Wars have been fought since time immemorial. They've been fought with clubs, swords, guns and tanks, mustard gas and nuclear bombs. Circa 2017 and the world's reeling from the atrocities of chemical warfare in Syria.

To Vietnam veterans of the 1960s and '70s its horrors aren't new, just different.

Agent Orange, the defoliant American allies sprayed so liberally across Vietnam's jungles, left countless numbers caught up in the controversial conflict permanently scarred or maimed; their descendants continue to suffer as will their children's children.

On Anzac Day's cusp Our People's conscripted Vietnam vet Rick Thame who's faced his own Agent Orange issues - "I've had the obligatory prostate cancer" - to talk about the war and its effects on those who've become its victims by default.


Agent Orange old news? Not for Rick and the team who picked up the challenge laid down by former army padre, Rotorua's Bishop Whakahuihui Vercoe.

"On his death bed he called on veterans to secure financial support through the Waitangi Tribunal for the loss of whakapapa (genealogy) for victims, secure medical costs for their descendants down the line because it's getting worse generation by generation.

"Health department data predicts it will peak at the 7th generation, resolve itself by the 40th, which says to me that's 1000 years all because of Agent Orange."

Submissions were made last year, the group awaits their outcome.

This dedicated campaigner hasn't overlooked the chemical's effect on the Vietnamese.

"They can't get rid of it, it's in their soil, it never goes away."

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24 Apr, 2017 11:23am
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Rick Thame's a third generation military man, enlisting at 15.

"I sat School Cert and UE [University Entrance] at the Waiouru Cadet School, graduated into the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment as an all-arms instructor, because I showed some aptitude for writing, sitting behind a desk, I cross-trained as an administrator. For the rest of my 22-year career I alternated between instructing and administrating."

If you're a bloke whose Compulsory Military Training marble came up, Rick was one of those who 'broke you in' to army life.

"That was a real study in human nature, less than half a per cent were on the bus home; they were either totally unco-ordinated or spent three weeks crying."

In Rick's book all that square bashing (military drill) you conscripts hated is a soldiering essential.

"It's to learn discipline, in combat discipline's what matters, standing around looking pretty doesn't win wars."

Rick's 1970 introduction to Vietnam came via Singapore, where he spent six months getting a handle on jungle warfare.

He was a member of Victor 5 company's advance party into Nui Dat, the south Vietnam military base where Kiwis and Aussies living and fighting side-by-side reprised the Anzac spirit.

"One of the real advantages going into Vietnam we [Anzacs] had as professional soldiers was our institutional knowledge, the experience of fighting and exercising in the heat and jungle. Our allies were predominantly reservists, conscripts, they didn't have that."

Within weeks Victor 5 company was on its first seek and destroy mission.

"Through our intelligence we pretty much knew where our opponents, the North Vietnamese army were, that they were well supported by those masters of improvised explosive devices, the Viet Cong.

"Slithering through the night they were to some extent terrorists, terrorising the local population to keep things on the boil. Our job was to move them out of the area."

Our People: "Did you kill anyone?"
Thame: "I will not answer that."

Well, we had to ask. What Rick will say is in addition to Agent Orange, this wasn't a conventional war.

"Often there was only three or four metres between the two combat groups, there were times we set ambush situations and they walked into them." And vice versa? "Of course, but as far as we could we were protecting the locals from the bad guys."

Surprisingly this war had a humanitarian upside, its 'hearts and minds' programme; Rick applauds it.

"Getting on-side with locals, supporting orphanages, cleaning up, if you could win their hearts and minds you could probably win the war, something Anzacs were good at but not well supported by the Americans."

The war-generated health issues he's faced aren't pretty.

"I contracted otitis externa, an outer ear infection that spread across my face, I'm onto my third nose. You'll see me hiding behind dark glasses because I'm unable to process light, like most of my comrades I suffer some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder, it wasn't managed at the time simply because it wasn't understood."

Two thirds into his Victor 5 tour of duty Rick moved to New Zealand's V Force Headquarters in Saigon.

Back in New Zealand he progressed through the ranks, was a regimental sergeant major at 37 , but quit wearing khaki when offered a recruiting post. "I wasn't ready to go out to pasture, I wanted to get on with life."

His post-army days are in Our People's "to be continued" basket.

But come Tuesday, Anzac Day, Rick'll be back in military mode, he's the civic service's flag marshal.

With so much controversy surrounding the Vietnam war does this career soldier consider his country's involvement justified?

"With the benefit of hindsight would the domino effect have prevailed if the US (and us) hadn't gone into Vietnam? Would the rise and rise of Islam in Malaysia, Indonesia, have stopped communism? Who knows?"


Born: Tataramaka, Taranaki, 1946.

Education: Fitzroy School, Highlands Intermediate, New Plymouth Boys' High, NZ Army.

Family: Partner: Colleen Wong, two daughters, son.

Interests: Kings Empire Veterans (national and local secretary), RSA, secretary Waitangi Tribunal claims committee acting for Vietnam vets' wives and descendants, marriage celebrant, trout fishing, bush and beach walking, reading military history, research, writing "technical stuff, business plans, submissions, CVs.".

On Anzac Day: "It's a commemoration, we must never forget."

Personal philosophy: "Acknowledge what you do well and you'll never have to work a day in your life."