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Wednesday, 11 September 1996
Page: 3282

Senator TAMBLING (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Transport and Regional Development) —I seek leave to make a statement on behalf of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Mr Bruce Scott) relating to the Vietnam veterans' delegation to Vietnam, to incorporate the statement in Hansard and to move to take note of the statement.

Leave granted.

The statement read as follows

Vietnam Veterans' Delegation to Vietnam

Some four weeks ago it was my privilege to lead a representative group of Vietnam veterans to Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia. This visit was part of the Australia Remembers Vietnam 1962- 1973 commemorative program. It was but one of several activities held last month to mark Vietnam Veteran's Day—August 18. That is the day that we recall Australia's involvement in the Vietnam conflict and the courage, commitment and sacrifice of the 59,000 Australians who had a role to play in it. In particular it is a time to remember the 508 Australians who, in the course of the Vietnam conflict, gave their lives in the service of their country.

It was particularly significant in commemorating our involvement in Vietnam, that we were able to take a representative group of Vietnam veterans, back to Vietnam. It enabled the veterans to confront and understand many of the memories that have been with them and their families for the last thirty years. It was an opportunity for them to see the beauty of the country and the warmth of the people, when mostly they could only remember the ugliness and the horror of war. And now those who were part of the delegation have the opportunity to share that experience—a profoundly healing one—with their families, friends and fellow veterans.

It was an honour and a privilege for me to be in the company of thirty such fine Australians. Their remarkable good humour, support for one another and pride in their country was a true highlight of the visit.

I would like to report to Members of the House some of the significant events of the visit and then outline what I believe are the major benefits that will come to all Australians as a result of this visit. It was an experience which deserves to be shared.

First, may I express my appreciation to my colleague the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Honourable Alexander Downer. His personal efforts and representations to the Vietnamese government were critical to the visit's success. I would also like to record my thanks to Australia's Ambassador to Vietnam, Her Excellency, Ms Sue Boyd, and the staff of the Australian Embassy in Hanoi and the Australian Consulate-General in Ho Chi Minh City. Without their unflagging efforts, the visit would not have been the outstanding success, that ultimately, it was.

I must also say how much the Australian Government has appreciated the assistance and cooperation of the Government of Vietnam and the Peoples Committees in the provinces we visited, in making the tour program possible. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam more than twenty years ago, the relationship between our two countries has continued to grow in strength. We value this relationship very much and I am sure that visits such as these can only add to that strength. I understand that the Vietnamese Government were very satisfied with the way in which the veterans' visit proceeded.

We are grateful, too, to the High Commissioners of Malaysia and Singapore and their staff, for the assistance they provided to the delegation while we were visiting those countries. The assistance provided by the governments of Malaysia and Singapore was also very much appreciated by the members of the delegation.

The visit program, which began on 11 August, involved 27 Vietnam Veterans, 2 widows and a descendant of a serviceman killed in Vietnam. These thirty people were randomly selected to represent the more than 59,000 Australians who served in Vietnam. All three arms of the services were represented as well as philanthropic organisations and official entertainers who had served in Vietnam. All States and the two territories of Australia were represented in the group. The Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs, the Member for Cunningham, was also part of the delegation.

The first major commemorative activity of the tour was a ceremony at the Terendak Military Cemetery in Malaysia. It is here that 24 Australian servicemen killed in Vietnam are buried, including Major Peter Badcoe VC, whose widow, Mrs Denise Clark, was one of the veteran party.

As the prologue in the order of service noted: "The graves here have not been kept separate from others in the cemetery. They have not been put to one side as though they did not belong, but neither have they been held up as heroes. Though it is called a military cemetery, it is very much a community cemetery. There are children here, and wives. There are young soldiers and older ones. In one way, this is as it should be. Our veterans, taken by circumstance and duty from us, have in death been returned to the wider community".

In a moving and, for some, a very emotional ceremony we recalled the sacrifice made by all those Australians who died in Vietnam. The Australian serviceman or woman draws on a proud tradition stretching back nearly 100 years. The hallmarks across the years have been dedication, a pride in their work, a seriousness of purpose and a sense of achievement. In Vietnam that tradition was carried on.

At Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore our second commemorative service recalled all who had served in Vietnam. After the laying of wreaths, we moved a short distance to the Kranji Military Cemetery where the first Australian serviceman to be killed in action in Vietnam is buried. Warrant Officer Kevin Conway was a member of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam. He was killed in July 1964 when the Special Forces outpost of Nam Dong was attacked by enemy forces.

But these activities, important though they were, were in many ways a prelude to the group's arrival in Vietnam.

As we arrived in Vietnam and throughout the duration of the visit, we were greeted with genuine warmth and friendship. From the Vice-Minister for Labour, War Invalids and Social Affairs, Mr Nguyen Van Quang to the Vice President of the Ho Chi Minh City War Veterans Association, Major General Nguyen Van Si, right through to the humblest of the village folk, the welcome was always the same—warm and friendly.

During my calls on Vice Minister Quang and Major General Si I was able to stress that this visit by the delegation of veterans demonstrated the sincerity of Australia's commitment to Vietnam. They stressed that the Australian level of commitment was reciprocated.

At the Dong Nai museum in Bien Hoa, we were privileged to see the original Long Tan Cross, erected by Australians after the battle of Long Tan, which was fought on 18 August 1966. In that battle, D Company of 6RAR, held off a numerically superior enemy force. Eighteen Australians lost their lives in the battle.

