Standing up for Canberra

Vietnam Veterans Day

The 18th of August is Vietnam Veterans Day. It was formerly called Long Tan Day. It is the day when we pay tribute to the men and women who served in the war in Vietnam. This year is indeed a significant milestone because it marks 50 years since Australian soldiers were sent to fight the war in Vietnam, and the Battle of Long Tan represents a very important turning point in the war. It is often called a defining moment in our involvement in the conflict in Vietnam. It was on 18 August 1966 that this famous battle took place—a battle between an Australian battalion of just over 100 men and up to 2,000 enemy troops. Sadly, Long Tan is remembered as the place where Australia lost the most men in one operation.

As we have heard today, the Governor-General last week officially unveiled a cross that was first erected after the Battle of Long Tan. The cross has been loaned to the Australian War Memorial by a Vietnamese museum, which shows how Australia and Vietnam have overcome the conflicts of the past and worked towards a long-lasting and close friendship.

On Saturday, 18 August I had the privilege of attending a Vietnam Veterans Day remembrance service at the beautiful Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial on Anzac Parade. I attend every memorial service I can get to and am always in awe of the wonderful memorialisation we have of those who served and those who died in war here in Canberra, particularly up on Anzac Parade. I have spoken in the House before about the beautiful Australian Hellenic Memorial that is just up there on the corner of Anzac Parade. It has the islands of Greece all around it—with the mosaics, which are not terribly good for the high heels, particularly when it rains! But it is a beautiful memorial with the Corinthian pillar, and I have enjoyed many a service there and look forward to many more in the future.

I want to take this opportunity to talk about the Vietnam vets memorial on Anzac Parade because it is a unique and beautiful structure.

It was inspired by ancient standing stones, and it is constructed of three twisted, tapered and inclined stelae rising from a triangular shaped base surrounded by a moat. In front of it is a ramp inviting entry into the interior. It is a place for contemplation and remembrance. There is an altar showing the three service badges. So you actually go into this area of contemplation and, in a way, sanctuary. The rear wall has a photo engraving depicting combat troops awaiting helicopter lift-off, and the right-hand stele has 33 phrases typical of the Vietnam era. Above is a suspended ring of granite blocks, one hollowed out and marked with a gold cross, and that contains a scroll with the names of those who died. Outside the memorial are three flagpoles representing the Navy, Army and Air Force, while three memorial seats commemorate those six members listed as missing in action.

The service I went to last Saturday was attended by the Governor-General and by the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. What I really enjoyed about the service was the fact that it brought together Vietnam vets from the ACT community and New South Wales and, I understand, from other parts of Australia—and to the member, I did go looking for your constituents. I could not find them, unfortunately. It was a moving service, as it always is. Vietnam veteran Pete Ryan, the Vice-President of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia ACT Branch, gave us the introduction and welcome. There was a moving speech by the Governor-General, and then an address by the Minister for Veterans' Affairs.

Most importantly, there was also an address by Vietnam veteran Adrian Clunies-Ross, talking about the Australia Army Training Team in Vietnam. He was there 1962-63, but he was talking about the training team. One of the most poignant elements of it was a deeply moving speech by Cong Le, who was representing the Vietnamese community. He spoke about the Battle of Long Tan. He was only a child when the battle took place. He lived in a village nearby. He recounted the stories of the bravery and the courage of the Australian troops that had been passed down to him by earlier generations—or 'seniors' as he called them. It was really moving to hear from another perspective, a Vietnamese perspective, about the bravery and courage of our soldiers. That for me was one of the real highlights of the commemorative service. As I said, these events have many highlights, but it was a lovely gesture to have someone there from the Vietnamese community recounting their experiences and what they had heard from older generations. There were many members from the Vietnam vets and the Vietnamese community there. We also heard a prayer from Vietnam veteran Ian Thompson who was with 9 Squadron RAAF.

