I have been mulling over Anzac Day on April 25 this year in New Zealand, my wife will be proudly wearing her uncle’s WW2 medals at the ceremony we attend each year. It’s noticeable, and gratifying the increase in young New Zealanders attending ceremonies wearing granddad’s or grandma’s medals with pride. The service this day remembers all these fine young men and women who gave their lives for their country all those years ago.
Over a span of two years, and on three separate occasions I was in the USA in Sacramento, the capital of California for several weeks and had meetings with different State Government Department bureaucrats all over the city, which believe me was a pretty exhausting process. I have always believed that small New Zealand might be, but short of bureaucrats we certainly are not. But I digress. Making my way about this sprawling city I became acutely aware of the number of people living under bridges, underpasses and doorways. A few casual inquiries revealed the stunning information that they were homeless and that a great proportion were War veterans from Vietnam, the Gulf war and latterly Afghanistan. Why is this I asked? Oh that’s nothing to the number in Washington DC I was informed. It is claimed there are over 200,000 Vietnam Veterans living in the cities’ streets throughout the USA. Again why I asked? Surely they would be well supported by the US Veteran Administration. Well many of these street people are drug addicts and the real problem is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), I was told. Most of the vets are proud former soldiers who just get on with it, many without realising the trouble they are in. Suicides are common for these people and frankly the support system is just not keeping up. It is really only in the last 10 years that the problem has been identified and really only in the last 20 years has it been shown just how many.
Vietnam Vets in particular have ongoing PTSD, simply, didn’t know, got no help, give up and suicided.
I met an older American lady who had recently lost her husband to PTSD. She never realised just what was wrong with him, no one advised her or offered help, his fluctuations of personality, mood swings, were symptomatic of PTSD and it was not until he had gone that on talking to other Vet wives she realised he had been suffering from PTSD since returning to the USA all those years ago. He never asked assistance and up to his death, put his aggressive changed personality down to getting older. This started me wondering, what about Australian and New Zealand Vets? Are they the same or have we got it under control? Doing research I was told that the suicide rate for ex vets was very high in Australia not too dissimilar to the USA, and the Australian Vet administration didn’t seem to be able to get on top of the problem. The same symptoms, living rough sleeping under bridges, doorways etc.
So what is New Zealand doing and do they have the same problems? In short yes, exactly the same! Vietnam was the unwanted war and the American soldiers were treated very badly on their return to the USA, treated far worse than criminals. “Mother Rump America” hated the war and finally forced the USA out of Vietnam, by exerting political pressure on the politicians. Then, they treated their own sons like criminals, on their return home. No respect, abuse for having fought for their country, no wonder PTSD was and still is prevalent in the USA, Australia and New Zealand, countries which simply copied the American Mothers’ treatment and attitude to their sons. New Zealand, in the mid- 90s generally treated our own soldiers very badly. I remember a Labour MP Jeff Braybrook approaching me to get my support in Parliament in the effort we jointly gave for better conditions for our Vietnam Vets. The impassioned speeches we gave to a Parliament mostly of business or professional members, farmers, school teachers with a couple of exceptions, no soldiers. It was only after Helen Clark became Prime Minister that there was any real change in attitude and even then until Tribute 08 in 2008 was announced along with an apology by Prime Minister Clark to our soldiers for the terrible way the returning Vietnam vets were treated. It took until 2008 to finally realise the way those brave soldiers were treated was reprehensible. I remember a conversation with two veterans who told of having to change out of uniform into civilian clothes to avoid the abuse from the average New Zealander, when they returned to their home country New Zealand. Few of us stopping to consider these soldiers were our boys and sent to war in Vietnam by the New Zealand Government. It took 40 plus years to attempt to right the wrong done to our Vietnam vets and even now many will not seek help and still have PTSD ongoing problems. No one in their right mind likes war or what it stands for. We should however be grateful that a very small number of New Zealand service personnel are prepared to do their duty for our country and I salute them for this.
During my time as a City Councillor of Auckland in the seventies and eighties one of the most important days we looked forward to was the ANZAC mid-morning service, the thousands of people present to honour our soldiers and the fallen who defended our country, the ever declining numbers of marching servicemen and women, and the ever increasing numbers of New Zealanders of all races and creeds at the service and other centres all over our country. Three years ago rows of crosses were in regimental rows all over the lawns rolling down to the harbour at the Auckland Museum. That was the most chilling feeling walking amongst these thousands of crosses, reading the names of the soldiers and realising just how many young New Zealand men died in the different wars.
I do urge you to take the time this year to attend one of the many remembrance services in New Zealand on this special day and to think about our soldiers and their needs as they get older, we owe them so much.
Trevor Rogers is a former Member of Parliament, serving two terms from 1990 to 1996.