Possibly the most poignant moments of the visit came when the group reached the Long Tan battlefield itself. In August 1966, when the battle raged, it was a rubber plantation. Today the area is a cornfield. Nevertheless, the Long Tan Cross site is still preserved in the middle of the field. A replica of the original cross has been made and erected in the original location. The site itself is in good repair and clearly regarded with respect as there is an undisturbed area around the site which has not been ploughed up. It is obvious that the villagers of Long Tan care for the site which means so much to Australians.

The cross itself is believed to be located at the point were Jim Richmond, another member of our party, was found, wounded, the day after the battle of Long Tan.

On August 18, Vietnam Veteran's Day, we were joined by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade, the Honourable Tim Fischer, for a ceremony at Nui Dat. This would be the first time an Australian government group would hold a commemorative ceremony in Vietnam.

The Deputy Prime Minister's address highlighted the cost to both sides in the war. He said: "Inevitably, of course, we remember the heroism of our friends and comrades. But we also acknowledge the courage of those Vietnamese against whom we fought. In the years since the war, many of us have come to know our former opponents as friends and so it is natural that, at a service such as this, we honour the Vietnamese fallen."

The veterans then joined the Deputy Prime Minister and many local officials and veterans for the unveiling of a plaque by Mr Fischer at the site of the Ba Ria Australian Vietnam Veterans' Recon struction Group Orphans and Disabled Children's Centre. The AVVRG, led by their president, Paul Murphy, is making a very positive contribution to the development of important infrastructure in the Ba Ria Vung Tau province.

This centre will provide the necessary facilities to care for many of the district's less fortunate children. Funding for the project comes from AVVRG members themselves with a contribution from the Australian Government. Australian companies in Vietnam have also been able to contribute to this project through the provision of building materials. This project is an important one, giving as it does, hope to those children in the Ba Ria Vung Tau province who will use its facilities. In any country, Vietnam as well as Australia, children are the future, and anything that we can do to ensure that they are given every opportunity to develop their potential as good citizens and leaders of the community should be encouraged.

But for me one of the important benefits of this visit program was the linkages that were made with many who once were enemy. Time and time again, from officials, from retired Vietnamese army officers who had once fought against Australians, came the message: "It is time to put the past behind us, build links for the future, but never forget those who suffered and died."

This is the message that I have conveyed to Australian ex-service organisations, most recently at the RSL's National Congress held last week in Tweed Heads.

At the orphanage site, for example, the now retired Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van Kiem, former commanding officer of D445 battalion which fought against the Australian forces at Long Tan, chatted enthusiastically with our veterans. We also met with Colonel Nguyen Thanh Hong, the former operations officer of 5 VC Division and the planner of the Battle of Long Tan. Colonel Hong has been quite ill, and it speaks volumes, I think, that he made such a determined effort to meet with us.

For some of those veterans or family members who went on this revisit program there were, I am sure, moments of deep, and perhaps painful, reflection. For some it may have meant a stepping away from the past, a closing of a chapter in their lives. For others, it was confirmation that our two countries can put aside the past, and work together as regional neighbours.

These thirty veterans, were ambassadors for all Australians and particularly for the 59,000 who served in Vietnam. The significance of our involvement in Vietnam should not be understated. It was our longest running continuous military commitment as a nation. Now, as each of the veteran representatives returns home and begins to relate his or her experiences and feelings to others in the Vietnam veteran community, no doubt they will be catalysts for healing for others.

But despite the hope and promise we all share for the future, we can not and must not, forget the personal price that many Australians paid in serving their country. It was a turbulent time in our nation's history and tragically many of our veterans and their families felt the impact of that turbulence during their service and on their return home.

The comments of one of the veterans at the Welcome Home reception hosted at Sydney airport by my colleague the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, crystallised for me, the healing value of visits such as these. After the first commemorative ceremony, the memories and the emotion were too much, he said. He thought he couldn't go on. After the second ceremony in Singapore, again he thought, this is too much, I can't go on. After the visit to Long Tan, he knew it would be hard, but he wanted to go on. The healing had begun. Now he would like to take his family on a return visit.

It would not be out of place I believe, if I were to paraphrase part of what I said at the ceremony at Kranji. "To each of you who served in Vietnam, we say thank you. We know that for some the cost was high. For some it was their very lives; for others it was a hurt and suffering that even the passage of time has not yet healed. But we recognise and value your experiences and we shall endeavour to ensure that all Australians today and in the future know and remember, as well."

Australians generally take a great deal of interest in Vietnam. Yet, even so, the relationship between Vietnam and Australia is a lot closer than some people realise. The twinning of Vung Tau and the Australian city of Parramatta is but one example of the increasing friendship between our two countries.

Many of our large companies have set up offices there to work together with Vietnamese partners to develop important business and trade links. Indeed, the visits by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade and by the Veterans group will, I am sure, not only further strengthen the already very strong relationship between our two countries, but assist in furthering opportunities for Vietnam and Australia to cooperate in a range of fields. There are a myriad of opportunities available to Australian companies. The proud and responsible way in which our veterans have represented Australia during and since their involvement in the Vietnam conflict has played a significant role in developing the strong relationship that exists today between the two countries.

We have many reasons to remember those Australians who served in Vietnam. Some thirty years on, it is time to thank them also.

Senator TAMBLING —I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

Debate (on motion by Senator Conroy) adjourned.