Fifty years after leaving New Zealand to fight a war that left him feeling angry and disillusioned, Tawa Heemi has worn his medals for the first time.

But first, the Ruatahuna 72-year-old had to order a new set.

Heemi fought in the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1969, serving with the Anzac Battalion.

When he returned he threw his medals away and could only see Anzac Day as a negative.

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"I thought it was about killing people and devastating real estate and non-combatants," Heemi said.

"I had an issue about war."

For decades he was filled with grief, but in recent years, his grandchildren had helped him see his service - and Anzac Day - in a new light.

He travelled from Ruatahuna, a remote village deep in Te Urewera National Forest, to Tauranga to attend Wednesday morning's dawn service at the Tauranga RSA.

"Now my grandchildren are asking me questions so I have had to redefine these rituals for myself, in that I must now think about the new dawn - my grandchildren.

"Now [Anzac Day] means going forward with something positive.

"It's about leaving my grief behind. Not forgetting it but remembering so I can step forward on another new journey.

"Out of destruction now I can see a new rebuilding."