Government apology for Vietnam War veterans

By Martin Johnston

The Government yesterday apologised to Vietnam War veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange or other toxic defoliants.

Veterans Affairs Minister George Hawkins made the apology in the Government's response to the health select committee's Agent Orange inquiry. The committee called only for acceptance that exposure occurred, not an apology.

He said new information presented to the inquiry showed the extent of contamination by a range of chemicals of the part of Vietnam in which the majority of New Zealand armed forces served.

The research showed there were 356 probable occurrences where New Zealand troops moved through areas that had been sprayed.

"In light of the information ... the Government offers a formal apology to Vietnam veterans for the failure of Governments in the past to recognise that the veterans were exposed to a toxic environment ... "

The response was tabled in Parliament.

Mr Hawkins' spokesman said sending personal apology letters to affected veterans had not been considered, "but that's not to say it won't be".

No extra payments to veterans were being considered in addition to the present system of pensions and medical benefits, he said. "It's quite a benevolent system."

The apology comes in spite of Labour committee members previously resisting a New Zealand First bid for the committee's report to urge the Government to apologise and compensate veterans.

The Government's response met praise from a veterans' group.

The Ex-Vietnam Services Association's president, Rod Baldwin, said many veterans and their families had suffered physical and mental illnesses, plus the indignity and humiliation of the repeated denials of exposure to Agent Orange.

"The Government's positive response to the committee's recommendations gives us confidence that there is a will to see justice finally done and that adequate resources will be provided by the Government to ensure the recommendations are properly implemented."

But National Party health spokeswoman Judith Collins said the "pathetic" response lacked substance because it did not alter the limited range of health problems suffered by veterans' children for which the Government would pay the full treatment costs. Some faced considerable outlay for conditions not covered.

"We need to have acceptance that those lists should not be exclusive and discrete."

The Government says it provides fully funded care for a range of conditions, including spina bifida and acute myeloid leukaemia, and that the list is not conclusive. It will monitor international research and entitlements given by other Governments to Vietnam veterans' children.

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