Vets in from the cold
FOR MORE than 40 years, their service to the country has been swept under the rug.
But this weekend New Zealand veterans of the Vietnam War will finally be recognised.
Tribute08, a ceremony being held this weekend in Wellington, will for the first time acknowledge the veterans’ service and unfair treatment since the war ended more than 30 years ago.
Veteran Ken McKeeWright says it’s long overdue.
Tribute follows the signing of a memorandum of understanding in 2006, in which the government formally apologised and recognised health concerns of veterans and their families suffering the effects of agent orange spraying in Vietnam.
“It’s a way of government saying ‘Hey, we made a mistake’,” says Mr McKeeWright.
The weekend will include an honour march to Parliament, a tribute concert and a memorial service.
Mr McKee-Wright returned from Vietnam in 1967 after serving as a sergeant in Victor One, the first company of the New Zealand infantry to enter Vietnam.
Now he is a fulltime grandparent, spending his time between his inner-city apartment and family home in Whangaparaoa.
He considers himself one of the lucky ones.
Along with many other veterans, he has diabetes.
And at least 40 of the 160 in Mr McKee-Wright’s company have since died from cancer.
Although it can’t be proven, he says the possibility that agent orange had something to do with these illnesses is high.
He says he was “petrifi at the birth of his first son in 1969 that something would be wrong.
“We were lucky. There are so many families that have been destroyed,” he says.
Finally there will be help for these families.
The memorandum established a panel of experts to consider health conditions related to war service.
Veterans and their families are now eligible for health checks and the data from these will be analysed.
Those suffering from a “prescribed condition”, including children of veterans, related to agent orange will receive financial aid and necessary health services.
Despite the solemnity of the occasion, the weekend will also be a time for celebration.
It will be the first time the veterans have had an official reunion since they returned from the war.
Mr McKee-Wright, who has kept in touch with most of his fellow servicemen, says it will be a big party for them.
“And there’s nothing wrong with a good party.
“When you live and breathe and depend on each other, it’s not an easy bond to break.
“You can’t get that bond any other way, they are like family.”
He is thrilled both his sons will travel to Wellington to join him at the event.
Event director John Dow says although the veterans marched in Parade98, 10 years ago, the government only became involved at a very late stage and there was no public acknowledgement.
“There was a feeling that the government hadn’t really come to the party,” he says.
Things are different this time.
On Wednesday in Parliament Helen Clark issued an official public apology to veterans.
At the event this weekend a whakanoa, or spiritual cleansing ceremony, will be performed on the steps of Parliament, symbolising the 37 lives lost in Vietnam being returned to the New Zealand government.
“We’re saying ‘you sent them away and now we’re bringing them back home,’” says Mr Dow.
He says the government this time around has been very supportive.
“We’re finally as a country acknowledging and dealing with these things.
“We need to deal to the dark side of our history. It’s a healthy thing and a positive thing.”
He says 2500 to 3000 veterans and family members are expected to turn out for the event this weekend along with 10,000 members of the public.
Tribute08 starts today and runs until Sunday.
The event will be broadcast live on television and also in a documentary on TV One on Monday.
Vietnam War veteran Ken McKee-Wright says this weekend’s commemoration is long overdue.