REMEMBERING OUR VIETNAM VETERANS
Good evening, everyone and thank you for coming today as we commemorate 50 years since one of the most difficult periods in Australian military history came to an end.
Today is a very special day.
Special because RSL NSW are marking the 50th anniversary of our exit from Vietnam with an apology.
An apology for the treatment of some of those who returned from war – those who faced the very worst in overseas conflict and were not warmly welcomed home as they should have been
Today is about building bridges, about making amends, about opening our arms, our ears, and our hearts to those who have been so severely impacted by their experiences both abroad and at home.
And as a returned serviceman myself, I’ve been trying to put myself into the boots of a Vietnam Veteran, trying to make sense of that experience, so I could commemorate and reflect on their sacrifice.
It was in June 1973 that the very last troops left in Vietnam were withdrawn, returning home to their families and leaving behind a war which took the lives of 523 Australians and wounded many more.
Australia’s exit from Vietnam represented the first time since the beginning of WWII that our Nation was not involved in foreign conflict, bringing an end to the bloodiest period in our Nation’s military history.
It is well documented that this war, of all wars, was the first that divided our nation, as it did our allies.
For the first time, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters sat in their living rooms, watching in vivid black and white the reality of war – shattering the image that those who were left at home were afforded – out of sight, out of mind.
The Australian public sat in their living rooms watching the American Troops actions towards the Vietnamese villagers and terrible, unfounded assumptions began to be made about the actions of our Australian troops.
For the first time, those who sat at home were faced with the moral, and the ethical quandaries of war. They had to think about what our Nation was doing overseas, whether our efforts were justified.
Doubling the public’s indifference towards the Vietnam War was a sentiment that it was a deeply American War, and the fact that our government saw fit to introduce a conscription ‘lottery’ scheme, which proved deeply unpopular among our communities.
For the first time in our history, war became deeply political, people marched in the streets, people shared their outrage at our nation’s government openly.
And in this great political upheaval, tragically, our returned servicemen were lost.
While some returned from Vietnam to great fanfare aboard the HMAS Sydney, many more returned under a cloud of public indifference and anger towards the war.
The treatment of our Vietnam Veterans is the great shame of our Nation, as blame was placed on our returned servicemen, not the political leaders who sent them to a foreign conflict
Vietnam Veterans were excluded by some, including some branches of the RSL, and by some servicemen of previous conflicts in Asia and Europe
What’s worse, is that the Government refused to accept that the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam exposed our troops to life-ending illnesses despite some 66 million litres of herbicide having been dropped in South Vietnam, much of that near Australian soldiers.
Today we have a different view of our Vietnam Veterans – they are a cohort of brave Australian soldiers who served in the toughest of conditions, facing an often-invisible enemy in foreign jungles, swamps, and marshes
But our recognition of our Vietnam Veterans did not come by itself, and we must always recognise the hard work and dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Association who for decades have fought tooth and nail in the face of governments, bureaucracy, the media, and the public opinion of some for the rightful recognition of our veterans
It’s their work that leads us here today and we must recognise those who gave up their time for their fellow servicemen
It’s their work that leads us to this momentous day, 50 years later, where we say sorry.
We, as a public, may disagree with a war, but we can never shift blame to those who serve.
It was a terrible time in our nation’s history and the mistakes of our national are laid bare in the reflections of our veterans.
Today is about making amends, extending the olive branch of apology, and hoping to repair old wounds.
By commemorating together today, we begin that journey. We help heal some of those wounds, we restore pride in our veterans, and we remember why it is so important that we increase support and funding for our veterans.
I thank you all for coming tonight
Lest we forget