18 August 2023
I too would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their Elders, past and present.
I would like to extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who join us today.
I would also like to acknowledge all who have served in our nation’s uniform, and their families.
This year we mark 50 years since the end of Australia’s official involvement in the Vietnam War.
August 18 has long held special significance for our Vietnam Veteran Community.
On this day in 1966, the men of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, alongside 3 New Zealanders from 161 Battery Royal New Zealand Artillery, encountered the Viet Cong in a rubber plantation outside the village of Long Tan.
In the ensuing battle, the Australians and New Zealanders were outnumbered 10 to one.
18 Australians lost their lives and 24 were wounded.
It was the single greatest loss of life Australia suffered during the Vietnam War.
In the years that followed, you came together to remember your mates who were lost that fateful day. And now, we gather to commemorate all those who served in Vietnam.
Some 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam over more than a decade from 1962.
They were nurses and aviators, soldiers and sailors; engineers, civilian aid workers; volunteers and National Servicemen.
Some 3,000 were wounded in the line of duty; 523 lost their life.
Today, we stand in view of the Australian War Memorial.
The names of those who gave their lives for our nation are forever enshrined on its hallowed walls.
People, whose families, half a century on, mourn them and love them still.
The passage of time has done little to dim that love or dispel that pain.
Today, we remember all those who died in the service of our nation and we give thanks to all those who served.
We also acknowledge the significant loss of life experienced by the people of Vietnam.
Today, Australia and Vietnam stand together as friends.
And together we acknowledge the impact of war and work to strengthen the bonds our countries now share.
Bonds not only of geography, but of a shared commitment to regional stability and security and to economic opportunity and development.
The Vietnam War was fought during a time of great upheaval – of disruption – in our region and across the globe.
Conscription, civil rights, protests, the Cold War, cultural revolution, moratorium, the summer of love and the moon landing.
And to this day debate remains about Australia’s involvement in this war.
But when we step back, one truth remains: the Australians who served did themselves, their mates and our nation proud.
For those of us who did not serve it is difficult to imagine what conditions in Vietnam were like.
Without fail, most people’s first impression was of the oppressive heat.
Veteran Terry Roe once said, when in operation in the dry season the sweat would flow from your brow after just 15 minutes.
An ever-present red dust hung in the air, triggering conjunctivitis and asthma attacks.
During the monsoon, the dust would turn to mud.
It would rain without end.
Troops would go to sleep drenched and wake still waterlogged.
Disease was prevalent.
Some of the biggest dangers in Vietnam were the smallest: malaria, Japanese encephalitis, dengue fever and typhus.
And beyond the environment there was the enemy: adversaries adept at guerrilla warfare.
They knew the land, could strike suddenly and disappear just as fast.
And on top of that was Agent Orange, chemicals and herbicides.
But despite these threats, the fear many service personnel have expressed in the decades since, wasn’t of disease, heat, rain; it wasn’t of the enemy or injury.
Their biggest fear was letting their mates down.
It didn’t matter if they were a driver, a medic, a clearance diver, an infantry man, a pilot or an engineer.
Everyone wanted to do their job and do it well.
They knew they were part of a team, they knew others were relying on them, so despite the conditions, they pushed through.
Veteran Peter Haran once said the Vietnam War reflected Australia’s character.
It showed all the good things about Australians under extreme, extraordinary conditions.
And when we speak of the Anzac spirit, this is what we evoke.
It’s about knowing no matter how dire the circumstances, your mates will always have your back.
That was the spirit in which our men and women served in Vietnam.
But when our veterans returned home many felt unsupported, unrecognised.
The question of conscription and national service divided Australia.
The public was disillusioned by a war presented for the first time on their TV screens at home.
In 1973, there was no homecoming parade for returning service personnel.
50 years on, we are here to express our heartfelt gratitude for the service our Vietnam veterans gave in our name.
As Prime Minister Albanese said earlier this year:
“We honour you. We thank you. And we are so sorry it took us so long as a nation to do so. You deserve better.”
You served with distinction, you served with honour.
And even after you returned home and took off your uniforms, you continued to fight.
You saw how the experiences of war were affecting your mates.
You saw them struggle with the memories and trauma of service, and the lack of support they had.
And so you fought again for your mates, and you didn’t quit until a dedicated counselling service – the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service - now in the form of Open Arms - was established.
Today Open Arms supports all current and former serving Defence Force personnel and their families.
The support it offers is informed by your experiences.
It is an enduring legacy that you can all be proud of.
Army Nurse and veteran Pam Barlow once said, Australians in Vietnam showed great courage.
“If people back home had only witnessed how these young men conducted themselves in battle and death, there would have been no protests. I know, I was there.”
To me, the legacy of our service personnel in Vietnam is clear.
You were given an impossible job, and you did it well.
You did it in a way that has made your nation proud.
And you looked out for your mates, every step of the way.
Then, you had to fight with RSL and other ex-service organisation leadership for recognition and support.
Now, you look out for the next generation, with many of you now ESO Leaders, veteran advocates, or welfare officers working to make sure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
Today we honour your service.
So that fifty years from now, generations yet unborn, will see this memorial, they will see those names enshrined on our national memorial, and they will know your story.
They will know what you endured and what you did for our nation.
On behalf of all Australians, thank you for your service.
Lest we forget.