Published in The Drum and Canberra Times 25 April 2012
There has been recent discussion in the media that troops wounded in Afghanistan have received the short end of the stick in follow-up treatment provided or organised by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Around thirty years ago Vet Affairs began morphing into a caretaker of the nations’ memory and remembrance of war. It first appeared with the dwindling number of First World War veterans and the belated fuss the Hawke government made of them. Vet Affairs were given the task of organising the travel and accommodation for these often frail but spirited veterans to Turkey, France and Belgium. They also provided spritely carers to accompany them.
As part of this remit Vet Affairs produced short histories on the battle sites to be visited and biographies on the travelling WWI Diggers. Ten years on and the focus shifted to surviving WW11 Diggers. Ceremonies and tours arranged for this group became caught up and interwoven with Howard’s jingoism and skewed sense of nationalism, which eschewed black arm band history and promoted the importance of Australian military history as the primary force in shaping the character of the nation. He, and those around him, saw Australian involvement in war as central to the history of the British Empire and in particular to that of Australia and New Zealand (the Anzacs).
A, by now, politicised Department of Veterans Affairs was willing to be co-opted into expanding their charter to take on the promotion of Australian military history and achievements. Pamphlets expanded into booklets and then into books, tapes, CD’s and DVD’s.
I went to France in 2010 to attend the re-internment of Diggers on the 19 July at the newly constructed and consecrated Pheasant Wood, Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, located near the village of Fromelles. The event attracted what I thought were a disproportionate number of officers from Vet Affairs.
Later in the month I found myself in the Somme Valley just outside the village of Hamel, on an eastern ridge topped by a memorial to General Monash and the soldiers of the AIF who took the town on 4 July 1918 in the first of a series of resounding victories down the Valley. There was a person who appeared very interested in the memorial and upon introduction turned out to be an officer from Vet Affairs charged with examining the monument for wear and tear.
I said to him that I had little contact with Vet Affairs, although I would like to, as being a former tank gunner I wanted my ears tested. He seemed a little taken aback, but swung into a line perhaps developed from other similar exchanges. He said he was from a different area of Vet Affairs – his area didn’t handle medical matters.
When eventually I did get through to an area of Vet Affairs handling medical matters, I gave my details and was told to ring back, which in itself was a difficult and frustrating experience. People skills appear not to be a strong point of Vet Affairs personnel dealing with vets. Anyway I drew a blank, as on my discharge form, the lady said, problems with my hearing had not been recorded. I said perhaps my ears, being unprotected during firing of the gun, might have suffered and deteriorated over time. No such luck, nothing was recorded on the discharge form therefore there was not a problem with which Vet Affairs might assist.
A year or so later I received a letter from Vet Affairs saying they were coming to the Central West, including Mudgee, and if I had something I wanted to discuss I should make an appointment. A number was provided and getting to talk to the named officer proved every bit as difficult as the earlier experience.
The appointment was made. A number of other vets living in Mudgee did likewise. The visit was cancelled by letter two weeks before it was due to take place. We were advised to ring a certain number and make an appointment in Sydney. For a number of vets, for a variety of reasons, that was not an option.
In my opinion Vet Affairs should be made to concentrate solely on the welfare of surviving vets. They should be forced to abandon their proselytizing and promotion of the Anzac legend. As far as government expenditure on recording and honouring the history of Australian involvement in war I believe that should be the sole preserve of the Australian War Memorial.
By way of interest, the Minister of Veterans Affairs, Warren Snowdon, might like to provide a list of his officers who will be attending Anzac Day Ceremonies in Turkey, France, Belgium and elsewhere around the globe.
Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, retired diplomat and former national serviceman. After service in WW1 his grandfather was the honorary secretary of the Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Ex-Servicemen Association of Victoria.