Vets in from the cold

Auckland City Harbour News - - Front Page - By Jo­ce­lyn Rein

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.

Photo: JA­SON OXENHAM

Viet­nam War vet­eran Ken McKee-Wright says this week­end’s com­mem­o­ra­tion is long over­due.

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