2GB, Mark Levy interview discussing a $6 million funding boost to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War

Wednesday, 12 January 2022

The Hon Andrew Gee MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel


Mark Levy: Veterans Minister Andrew Gee has announced $6 million in funding from the Government to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War. Nearly 60,000 Australians served in the Vietnam War, the most prolonged 20th century conflict Australia has participated in. A total of 521 defence personnel lost their lives. Another 3,000 were wounded. Minister Gee said the funding would ensure the important milestone is marked in January of 2023. And I'm pleased to say he joins me on the line right now. Minister, good morning to you.

Andrew Gee: Good morning, Mark. Good morning, everyone. Great to be back on the show. It's been too long.

Mark Levy: Well, it's good to have you on the show, mate, to talk about a very important issue and that's our Vietnam vets. We should be commemorating the 50th anniversary and well done to you and the government for pledging $6 million in funding to make sure it happens early next year.

Andrew Gee: Yeah, this is a very important milestone, Mark. It's the end of Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War, 50 years. The end of combat operations was announced on the 11th of January 1973. We had troops guarding the embassy in Saigon until I think about the 1st July ‘73. But 60,000 Australians served in the Vietnam conflict, 521 lost their lives, more than 3,000 were wounded, and so many Australians answered when their country called them. My uncle was one of them. He's a proud Nasho who served at Nui Dat in ‘67. Like so many other proud Australians who went there and they served with distinction, the Australian record in Vietnam is one of success and one of great service in the finest traditions of our armed forces. And all Australians should be very proud of them. And that's why it's very important to mark this 50 year milestone.

Mark Levy: You're right about us being proud of them, Minister. But you know for Vietnam veterans returning from the conflict, there was none of the welcome home support we saw in some of the other conflicts. Most vets reported facing social exclusion when they got back due to mass public opposition to the war. Many were even rejected from joining RSLs. I mean, that was disgraceful back then, but obviously times have changed and we need to acknowledge the unbelievable efforts and the sacrifice that they made at the Vietnam War.

Andrew Gee: Yeah, that's right. The wounds that were inflicted at home, still, I don't think have totally healed with many of our Vietnam vets if you talk to them. I have one Vietnam vet in my area who was wounded in Vietnam. He was a forward scout hit by AK47 fire. He can take you through that episode minute by minute. But when he talks to me about it, what really chokes him up is being turned away from an RSL club on Anzac Day because Vietnam wasn't considered a real war. And there are so many stories like that people being spat at on the streets, being abused as they were on their Welcome Home marches, and I think it's a shame and it's a shameful chapter in our history, and we've been trying to put it right in recent years. And I think this is a really good opportunity for us to continue to heal those wounds. The 50th anniversary of the end of our involvement in Vietnam. It's a great opportunity for our country, our local communities, to show their respect, their appreciation and their gratitude for all that our Vietnam veterans did. Many of them I’ve found are wanting to talk about their experiences. I talk to veterans around Australia, many of the Vietnam vets are now willing to talk about what they did and what it was like there because they're not getting any younger. I was just talking to my uncle just before Christmas about his experiences there. I’d never had that conversation with him before, and so many other veterans are now wanting to talk. So I think our community should start to think about how they can mark this milestone and engage in these commemorations. Obviously there's going to be a big commemorative service at the Australian Vietnam Forces Memorial on Anzac Parade in Canberra. But there are going to be commemorations and services all over the country. And so more details will be available on the Department of Veterans Affairs website. But I would just encourage all of our service organisations, all of our vets, both young and old, to think about how they can mark this milestone and this commemoration in a way that shows our appreciation and honours, all of those who served and including the 521 who lost their lives and never saw Australia again. So we must never, ever forget them. We should always be grateful. And next year is a really good opportunity to do that and continue that healing process, which has been undertaken in recent years to show our veterans the respect and the honour and the love that they deserve.

Mark Levy: Yeah, well done. $6 million is a hell of a lot of money, and it's probably a drop in the ocean given what the vets have done for this country over many conflicts, including the Vietnam War. Just while I've got your Minister, I mean, we talk about veterans and the support. And as much as I applaud this announcement, I got a couple of mates who served in the Defence Force and they returned from operations overseas, and I talk to them and very rarely do they open up to me occasionally, if we're sitting there having a couple of beers, they'll start talking about what they've been through, what they saw and what they were asked to do. Do we put enough support in place and do we have enough support in place for those people who are returning from conflicts in this day and age from peacekeeping operations, admissions in terms of counselling services and all that sort of thing? Because the vets I speak to and the retired Defence Force personnel, you can tell they're affected by what they've been through throughout their career and their service to this country. Is the country doing enough for them or does more need to be done?

Andrew Gee: I think we're a lot better at it than we ever have been, but there is clearly more to be done. Annually, I think we spend about over $11 billion annually, about $11.7 billion supporting our veterans and their families. But I think it's something that we as a nation, haven't really been on top of right from the very beginning, when we started sending young men and women into harm's way from the Sudan, the Boer War or the First World War. I mean, when the First World War vets came home, no one really knew what PTSD was. If you look at what happened to the Vietnam vets, it was often the families that were left to pick up the pieces. I think we are a long way better than we ever have been. Yesterday I turned the first sod, the Veteran Wellbeing Centre in Nowra. So this is going to be a hub where veterans can get medical support, mental health support. They can have their claims lodged and processed there. They can meet there, they can have a cup of coffee. We're rolling these out nationally as part of a $43 million program.

Mark Levy: Well Minister, I've got to run. I've run out of time here. But I'm glad you've acknowledged that more still needs to be done because you are the Minister for Veterans Affairs and the people I speak to, they all say exactly the same thing; more needs to be done. And I'm glad you've made that concession today because you're in a position where you can make more done and put more support in place for those servicemen and women who are no longer enlisted to defend this country and provide us with the freedoms that we enjoy today. So look, firstly, congratulations on that $6 million announcement to fund the commemoration for the 50th anniversary of the end of Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War and keep up the fight and keep doing that work for the veterans because they deserve a hell of a lot of respect for what they've done for this country. Thanks so much for your time.

Andrew Gee: Thanks, Mark. And thanks for having me on the show. Bye, everyone.

Mark Levy: That's the Minister for Veterans Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel Andrew Gee. So as much as we spend $6 million and again, that's very, very important to commemorate the end of the Vietnam War, we still need to be investing money and putting services in place to support these individuals that have been through awful, awful scenarios and have seen awful things. Yet they virtually leave the force, the Defence force, and they're left to their own devices. And that's why we hear about suicides and a whole range of things, and which is why we always promote lines like Lifeline 13 11 14. But we need to do more to help and assist our Defence Force personnel in particular in relation to things like post-traumatic stress.

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