House debates

Monday, 8 February 2016

Private Members' Business

Vietnam Veterans Day

12:40 pm

Photo of David ColemanDavid Coleman (Banks, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I am pleased to be able to speak today in honour of Australia's Vietnam veterans and I thank the member for Ryan for putting forward this important motion. I was born in 1974 so my understanding of Australia's involvement in Vietnam is through talking to veterans and through reading rather than my personal experience. Like most Australians of my generation, I have not been called upon to serve in the manner that was required of young Australians of the Vietnam era and, indeed, of earlier eras. I am very conscious of the fact that my generation has not been required to make those sacrifices.

I am troubled by the experiences of many Australian solders when they returned from Vietnam. From discussions with many veterans in my electorate and elsewhere, it is clear that many of our returning Vietnam veterans were not treated with the honour that their service deserved. Many veterans were badly treated on their return to Australia. Many felt that they were held to blame for the political decisions of governments over which they had no control. Of course, our solders were just doing as they were instructed. They did not start the war; they did not get a say in it. They were simply doing their jobs and risking their lives in the process.

More than 500 Australians died in Vietnam. They did so as representatives of our nation. Those who returned should have been treated with the respect and admiration that has been afforded to veterans of other conflicts. They should have felt the gratitude of our nation. Sadly, many did not. In my lifetime there has been a noticeable improvement in the respect in which Vietnam veterans are held in the community. That is seen most clearly on Anzac Day where Vietnam veterans march with pride and are embraced by the community.

As a nation we have moved beyond the state of blaming soldiers for unpopular wars. Many Australians did not support our involvement in the Iraq War but, as a nation, we knew that the soldiers were not to be held to blame for any personal views that people might have had on the conflict. Regardless of what individual people thought about the war, as a society we knew that our soldiers were conducting themselves in a professional, honourable manner in the best traditions of the ADF. It is sad that we did not have that attitude after Vietnam. We should have. We must never again allow a situation to develop where returning soldiers are held responsible for unpopular conflicts. Vietnam Veterans Day has gone some way in recent years to redressing this historical injustice. Commemorated on 18 August every year, this year it marks 50 years since the Battle of Long Tan—the Battle of Long Tan, of course, being in 1966.

The number of Australians involved in Vietnam was enormous—60,000 service personnel and more than 500 of them paying with their lives. Long Tan was one of the defining chapters of our Vietnam campaign and it is appropriate that in 1987 the then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, declared that the Day of Long Tan would henceforth be recognised as Vietnam Veterans Day. In that battle Australians showed extraordinary courage and perseverance, despite being outnumbered and with a limited supply of artillery to hold the line until reinforcements arrived.

In my area there is a thriving community of ex-services organisations, all of which have representatives who served in Vietnam. The Oatley, Padstow, Penshurst, Panania and Mortdale sub-branches all have Vietnam veterans in their ranks, as does the Riverwood ex-services branch. Each year veterans from the St George area and other parts of Sydney gather at Bankstown Sports Club for the commemoration of Vietnam Veterans Day. It is now a well attended event by hundreds of people, many of whom also attend the service at the Cenotaph in Martin Place.

We have come a long way in acknowledging the sacrifices of our Vietnam veterans. That is as it should be, and we must ensure that the poor treatment of Vietnam veterans is never replicated in any future generation of returning Australian soldiers.


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