Legislative Council: Wednesday, September 27, 2023


Vietnam War Anniversary

The Hon. T.T. NGO (17:57): I move:

That this council—

1. Notes that 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the proclamation to end Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War;

2. Recognises the service and the tremendous sacrifices made by South Australian veterans of the Vietnam War and their families;

3. Acknowledges the statements of the Prime Minister recognising and apologising for the prolonged suffering of many Vietnam War veterans;

4. Acknowledges the contributions made to Australian society by the Vietnamese veterans and their families, who fought alongside Australians during the Vietnam War and have since made Australia home; and

5. Expresses its genuine regret to veterans of the Vietnam War who had experiences upon returning to Australia that compounded and exacerbated the trauma they suffered in the conflict.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the proclamation to end Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War. It was a complex conflict, and it was and still is the subject of much debate that I have no intention of revisiting today. I prefer to focus on one of the war's most enduring legacies of damage, which is the human cost of the conflict, not just in lives lost but in lives that were changed forever.

In the decade between 1962 and 1972, Australia committed nearly 60,000 ground, naval and air personnel to Vietnam. After conscription was introduced by the Menzies government in 1964, it was no longer necessarily a choice for the individual to make. The first Australian conscript to be killed in action was a 21-year-old South Australian, the only child of his parents, who died after only 10 days of service. More than 200 of Australia's 523 casualties in Vietnam were conscripted men.

But there are so many ways beyond directly causing their death that the war in Vietnam took away the lives of its veterans. When I meet a veteran of the Vietnam War, I always say thank you. I am not only thanking them for their service, I am thanking them for their sacrifice, because for so many veterans the experience destroyed their mental health and stole their futures. It would have been bad enough for Vietnam veterans simply to have returned home to Australia with the physical and psychological injuries they suffered in combat, but on top of that they returned home to a community that was not ready or willing to recognise their suffering.

Australia's participation in the war in Vietnam was highly controversial. Public opinion grew increasingly opposed as the conflict went on. Veterans returned home, many of whom were experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, and for others mental health issues were often blamed for their participation. Many Vietnam veterans were even scorned by veterans of other wars, who did not regard Vietnam as a real war. But Vietnam veterans were not only rejected by the community; shamefully many returned soldiers were turned away by organisations whose very purpose was to support and assist veterans of war.

I cannot imagine how hurtful it would have been for veterans struggling with mental health issues and struggling to readjust to life after the war to be rejected by the very organisations they thought they could turn to for help. That injustice is extraordinary. Last month the RSL of New South Wales issued an apology to Vietnam War veterans who received adverse treatment or were turned away by the RSL when they returned from service. It should not be lost on anyone that RSL New South Wales President Ray James, the person who formally delivered this apology, is a Vietnam veteran himself. Rejection by organisations like the RSL and hostility from the community compounded the suffering of veterans, who had already been through tremendous hardship. Far too many veterans were left to struggle upon their return home and we can see clear evidence of this fact.

We know that Vietnam veterans have been significantly over-represented in our homeless population. We know that many Vietnam veterans have died by suicide. A 2014 study estimated that Vietnam veterans in Australia have been nearly 14 times more likely than the general population to attempt suicide. The way Vietnam veterans were treated upon returning home undoubtedly contributed to both these facts. I feel a great sense of regret for that shameful truth, for the role our society and our community played in making life after the war even harder for so many veterans. On Vietnam Veterans' Day in 2023 Prime Minister Anthony Albanese apologised to Vietnam veterans. I welcome this apology and I echo the Prime Minister's sentiment when he said:

…we have matured enough as a nation to embrace the truth that we can disagree with a war without that diminishing the respect we feel for every man and woman who puts on our uniform and serves in our name.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. D.G.E. Hood.