Editorial: Govt rightly red-faced over vet treatment

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The Government are ashamed over the treatment of NZ veterans when they gathered in Greece. Photo / Natalie Slade
The Government are ashamed over the treatment of NZ veterans when they gathered in Greece. Photo / Natalie Slade

A ready measure of the embarrassment felt by any government is the speed at which it takes remedial action. On that basis, John Key's Government has very red faces over the treatment accorded New Zealand veterans when they gathered in Greece for the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Crete.

The Prime Minister has rightly gauged that the spectacle of men who fought for their country having to pay to attend the commemorations would not "sit well" with most people, especially when compared with the luxury travel enjoyed by the Defence Minister.

Accordingly, the Government has indicated it will pay the airfares and accommodation costs for veterans attending the 70th anniversary commemorations of the likes of El Alamein and Cassino.

What happened on Crete would have passed unnoticed but for one factor. Despite the national debt owed them, there were no public grumbles from the veterans, most of whom are in their 90s. They appear to have stoically accepted that, with just $2000 of Government support - less than a return airfare - they would pay out of their own pockets for necessarily modest accommodation, as well as arrange their own itineraries.

What brought the issue to light was an Australian documentary maker who was astounded by the difference in the treatment of the New Zealand veterans and those of his own country. "I couldn't actually believe what was happening. I don't understand how they could get away with it," John Lewis said.

The Australian veterans were flown to Crete by their Government and cared for by provided doctors. They also stayed at the same upmarket lodgings as Australian defence and government officials. This, it needs to be noted, happened even though the Battle of Crete does not rate near the pinnacle of Australian military history.

In the Second World War, that status is reserved for the likes of Tobruk and the Kokoda Trail. Crete, however, was a major event
in New Zealand military history. Lieutenant-General Bernard Freyberg commanded the Allied forces on the island, and New Zealand troops played a major and absolutely pivotal role in the battle, winning two Victoria Crosses in the process.

In such circumstances, it might have been assumed New Zealand would pull out all the stops for the remaining veterans. At the very least, they should have been the centrepiece of all the commemorative events. The Defence Minister, Wayne Mapp, says this was so, but that is not the picture painted by other observers. One, Murray Hoare, who has arranged private veterans' trips to Crete, said the New Zealand veterans had not been treated with respect.

The Australian attitude toward their veterans was "whatever they want, our pleasure to provide", he said. But with the New Zealanders, there was no recognition or deference.

The contrast between the accommodation of Dr Mapp and the veterans has been overdone. Government ministers should not be housed in one-star hotels in the backstreets of Chania. Nor should they be expected to fly economy class to Europe. But it seems apparent that too little was done to reinforce the fact that the veterans were the guests of honour. That, as much as the airfares and accommodation, is important for the staging of future commemorations.

As the veterans' numbers dwindle, the emphasis on them should be accentuated even more. The passage of time also means the Government can afford to be more generous in its funding of such trips. The shame is that it took an unedifying spectacle on an island where New Zealand soldiers' bravery and resourcefulness mean this country is still lauded, to drive that message home.

- NZ Herald

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