Too little, too late, for too few

By Geoff Cumming

The Welcome Home parade can't come soon enough for our Vietnam veterans. It's not so much the three-decade wait for the Crown to say thanks - and to apologise - which is tentatively scheduled for next June. It's just that by June, says Brian Wilson, "another 30 of us will be dead".

If the parade goes ahead, it's likely to turn into a rout, such is the uprising over the compensation package announced last week. The war which veterans hoped was finally won has still some distance to run.

On both sides of the Tasman (about 20 per cent of the New Zealand veterans live in Australia) phones and emails are crackling with fiery exchanges as physically and psychologically scarred veterans mobilise. The Government, RSA and Ex-Vietnam Services Association (EVSA) are in retreat a week after signing a memorandum of understanding and hailing the successful conclusion of negotiations. Some veterans are eyeing a legal challenge.

"If this was a 100-yard sprint, they've got about two yards," says veteran Bruce Weir, who lives on the Gold Coast.

What hurts most is the feeling that the vets are still being lied to - the Government claims the package is worth $30 million but much of that will accrue from interest earned over 30 years on a $7 million trust fund.

"I keep being congratulated by mates in the RSA and non-servicemen acquaintances and I have to tell them, 'there's no money'," says Wilson.

These are soldiers whose bonds were forged not just in conflict but by its aftermath - a battle for recognition which so far stretches 35 years. The Vietnam veterans were treated like pariahs when they came home to a post-60s society. Shunned by the RSA, they were ignored by the Government. Then, when debilitating illnesses and cancers began to show up, in the veterans and in their children and grandchildren, they were lied to about their exposure to Agent Orange, the defoliant laced with 2,4,5-T and dioxin, and other dioxin-contaminated herbicides. There were cover-ups, whitewashes and inaction.

Now aged in their 50s and 60s, their loyalty to comrades and those who led them is matched by their mistrust of officialdom. But after 35 years, their expectations were finally raised.

They thought the tide had turned in 2004 when a Parliamentary select committee finally admitted our soldiers were exposed to a toxic environment. Last year, Prime Minister Helen Clark announced the formation of a working group led by ex-State Services Commission head Michael Wintringham to hear the veterans' concerns. They were buoyed when the working group reported back, recommending compensation be paid for a range of conditions affecting them and their offspring.

But the agreement signed last week confines lump sum payouts of $40,000 to just four types of cancer and a skin condition. The list is confined to conditions accepted by the US Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine in 1990 as having "sufficient evidence" of a causal link to Agent Orange.

Even the Government concedes, the number likely to qualify is "in double, rather than triple, figures".

"There are people dying of various types of cancer who won't get a bean," says John Moller, former president of the Vietnam Veterans Association. Prostate cancer, myeloma (a bone marrow cancer) and respiratory cancers - though recommended for inclusion by the working group - are excluded, despite new evidence from Australia of a higher incidence of these cancers among Vietnam veterans.

The $25,000 payments for affected children are similarly restricted - to two types of cancer, spina bifida, cleft lip and cleft palate. But the spectrum of illnesses cropping-up in veterans' children covers foot and limb deformities, heart and lung defects, endometriosis, breast cancer, bone cancer and rashes.

Moller says the American evidence - which the Government calls "gold standard" - is out of date. Moller has fought the Agent Orange cause for years and says even the Americans now accept an association with myeloma and respiratory cancers and PCT, a liver disorder. There were other herbicides used, including Agents White, Blue, Pink and Purple, heavily concentrated with dioxin.

"They are overlooking the synergistic effect of this raft of chemicals. They are not taking a holistic view."

John Jennings, whose daughter Marrakech suffers wide-ranging health problems, says relying on American criteria is "like inviting the criminals on to the jury - they were the perpetrators.

"There's ample evidence that heart and musculo-skeletal deformities and a whole lot of other things are associated with Agent Orange," says Jennings. "But the onus of proof is on the veterans. We shouldn't have to prove a thing."

Expectations of a lump sum payment for tax paid on earnings in Vietnam were also dashed. Ours were the only Allied soldiers in Vietnam who paid tax, on the basis that the Government of the day never declared it an operational area.

The working group recommended payments of between $5000 and $8000 in compensation on the tax issue; the Government maintained that to revisit the earlier decision would be "unjust and inequitable" to others who may be subject to similar decisions.

"I'm getting calls from all over the place about the failure to even refund our taxes," says Melbourne-based Rion Gallagher, a former EVSA representative who helped comrades to obtain disability payments. "They're all running around congratulating themselves on this wonderful compensation package when there isn't one."

Gallagher did two tours of duty in the late-1960s. He suffered hearing loss, neuralgia and dermatitis-related problems. Add coronary artery disease, type 2 diabetes, respiratory problems, reduced lung capacity and irritable bowel syndrome and his pension disablement rating adds up to 375 per cent. "I can't walk more than 100 yards without struggling."

Gallagher's problem, shared by most veterans, is to establish a causal link between Vietnam's toxic environment and these conditions.

"They've accepted it's attributable to my military service but haven't accepted it's related to Agent Orange. I say my skin problems definitely are.

"But unless you have one of the four cancer-related diseases none of us is any better off. Our pensions and financial security aren't going to change."

