Today is Vietnam Veterans Day and it was a special day. Thousands of Vietnam Veterans assembled in our nation’s capital, Canberra, to commemorate fifty years since our last troops were withdrawn from Vietnam and our war there ended. Similar services took place in cities and towns across Australia today.
Our Prime Minister’s message for this event was:
“This year, as we mark the 50th anniversary since the role of Australian troops in the hostilities in Vietnam came to a close, we acknowledge the service and sacrifice made by our veterans. Their experiences during and after the war are a powerful reminder of the sacrifices made by those who have served our country and the debt of gratitude we owe each and every one of our veterans. Many of our troops returned to face new battles at home and not every one of those battles was won – it is important as Australians that we know the stories of service in Vietnam and what our veterans faced when they returned home. We honour you, we thank you and we are so sorry it took us so long as a nation to do so.”
This commemoration service was our reason for visiting Canberra on our journey further north.It was held on Anzac Avenue before the National Vietnam Memorial.
Rain was threatening but we only had one short shower during the service and it didn’t dampen our spirits. Fortunately, I arrived early enough to find a seat under the shelter that had been erected for the event. I must thank the government’s Department of Veterans Affairs for their excellent staging this event.
The ceremony began with the traditional mounting of the catafalque party and the presentation of banners by the flag party along with the ceremonial Federation Guard.
One of the first segments was to hear the sound of a didgeridoo. It was played by acurrently serving Aborginal soldier. This set the atmosphere for this event as a truly Australian one. The sounds of the disgeridoo along with the screeching of sulphur cfrested cockatoos in the nearby trees made itb clear as to where we really were.
During the service, we heard from veteran representatives from each of the three services. Their stories brought back many memories of service in Vietnam and the difficulties of returning home to a hostile community. While their stories touched the hearts of the veterans, I think they would have had a little less impact on the general community – mostly because they hadn’t experienced the same things.
All the speakers had the same experience as I had. None of us wanted to go to war, but we did our job conscientiously. You could not have discerned any difernce betwen the abilities of the regular volunteer soldiers and the conscripted national servicemen like me. The Vietnam War was the first time in Australia’s history that men had been conscripted for active service. In total round 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam; 16,000 of them were ‘Nashos’. When we returned home, we were assulted by protestors, shunned by ex service organisations and not honoured in any of the ways that soldiers from previous wars had been. I didn’t talk about being a veteran for seventeen years because, like everyone else, I never knew what the reaction of others would have been. I returned home from Vietnam in 1970 but it was only after the 1987 Welcome Home Parade in Sydney that most of us were able to be open about our service. There is still a good deal of hurt in the veterran community. I hope that the protestors now have a different view and are perhaps are even ashamed of the way that they treated us veterans.
Mr Matt Keogh, Minister for Veterans Affairs gave an address that I thought was very relevant. Too often, speeches by parliamentarians have a strong poitical flavour, but he summarised the events and issues of military service in Vietnam very well. His key points were:
- “When we speak of the Anzac spirit, we speak of having your mates’ backs, no matter how dire the circumstances”.
- “But when our veterans returned home from Vietnam many felt unsupported, unrecognised”.
- “In marking 50 years since the end of Australia’s involvement in Vietnam, we honour and thank all those who served, and the sacrifices of their families”.
- “You have made your nation proud”
After the service, a good number of men (and wives) from my unit – 85 Transporft Platoon, joined together for lunch at the Ainslie Football Club. Along with local Canberrans, we had people attending from many locations and as far away as Western Australia.
Today was a good day. I am very proud of my service to my country.