National Servicemen

I welcome the opportunity to speak today on this motion in recognition of the crucial role that national servicemen play in the service of their nation. I commend the member for Hughes for bringing on this motion.

We sometimes forget that nearly 290,000 were called up for national service between 1951 and 1972, under two schemes. For decades their service and their loss have been overlooked. As my colleague the member for EdenMonaro just said, they have often fallen under the radar. So, when more than 4,000 national servicemen met in Canberra for the unveiling of a national service memorial fountain in 2010 at the Australian War Memorial, the moment was a very special and long-anticipated one. It was the product of an extraordinary and prolonged campaign to get to that place on that day. It was one that had taken more than nine years of design, fundraising and construction, and it was one that, for the longest of times, must have seemed impossible.

The treatment of returned servicemen following the Vietnam War is a well-documented moment of shame in the history of this nation. All too often we have allowed the political divisions of the era to obscure the people who were actually involved. Too often we have let questions over why we were there crowd out the appropriate recognition and support of those who were there. Over 500 Australians were killed in the Vietnam War, and nearly 40 per cent of them were nashos. The national service memorial fountain recognises their sacrifice but it does not limit its recognition to them alone, because to narrow one's scope to those who lost their lives is to miss those many, many more who were wounded and made it home, often to very difficult and challenging times. They had to stare down a lot of demons, as did their families. We are yet to realise the full scale of the wounds inflicted by the Vietnam War. We are gaining a greater understanding, and I think the recent Long Tan commemoration highlighted the fact that there are still a number of significant issues that we need to address. Enemy fire caused some, but there remain emotional and mental scars that were caused by much more than bullets and mines. Sadly, many will not heal.

The National Servicemen's Association called the dedication a moment that could finally bring 'closure to the Vietnam era'. Situated at the Australian War Memorial, the fountain commemorates the nearly 290,000 former nashos who served in the Australian Defence Force, including 212 who died on active service in the Borneo and Vietnam conflicts. It is right for a country like Australia to debate the legitimacy of any conflict and the appropriateness of our involvement; it is wrong to use that debate as a means to distract from the very real sacrifice and the very real bravery that we asked our national servicemen to exhibit on our behalf. Their cause was our own, but we turned our backs on them. When we did so, we left their grief and trauma to be dealt with in silence and in private. I am glad that attitudes are finally changing. As I said, the Long Tan commemoration underscored that fact.

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the great work that has been done in the Canberra community by the local RSLs, in particular the RSLs in Tuggeranong and Woden Valley and also the Hellenic RSL. The work is ongoing because the challenge is still there, but we are lucky to have organisations both locally and nationally that are so diligently and effectively working to meet it. I thank the nashos for their service and I encourage the Canberra and wider Australian community to remember the service of these men on 14 February, which is National Servicemen's Day.

In closing, I want to acknowledge my late father. He died two months ago. He was also one of the nashos of the first scheme—the universal scheme from 1951 to 1959. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker Mitchell, all young men aged 18 were called up for training in Navy, Army and Air Force. My father was a huge fan of national service. He loved the time he spent there. He was an electrician from a working-class background and it gave him the opportunity, because of its universality, to meet people from a broad range of backgrounds. In the fifties, Australia was very sectarian and very divided by class, so for a working-class boy national service provided a mountain of opportunities. He was very strongly of the view that national service should be compulsory.

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