Published in On Line Opinion 2 MAY 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. Today Vet Affairs organises and runs the sound and light shows at major Australian memorials around the world, including the iconic memorials at Gallipoli and Villers-Bretonneux.
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.
I am well aware of what Vet Affairs is capable of doing. My father was a WWII veteran with entitlements as a result of his service and after his death my mother received those same benefits.
I am a former National Serviceman (1966/68), should my unit have been posted to Vietnam I would have gone without complaint. After some time it did not appear that it would go so I volunteered for Vietnam and became an M113 Driver. Due to the Army stuffing around my time ran out, six clear months were needed for service in Vietnam. The Army said sign on for another six months, but whilst in the Army I had studied for my mature age matriculation and I had been accepted to commence studies at UWA in March 1968, not an opportunity I wanted to pass up having waited (messed around) for so long. And yes The Department of National Service provided $40 a week for my first year of study – more than the basic wage.
The National Servicemen of the second scheme (1965-72) were called up by Menzies for service in Vietnam. They did not ask to be called up, but for the vast majority, on finding themselves in the Army, they put their shoulder to the wheel and proved to be every bit as good as the regular soldiers.
A little respect for their service might be shown by Vet Affairs in at least considering whatever claims they put forward in a positive and reasonable manner.
In my opinion Vet Affairs should be made to concentrate solely on the welfare of surviving vets and ex-service personnel. 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 (AWM).
A Department charged with the welfare of former servicemen and women should not be also running events, at great cost, and flying (how many?) let’s say at least dozens of senior officers around the world for weeks at a time. The events branches of the Department of Veterans Affairs should be split off from the department and given to the more highly skilled and sober AWM. Vet Affairs should also cease the interpretation of our military history. At the moment they are providing the sugar coated version.
The Minister of Veterans Affairs, Warren Snowdon, should provide a list of his officers who attended Anzac Day Ceremonies in Turkey, France, Belgium and elsewhere around the globe and the cost to the Australian tax payer.
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.