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Vietnam Veterans' Day

I had planned to deliver this speech at the Vietnam Veterans’ Remembrance Day 50th anniversary ceremony on Anzac Parade in Canberra. That event, sadly, has been cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is important to deliver my speech via this means because 50 years ago the majority of our Vietnam veterans had returned to Australia … some uncertain of what they had achieved … of how they should feel about their service … whether they were part of the Anzac legacy and whether anyone cared about what they had done and what they suffered in the service of our nation.

I want to give a message to them – and to all Veterans of the ADF including those who served more recently in Afghanistan who may be wondering the same things – a message that they should have been told at the time.

You should be proud of your service.

You fought for reasons that your Government determined to be important to Australia and you fought for your mates – our nation won’t forget your service.

You inherited the Anzac legacy, built upon it and handed it to the next generation. And for that, we are grateful.

We do care. You are not alone and we will support you.

Fifty years ago, on 18 August 1971 the Prime Minister of Australia announced that Australia would cease operations in South Vietnam in October of that year. That decision brought to a conclusion Australia’s advisory and combat role that had begun in August 1962. As is the case in Afghanistan, we did not operate alone and while I address my remarks to Australians, I also acknowledge the service and support of all of our allies including the people of South Vietnam – many of who now call Australia home.

Today is an important occasion and opportunity to repeat our national and personal messages of condolence to the families who lost loved ones, to those who were wounded or injured, and to those who have endured the physical and mental legacy of their service on our behalf.

Linda and I were fortunate to attend the premiere of the “Vietnam Requiem” in Canberra earlier this year. The Requiem was a newly commissioned musical piece of twelve movements, each movement concerning a different aspect of the Vietnam War and each movement supported by a visual display of historical information and photos.

As I read each historical note and viewed the images, my memories of that era were rekindled. It had been many years since I had thought about the international turmoil of that time – a time of a global contest between beliefs, values and ideologies; a contest imperfectly expressed and executed.

Your service in South Vietnam occurred in the context of that global struggle. You did what your country asked, directed, you to do in that war of ideologies. And you served in an Australian way.

I am bemused these days when I read news stories that declare that Australia has lost its national character in its response to the pandemic. Where has the larrikin spirit gone?

My answer is that the larrikin spirit still exists and is strong but it has been set aside to a degree to meet a higher need.

Just as our Diggers did in World War 1 and you did in Vietnam.

The idea of the larrikin spirit comes from the behaviour of our Diggers when they were not in the trenches of Gallipoli and on the Western Front. That larrikinism is part of the Anzac legacy. Larrikins they may have been, but when tasked to do their job – to get out of their trench and to attack – they obeyed.

Your actions and behaviours in South Vietnam were in the same vein. You were quintessential Anzacs: very much Australian in your behaviour but very much the professional soldier when duty called.

In so many ways your service exemplified what we understand to be the Anzac legacy. But most importantly, you not only lived that legacy you built on it.

In my service life I lived under the shadow and influence of your service – in all three Services. That is still true today of the current generation of Australian servicemen and women. Your legacy goes far beyond being an assessment of the value of the Vietnam War – your legacy is your influence on the character and development of the ADF over the past 50 years.

Too many Vietnam Veterans were made to feel that they could not be proud of their service or that Australia was not proud of them.

That was a national mistake from which we should all learn and which we should all commit to avoiding.

This is particularly true for any man or woman who served in Afghanistan – to them I say, you served diligently in difficult circumstances.

We are all proud of those who served our country in Vietnam and the conflicts that followed. The ultimate outcome in the country in which you served cannot be laid at your feet. Be proud of your own service as we are proud of you.

Lest We Forget