Of the 3202 New Zealanders who saw active service in Vietnam, 38 were killed in action, 569 (18 per cent of survivors) have died since, and 1309 (41 per cent) are receiving a war disablement pension - some indication of the toll on veterans' health. But if fewer than 100 are expected to fit the "sufficient evidence of association" list, what of the rest?

"We believe vets should be given the benefit of the doubt," says Moller. "It wouldn't have taken a whole lot of money to have the whole thing done and dusted."

Instead, the Government's answer is a $7 million trust fund to help the wider group of ailing veterans and their children for the next 30 years. Veterans Affairs Minister Rick Barker says it's an acknowledgement, that "sole reliance on proven science would not deal adequately with a number of situations."

Barker and Defence Minister Phil Goff are pleading for calm. "It will take time for the healing process to work but at least this process can now begin."

EVSA negotiator Chris Mullane says the problem is that expectations had been raised too high. "Thirty-five years of denial and mistreatment has led to the feeling that this is just another delaying tactic."

He has heard of veterans "going off the deep end", threatening to boycott the parade and hand back their medals.

Mullane says the memorandum signed last week leaves doors open for further progress: a rewrite of the War Pensions Act, an experts' panel to evaluate new medical evidence, a review of Veterans Affairs NZ and veterans' register promise significant gains. "People seem to think that for two years we sat on our arse and did nothing. There's a lot of good stuff in the package; some things can be done instantly, everything else needs a process set up.

"I can understand the scepticism - I'm a veteran, too, and I'm appalled that this could go on for so long.

"But there's a parallel. When we came home the protesters took out their angst on us because they couldn't get at the Government.

"Now the victims themselves are carrying out the same process, having a go at the negotiators more than anything because they can't get at the Government."

Mullane shares the anger of many veterans over what's missing: the failure to fund an annual medical examination, the tax payback rejection; the narrow field of accepted medical conditions; the refusal to extend help to affected grandchildren as well as children.

"Medical science will always trail in its certainty behind reality and need. The compromise is the expert medical panel to look at these needs."

He says the negotiators tried to persuade the Government to accept prostate and respiratory cancers on the basis of the new Australian evidence.

"We didn't succeed. But you have to look at the package in its totality - I think it's satisfactory and gives heaps more than the 2004 health committee recommended."

RSA negotiator Robin Klitscher confirmed robust efforts were made to shift the Government from its hardline stance on medical evidence and the tax issue. "There's a point in negotiations where you have to assess whether to persist or move on."

He acknowledges the outrage but says many who have read the memorandum and the working group's report are supportive.

National Party veterans affairs spokeswoman Judith Collins, who helped initiate the 2004 select committee inquiry, blames the secrecy that surrounded the negotiations for the "half-pie" outcome.

"These people have been treated badly and there's still a feeling they haven't been dealt with properly after 40 years.

"I don't think [the Government] should be so miserable about fixing these wrongs because they don't go away. When these guys die in their 40s, 50s and 60s, their children inherit their sense of grievance."

The victims

Brian Wilson was among the first infantrymen sent to Vietnam in the 1960s, as part of a 35-strong Victor Company platoon. Ten have died from what he believes to be Agent Orange-related illnesses - cancers, brain tumours and heart conditions.

The death rate from these conditions within the platoon is considerably higher than in the population at large.

The survivors, most in their 60s, are contemplating wide-ranging health problems and early deaths. "There's hardly a guy who hasn't got something wrong with him," says Wilson, whose eloquence, energy and thatch of red hair belie his health concerns.

The mortgage company-owner is retiring next week, aged 61, because he fears his time is running out. "I'm not going to die at work. My goal is 10 good summers. A lot of guys are doing the same."

He keeps his symptoms to himself but says they are "mainly physical", including arthritis.

Of 569 veterans who have died since Vietnam, Wilson says only around 30 suffered from the four cancers which will now qualify for compensation.

The father of two daughters has comrades whose children's organs are "completely shot" and wants to know more about the risks of genetically inherited illnesses and deformities. "What do you tell your kids who want to have kids of their own?"

That's the big problem with New Zealand's response to Agent Orange. The years of denial that our troops were exposed were followed by a dearth of research into the veterans' health and the effects of exposure.

Bruce Weir, formerly of Christchurch, now living on the Gold Coast, says it took him years to make a connection between his son's "stuffed" immune system and exposure to Agent Orange. "When my child was born in October 1977 he needed an immediate blood transfusion. They didn't know much about anything like that in those days.

"The whole episode cost me my family and, on three occasions, nearly cost me my life. They did blood tests on me - they all came up crap.

"I get a full blood test every three months - as long as I stay in certain parameters I'm relatively happy. But I have to take a lot of medication to stay alive."

Weir says he was physically sprayed three times while fighting in Nui Dat, south of Saigon. "It was in everything - we lived with it, ate with it, drank with it. You couldn't avoid it."

For Gary O'Neill, 56, it's the not knowing that hurts. One of his four daughters, Trish, is battling cancer first diagnosed when she was 27.

"It could be coincidence, maybe nothing - it's all the unanswered questions. We've never had a history of anybody on either side of the family having breast cancer and both sides have a history of longevity. You keep asking yourself 'why?'."

He says eight of his 30-strong platoon are dead. "A few have died of cancer - it could be down to smoking too much; it could be Agent Orange."

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 27 Dec 2014 03:32:37 Processing Time: 1925ms