Southerners at War
Last year was memorable for Vietnam veterans. With an official apology from the Government, the emotional scenes in Wellington brought closure for many soldiers and their families.
Approaching the first Anzac Day since Tribute 08 — an acknowledgement 40 years in the making — SHANE COWLISHAW talks to Invercargill war vets and their families about the war, what happens next and how it feels to be finally accepted by their own country.
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Danny Raikena is a tough man.
Having lived through a tour of Vietnam as a grunt and toiling for years in the freezing works, not much fazes him — but there were tears in his eyes on May 31 last year.
That was the date of Tribute 08, the official welcome home and apology for Vietnam veterans, almost 40 years after the end of the war. Thousands of veterans and their families were in Wellington for three days of emotional reunions and long-awaited relief.
For Danny, it was bittersweet.
To march with his comrades down the street with thousands of onlookers cheering and voicing their support was something he and his mates had waited for since they came back from the war no one wanted to know about.
Returning from combat to a public that despised them was hard, but being ignored by the Government that sent them to Vietnam in the first place was harder, Danny says.
"We were called baby killers. That included everyone who went to Vietnam, you went over there to kill babies,'' he says.
"The most f**king disappointing thing about that is that you thought you did well by going and fighting for your country and you come back and okay, you're not a hero, but just the thanks you would get when you came back, that wasn't to be.''
Like many veterans, Danny turned to alcohol when he returned to civilian life; a habit from his time overseas and a way to deal with the stress of the unwelcome return home.
"That is our biggest thing, alcohol. We'd be full-on for a month, then get three days. You'd come in, clean your gear, there'd be a company barbecue and a trailer full of p*ss.''
Psychological issues, compounded by the drinking, plagued many vets including Danny. He reined in his drinking two years ago but Danny says he put his wife and family through a lot over the decades, which he regrets.
"My lady, she got the rough end of the stick.
"It could have been avoidable but at the time I was full of anger.''
Danny puts most of the blame for the issues Vietnam vets faced squarely on the Government and the lack of support and counselling offered on their return.
Recalling Tribute 08 and seeing how his comrades had aged and knowing many of them still suffered from mental and physical health problems from the war, Danny angrily remembers arriving home.
"Getting into the airport hangar, we were given money. One thing was wrong; counselling. We were never given counselling,'' he says.
"I still have flashbacks and we'll never forget the war, we'll never forget the protests and all that and I put it down to not having the counselling when we arrived home. There should have been a whole lot of people lined up at the airport saying 'What are your effects from blah blah blah'.''
Danny, who suffers from a painful recurring rash his doctor has put down to Agent Orange, the defoiliant used to clear dense jungle so the communist forces couldn't use it for cover, says it is the families that are important
now the veterans have their apology.
With the numbers of Vietnam vets dwindling, it is important the Government provides financial and medical support to widows and families of soldiers who lost their lives in the war or have died since, he says.
"Make sure, whatever happens from now on, make sure that the widows are cared for, and their children, because we have a hell of a lot out there that have gone.''
- © Fairfax NZ News