Vietnam Veteran’s Day

National and NSW State President of the Vietnam Veterans Federation, Tim McCombe OAM.

Tania Mihailuk, the State Member for Bankstown.

Khal Asfour, the Mayor of Bankstown.

Committee members of the Vietnam Veterans Federation.

And all the Vietnam Veteran’s here today.

It is an honour to be asked to speak today on Vietnam Veteran’s Day. The 46th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. The 50th Anniversary of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

This year is an important year in our military history – for many reasons.

This year is also the 70th anniversary of what has come to be known as the Battle of Australia – 1942. In February of that year, Singapore fell. 4 days later, Darwin was bombed.

In May, the Battle of the Coral Sea. In the same month, Japanese submarines entered Sydney Harbour.

In June it was Midway. In July, the Kokoda Campaign began. In August, it was the Battle of Milne Bay. I am going up there next weekend to honour the men who fought there.

In November, Buna, Sanananda and Gona.

That was 1942. A year that shaped and changed Australia forever.

Then, 20 years later, another war began which would again shape and change Australia.

I am not going to try and tell you the story of the Vietnam War, you know that much better than I do. But I thought I could tell you how it has affected me – as someone who was one when our involvement in the war ended.

I saw it first through the eyes of my grandfather. He served in World War II and again in the Vietnam War as a Royal Australian Engineer. By then he was a sergeant in the army. His role was to set up the new 1st Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat.

I saw what war – two wars – did to him. And the impact it had on our family.

I also saw the effects of the Vietnam War as a little boy going to school in Cabramatta. The refugees who came seeking refuge.

I remember every week a new classmate, a different voice, a different language and different stories about boats, choppy seas and war – boatpeople from Vietnam who fled their home in the hope of a better life.

Many of these children are now doctors, lawyers or engineers, making a life that their parents dreamed of and making Australia a better place to live.

I also see it through the eyes of my fiancé. She was born in Australia, but her parents were born in Vietnam.

They both escaped by boat. Some of her uncles were put in re-education camps. Her mum talks about growing up in a place where death and people dying was normal.

The war has had an enormous impact. But there is a risk that we forget how this all began. That’s why days like this and events like this are so important.

My grandfather fought in two wars. My great grandfather fought at Gallipoli. We’ve all got stories like this.

Here’s another one. Ron Lennon did three tours of duty in Vietnam. His father Roy served in World War II. His grandfather served with the 6th Light Horse Regiment in World War I. His nephew John is a Captain with the Engineering Corps and has served in Afghanistan.

Four generations of one family – World War I, World War II, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

The first Australian soldier to receive a Victoria Cross since the Vietnam War is Trooper Mark Donaldson. His father was a Vietnam Veteran. There are lots of stories like this. Men who followed in their father’s footsteps. I’m sure there are plenty here.

After he received his Victoria Cross, Mark was asked if he would like to go back to Afghanistan. He said:

“I’d like to go back to wherever they send me. Whatever job they give me I’m keen to go do it. As long as my mates are there for me and I’m there for my mates.”

This is not something new. It’s a recurring theme. I want to read you something from Round Table, a journal of public affairs published in London in 1919:

“No more original figure than the Australian soldier has appeared in the war…Defiance of convention was his one pose, and he maliciously encouraged the idea, in the conventional among Englishmen, that he was totally lacking in discipline. But there was no body of men who so triumphantly satisfied the supreme test of discipline, the test of being ready in the field just when they were required…”

“Sir Douglas Haig in his last dispatch gives several ‘striking examples of the ascendancy’ of the Australians over the German infantry opposite them. The courage of the Australians was not the courage of the savage or the devotee. It was never buoyed up by sentiment or illusion. Its most wonderful feature was a wide-eyed habit of facing things as they really were – of looking at the worst and defying it. The Australian was seldom an optimist. He was always a critic, but he was possessed of a fierce lust to accomplish the job he had been set. This clearness of vision gave him that initiative, that skill under fire, which made up so large a part of his value in the field.”

“On the human side, few soldiers have had in such measure the supreme soldierly gift of comradeship. Whenever they were in a fight breaking King’s regulations, or raiding the Hun trenches, they stuck together. The Battalion was the digger’s home, and he was never truly happy, or a really first-class soldier, away from it.”

The Vietnam Veteran’s Federation continues that great tradition. You have been dedicated to the welfare of service personnel since 1981, helping your mates and their families for 31 years. Helping our allies, from South Vietnam and Korea.

Mateship is the thread that ties us all together.

Three years ago, I set up the Mateship Trek with Scott Morrison. The idea is that if Liberal and Labor politicians can be mates so can people from different backgrounds and religions.

In 2009, we walked the Kokoda Track. In 2011 we did the Sandakan Death March.

Next year, on the 70th anniversary, we will retrace the World War II battle that occurred along the ‘Black Cat’ track in Northern PNG from Wau to Salamaua.

In 2016, I want to take a group of students to Long Tan to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that battle.

Again, you know the story better than I do – the rubber plantations, the Australian soldiers outnumbered, the courage and bravery, the mateship talked about in every war and on display here in droves, the decisive victory against the odds.

As you know, in 1968, the US President awarded Delta Company from 6 RAR only the second Presidential Unit Citation awarded to Australian soldiers.

It’s worth reading again what it says:

“The conspicuous courage, intrepidity and indomitable courage of D Company were to the highest tradition of military valour and reflect great credit upon D Company and the Australian Army.”

I wasn’t born when Australian soldiers were fighting in that rubber plantation. I was only one when our involvement in the war ended.

I have only seen it through the eyes of my grandfather, through the eyes of the kids in my class, and through the eyes now of my fiancé and her family.

But I want students from here to go to Vietnam and see it through your eyes – to walk in your footsteps and understand what mateship and courage is really all about.

Thank you for the invitation to speak today, and I hope you have a wonderful day.