terms of the random selection process. He wanted to avoid that and volunteered his service. His father had been a distinguished bomber pilot in World War II and had transferred to the RAAF. Poignantly, given that the ramp ceremony was held at Richmond, David’s father’s first posting in Australia was to RAAF Base Richmond, so in a sense it was a coming home in many ways. This family has rendered service to the cause of freedom and democracy over many decades in that context.

David himself was one of those people, one of those forces of nature, who seeks to contribute to society in any possible way he can. He had enormous and boundless energy in that respect. I note that he was a rugby boy and played rugby for the Mosman rugby union club. He was very much a rugby tragic like me. On behalf of the rugby community and the parliamentary rugby side, I would like to pass on our condolences to the family and remember one of our own in that respect as well.

David Fisher’s life was special. His service was special. No-one can really appreciate the physical demands and skills that are required of SAS soldiers. They are a breed apart in many respects. To lose any one of them is a great loss. To lose any person is a great loss.

The importance of these situations for the Vietnam veterans as a whole is that they are just another step towards the closure that Vietnam veterans seek. I mentioned the treatment to which they were subjected when they returned home, and I do not think people can appreciate some of the extremely insensitive and cruel aspects of that treatment. To go into these situations of enormous tension, to have to do the things that they did, to kill in the name of your country, and then to come back to your country and be vilified for that effort, when it is even more important for people like that that the society and the community wrap around them to support them through the withdrawal process after their having been in those situations—to have that pulled from under them and to have the value of what they did questioned was the removal of a very significant psychological prop that is essential for a veteran. It is little wonder that that created the problems that it did in the way they struggled to reintegrate into society.

It has been a great privilege for me since the Rudd Labor government have taken office for us to have been able to help bring to Vietnam veterans in general some resolution of longstanding issues that should have been sorted out well before now through the periods of governments of both descriptions. In particular, I refer to the 2nd D&E Platoon soldiers who for so long had been denied recognition of their very existence as a subunit—and of course the extreme gallantry and effectiveness of the service that they rendered in many very difficult battles and situations. I salute their service. It is wonderful that we have now at last put that issue to rest and that they have been recognised. They were certainly extremely grateful for that.

In addition, at last, after 40 long years, we have been able to bring to a closure the Long Tan saga, a situation that should not have been allowed to continue as long as it did. Certainly, in our long discussions with those veterans and with Harry Smith in particular—a man of enormous principle, courage and dedication who was determined, with whatever breath was left in his body, to ensure that his soldiers were properly recognised—we have been able to resolve that issue for him and for his veterans. I note that a review was finally commissioned by the previous government on the matter, but the review itself only went as far as providing some resolution for Harry Smith himself and for the former Lieutenants Sabben and Kendall.

It was a highly significant engagement that led to the breaking of the back of the VC and North Vietnamese army effort in the Phuoc Tuy province. The significance probably was not completely appreciated at the time. I felt that we needed to recognise all of those who participated in that battle. I was pleased to represent in rugby Delta Company of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, another very proud unit of the Army and a company which contributed a great deal to the security of the force at the time. That effort at Long Tan was an attempt to destroy the Australian task force altogether, and so that effort was blunted in this battle, against great odds.

It was a pleasure for me to argue the case for these veterans to obtain the former South Vietnamese government unit citation that was denied to them at the time. It had clearly been the intention of that government to award that decoration, and it was only bureaucratic nonsense that prevented that from happening. So I am really delighted that we have been able to push through that measure as well, in recognition of all of the diggers who put their lives on the line in that battle and, of course, the many who lost their lives in that battle.

The return home of Private David Fisher is another episode in seeking closure for our Vietnam veterans. I would like to finish with this comment: David Fisher, welcome home, cobber; you are not forgotten.