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The Hon Darren Chester MP
Minister for Veterans' Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC


Date: 12/05/2018
Time: 09:20 PM

Darren Chester Johanna Nicholson and Tom Iggulden (ABC Weekend Breakfast)

Station: ABC
Program: Weekend Breakfast


JOHANNA NICHOLSON: Well, this Sunday Vietnam veterans from all over the country will gather in Canberra to attend commemorations marking the fiftieth anniversary of the battles at Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral.

TOM IGGULDEN: These two battles resulted in more Australian casualties than any other engagements during the Vietnam War. Darren Chester is the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel. He joins us now to discuss this and other political news of the week.

Darren Chester, most people would be aware of Long Tan as the major Australian engagement of the Vietnam War. Why is it that it does overshadow these two very important engagements a bit later on in the war?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, you're right Tom. The battle of Long Tan I think is well understood in Australian military history and perhaps amongst those who have paid some interest in the Vietnam War. But the battles of Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral have perhaps slipped off the radar a bit. That's unfortunate. Obviously it was a very, very significant series of battles which occurred from May 12 1968, so starting 50 years ago today, right through to June the 6th. Tragically, we lost 26 Australian soldiers in those battles in a series of skirmishes and up to a hundred wounded. But it was quite an extraordinary battle, some of the fiercest fighting that Australians were involved in in the Vietnam War. It's appropriate that we have those commemorations tomorrow in Canberra and right around the nation over the next week or so.

TOM IGGULDEN: You mentioned the ferocity of the fighting. I mean, a lot of times the Australian soldiers were facing mortar attacks 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning coming from all directions as they tried to defend those fire bases. They have now, some 50 years later, been recommended for a unit citation. Why has it taken so long for that recommendation to come about? Also as a Veterans' Affairs Minister you'll be in a position to approve that. Will you be backing that approval do you think?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, a couple of questions in that Tom. First of all, we have what's called the Honours and Awards Tribunal, which is an independent body which has looked at the battles, the Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral, and made recommendations to me as the Minister that there be a unit citation for gallantry recognising the gallantry of all those who served over that best part of a month, really. It's up to me now to make recommendations, which I have done, to the Governor-General and without wishing to pre-empt anything I'll have more to say about that tomorrow in Canberra. The report by the tribunal is quite compelling and it's one that I think those who served, their families, in fact everyone involved who was involved in the Vietnam War would have a lot of interest in.

TOM IGGULDEN: It has taken 50 years to get to this stage, as you mentioned. Did it take too long for us to even put this recommendation before you? In other words, did the body that makes those recommendations just take too long here and leave people wondering?

DARREN CHESTER: We had an inquiry, the best part of I think ten years ago, into un-awarded acts of valour across the Defence Force and that's led to the tribunal looking at a whole range of actions in Australian military history. You might recall only a couple of years ago those who were involved in the Long Tan battle were recognised for their gallantry. Look, I'd say across the board in terms of the Vietnam War more generally there's no argument, really, that those who served weren't treated as well as they should have been when they returned. I think it's a well-held belief that there was perhaps a lack of respect due to the intense political environment of that time. I think it serves as a reminder to us today to make sure that no matter what our political views are on any of these type of issues, it's just so important that we recognise and respect those who put on the uniform of the army, the navy, the air force and are prepared to place themselves in harm's way. These young men and women are there to do a job on behalf of our country, they keep it safe. If we have a political view which is different about a deployment, it's not their fault. Have your fight with the politicians, don't have your disagreement with those who serve.

TOM IGGULDEN: So just quickly on this before we move on, what can we expect from commemorations here in Canberra tomorrow?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, there will be a march tomorrow. There will be obviously a lot of veterans will be there with their families. It'll be a special day for them and the focus should rightly be on them, not on politicians or anyone else. It should be on them, and I think it's going to be a special day for them. There's going to be a lunch afterwards. There will be Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial tomorrow night. Well, we do do commemorative events very well in Australia. I think it will be respectful and allow us to recognise their services.


Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS) can be reached 24 hours a day across Australia for crisis support and free confidential counselling. Phone 1800 011 046 (international: +61 8 8241 4546). VVCS is a service founded by Vietnam veterans.