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Vietnam Veterans Day, Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial, Reid ACT


Good morning.

It is a privilege for Linda and me to be with you for this commemorative service marking 60 years since Australia entered the Vietnam War.

This is Ngunnawal Country. Today we are all meeting together on this Ngunnawal Country. We acknowledge and pay our respects to the Elders. 

I would like to acknowledge:

  • The Honourable Dame Annette King DNZM, High Commissioner of New Zealand; and Colonel Shane Gries, representing the Ambassador of the United States of America
  • The Honourable Matt Thistlethwaite MP, representing the Prime Minister; Members of Parliament and the ACT Legislative Assembly
  • General Angus Campbell AO DSC, Chief of Defence Force, and other senior members of the ADF
  • Commander Ward Gainey RAN (Retd), President, Vietnam Veterans’ and Veterans’ Federation ACT
  • Veterans and families
  • Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

It is an important day on our national calendar as we recognise service, contribution and sacrifice to our country.

About 12 years ago, when I was Vice-Chief of the Defence Force, a good family friend came to visit and stay with Linda and me at Duntroon. This fellow was a veteran of the Battle of Long Tan.

We were sitting down one day and it came up in conversation that he had never collected his medals, nor had he been to any 6RAR reunions, nor had he been to any Anzac Day services since he got back.

I felt that was sad.

I said to him, 'Have you ever been up to the War Memorial to see the Vietnam exhibition?'

'No', he said; 'no need.'

I said, 'Well, you're coming.' And I took him up there.

Together, we read a story, in the form of a letter, about a veteran from the Battle of Long Tan. He then turned around and looked at how the exhibition had been presented.

Later that afternoon at home I think the penny began to drop - that, actually, he was respected.

I was really delighted a few months later to hear that he had applied for his medals and was proud to wear them.

I think his story is reflective of the journey that our veterans, and their families, experienced on returning from Vietnam and, indeed, the nation experienced as it discovered what its response should be and what its responsibilities are to those who put on uniform and serve our country.

Today, we are sitting with a group of Australians who are symbolic of that commitment to service, as a nation: who put on the nation's uniform and did what the government of the day asked them to do.

My job, as Governor-General, is to say thank you for what you gave and continue to give, and for what your families and friends gave for our country.

This is not the time for us to be wringing our hands and worrying about whether our service was valuable or not. This is about contribution. This is about saying, 'I did my country's duty.'

As has been mentioned, we're here today to honour our veterans and to thank their families, mates and colleagues for their sacrifice. We honour those who lost their lives during battle; who returned home wounded, ill or injured; who lost their lives in the years since they returned; who still carry the physical and emotional scars of their service.

It is important to do that.

Australia’s 10-year involvement in the Vietnam War began on 31 July 1962 and ended on 18 December 1972.

The first Australian contingent to be deployed was the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam – a 30-man strong group of instructors commanded by then Colonel Ted Serong DSO, OBE to work with the South Vietnamese. I was at Canungra only a week ago where his great niece is serving as a Captain.

The Australian Army Training Team Vietnam was the most decorated Australian unit to serve in South Vietnam. It had the distinction of being the first ADF unit into South Vietnam and the last unit out.

But its story, like the stories of all who served in Vietnam, can’t be captured in figures, dates and days. Those who served in that war did so with honour. They inherited the Anzac legacy and built upon it.

Approximately 60,000 Australians served in the Vietnam War. 521 were killed in action. More than 3000 were wounded.

The cost to our nation was high – economically, socially and politically.

National Service was introduced in 1964. It was a divisive issue in our country.

Our soldiers returned home to a hostile reception, on many occasions. Opinion polls showed that most Australians were against conscripts going to Vietnam even though they broadly supported the war for a long period.

It divided us and unfortunately took us nearly 20 years to recognise that we had a responsibility to those who had served.

Again, today is an opportunity to say thank you.

What occurred with our veterans and their families should never occur again.

I say to all veterans in the strongest possible terms, in serving your country and in doing what your country asked of you, you displayed the qualities befitting of those who put on an Australian uniform.

I hope you all understand the high regard in which you are held.

As Governor-General and in previous roles, I have attended many commemorative services and sadly too many funerals of ADF personnel.

On each occasion I try to apply meaning in that particular service or ceremony.

To me, it still all boils down to legacy: what we inherited, what we nourished, what we cherished, and what we handed onto the next generation.

Today’s commemorative service marking 60 years since Australia entered the Vietnam War helps raise awareness and increase our understanding of events that have long since passed.

It is recent history. We need to remember the cost of war. This is particularly important for the younger generation today as we face an uncertain world and an uncertain future.

I once summed up my view of the Anzac legacy in terms of the words endurance, sacrifice, mateship and courage. They are important words, but they are abstract terms.

I try to dilute that legacy into three points: Give us a job to do and we'll do our bloody best to do it. While we're doing it, we'll do it in a way that makes you feel proud of us. And, while we're doing it, we'll look after our mates and we'll continue to look after our mates when they get back.

That, to me, is the legacy you inherited.

That, to me, is the legacy that you continue to support.

Thank you on behalf of the Australian people.

Lest we forget.