One of the highlights of the day and of the service was the honour roll. Ten soldiers who had lost their lives in Vietnam were honoured. Next to the beautiful memorial are the letters of Vietnam spelt out. On the day they had 10 soldiers standing behind each letter, and a gun behind each letter, and as the person who was paying tribute read out the honour roll of the fallen soldiers each soldier stepped forward, saluted and then put a hat on the gun to commemorate those who had lost their lives. I thought that was a fitting tribute and a deeply moving tribute. This was a very special day and I congratulate the ACT and district Vietnam veterans for a very successful event. They were generously assisted, as always, by the ADF, Australia's Federation Guard, the RMC Band and Vietnam veteran 'Major Voice' Robert Morrison, vets affairs, the NCA, the AFP and ACT Policing.

It is more than appropriate that we pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in terms of their lives, and also to those who served during the Vietnam War. We should not forget those who were left behind during the war. I am talking here about the wives and the children of the Vietnam vets.

My husband is the child of a Vietnam vet, and it is interesting—his father does not talk much about the war. As you know, and as we have heard from many here in this place today, it was one of those wars where people did not come back to any parades; they did not come back to any acknowledgement; they just came back to, in a way, a sense of shame. So his father never talks about it. There was one occasion where he started to talk about it, but that was a very rare event and it was some time ago.

When I go to these events honouring those who sacrificed their lives and also the men and women who served, I also think about those wives—because they were mainly wives at that stage—and children who were left behind and I think about the stories that Chris tells me. He has vivid memories of his father sending reel-to-reel tapes back to the family. They would all sit around in the lounge room and listen to the tapes, and here is Chris's mum —bless her heart; she has passed away—with four boys and one girl, at that stage, on her own, sitting around the tape listening to the stories from their dad, which arrived very irregularly. There were also very infrequent phone calls, when he managed to get a chance. I just contrast that to now—I know it is still tough for the men and women who are left behind, whose husbands and wives and partners are serving in Afghanistan and throughout the world, but at least they have got Facebook and other ways of communicating and keeping in touch, whereas then it was very infrequent and sporadic.

The thing is that the loneliness of Chris's mum was really underscored the other night when we were talking about this speech and my experience of the Vietnam vets day and he was saying that he had a very vivid memory of his mum; she was putting out the bins one night. Traditionally his father had put out the bins, and this was a dark night and Chris was there in his bed, looking out the window, and he was really worried about his mum, out there in the dark night on her own, putting the bins out—just one of those little childhood fears that you have, but I think it highlights how those women did it on their own. They did it bravely. They did it silently. And the children also did it bravely and silently as well.

Chris has also told me about another memory he has from when they were living in the Adelaide Hills, in Woodside. I have spoken about it before in the House. Woodside is in Inverbrackie in the Adelaide Hills. It was during the war—this was 1970—and at that stage it had reached a bit of a pitch in terms of the moratoriums and the protests against the war, and the Army community, or the housing community, had got word that there was going to be a march on the camp, and they were all pretty scared. Normally these sorts of base camps, particularly with the mothers, and the children running around, are pretty benign—they have got guards, but it is all pretty benign—but for the first time ever the guards actually took up pick handles and were wandering around with these pick handles while the kids were playing cricket and footy, just in case someone came in to attack the camp. That did not actually eventuate, but it was, again, one of those things where the kids had no understanding of what was going on; this global geopolitical trauma was playing out and they were, in a way, just caught up in all that. Chris also tells of his experiences at the local school where there was a lot of hatred towards this war, and, unfortunately, anyone who was associated with the war—including the wives of the vets as well as their children —was often vilified and abused, and that is what actually happened to him at school.

So, in saying this, I want to pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice and the men and women who served in Vietnam, but I also want to pay tribute to those who were left behind, who very silently and very bravely put up with a lot of hardship, and also, in some cases, abuse because of the situation that was happening in Australia in terms of the views of the war.

I want to pay tribute to those, particularly women and children. Many women got husbands back who were very different from those who left and they just got on with it. I salute them and pay my respects to those who made the ultimate sacrifice—the men and women who served in Vietnam and, importantly, their families. Lest we forget.

Download a copy of this speech.