New Zealand's Vietnam veterans have finally received official acknowledgement that they were exposed to Agent Orange.
Parliament's health select committee today released the findings of its inquiry into the exposure of New Zealand defence personnel to Agent Orange and other defoliants.
"Overwhelmingly, the committee accepted that New Zealand Vietnam veterans were exposed to a very toxic environment," committee chairwoman Steve Chadwick said.
"That's our key recommendation for the Government to consider."
However, the committee stopped short of recommending compensation or an apology, saying most veterans who made submissions simply wanted acknowledgement.
Today's report would be considered by the Government, and it was up to the Government to decide if it wanted to apologise, Ms Chadwick said.
Successive governments have for years denied that use of the spray caused any problems for the soldiers who served there and two previous reports, one by former Governor-General Sir Paul Reeves in 1999 and the other by Deborah McLeod of Otago University's Wellington School of Medicine, found New Zealand troops were not significantly exposed to Agent Orange.
"It was never clear from the two previous reports done, both the Reeves and the McLeod report, as to the extent of the overwhelming evidence we heard of direct spraying and indirect spraying, and the toxicity of the environment," Ms Chadwick said.
"I think we all accept here that the terms of reference for the previous inquiries did not actually require both researchers to look at causative linkages."
A key breakthrough for this inquiry was the emergence of a map kept by retired officer John Masters, commander of 161 Battery Royal New Zealand Artillery in Vietnam, which showed areas New Zealanders served in were subject to chemical defoliation.
"It happened not once but 350 times," National MP Judith Collins said.
"That map gave them a reason to dig."
The committee's report concluded that evidence considered during the past 18 months demonstrated "beyond doubt" that New Zealand defence personnel were exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides.
"We consider that the photographic evidence and the map documentation confirm that New Zealand defence personnel served in defoliated areas," the report said.
"Submitters told us of their living conditions during the war: they wore the same clothing day after day, inhaled dust particles and slept and worked in defoliated areas.
"We recognise the length of time it has taken to publicly acknowledge Vietnam veterans' exposure to a toxic environment, and the frustration this has caused for veterans and their families."
The committee made nine recommendations for the Government to consider:
* that it accept New Zealand's Vietnam veterans were exposed to a toxic environment;
* that it publicly acknowledge that successive governments have failed to recognise that Vietnam veterans were exposed to a toxic environment during their service;
* that it ensure all children of Vietnam veterans are entitled to reimbursement of extra costs associated with medical treatment for any condition listed as being related to dioxin exposure, and that any future needs are met should that list expand;
* that it establish a fund to support New Zealand-based scrutiny, analysis, surveillance and monitoring of international research literature on health outcomes resulting from dioxin exposure;
* that Veterans Affairs New Zealand develop an information package that clearly advises Vietnam veterans about their entitlement to pensions and other services, and how to access them;
* that Veterans Affairs be responsible for a campaign to inform health professionals about the specific health needs of Vietnam veterans, based on the presumption they were exposed to a toxic environment;
* that Veterans Affairs compile a list of health professionals conversant with the specific health needs of Vietnam veterans and give it to all veterans;
* that Veterans Affairs monitors the list of diseases and conditions which may have been caused by herbicide exposure during the Vietnam War and updates it regularly; and
* that it ensure a lead government agency maintains an overview of the commissioning of research when that research covers multiple policy areas to ensure there are clear and specific terms of reference.
The Government has 90 days to respond to the report.
Veterans Affairs Minister George Hawkins said he was pleased veterans' concerns about the health impacts of being exposed to defoliants had been thoroughly investigated.
"The Government acknowledges that New Zealand defence personnel served their country in what was an extremely difficult environment and we had a responsibility to ensure that their claims were heard," he said in a statement.
"The Government will examine the health committee's findings and report to Parliament on its recommendations."