The Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia (VVAA) had its advent as the Vietnam Veterans Action Association formed in the late 1979 as a result of the perceptions of Vietnam Veterans that exposure to chemicals was causing problems with their health and the health of their children. The chemicals, known by the generic name of Agent Orange included 2,4,5 -T and 2,4 – D, a by product of which is the extremely poisonous substance TCDD or dioxin. The problems ranged from minor irritation to lethal, with symptoms such as skin blisters, itching, flushes, nasal problems, blurred vision, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, gastro-urinary muscular and nervous system disorders, cancers and tumours. This was often exacerbated by psychological disorders caused by what was later diagnosed as post traumatic stress disorder.
The Association fought an uphill battle against government indifference, including the bitter disappointment of the now discredited 1983 Evatt Royal Commission on the Use and Effects of Chemical Agents on Australian Personnel in Vietnam. At the same time there was a very real feeling that the RSL had not accepted the Vietnam Veterans, and nor would it pursue the concerns of this group with the vigour they believed that those concerns warranted. This feeling was never stronger than during this period, when the VVAA and the RSL were absolutely opposed.
The gradual successes of the VVAA in the following years came as a result of much hard work and lobbying. The Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service was established as a direct result of the action of the VVAA, and it is now an integral part of treatment regimes, not only for veterans, but also for the survivors of traumatic events such as the Port Arthur Massacre.
This was followed by the establishment of the National Centre for War Related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Heidelberg, which now extended its treatment to St John of God Hospital in Sydney, together with visiting services to various rural locations. Lifestyle courses permit veterans to contribute to their own well-being, learning how to cope with problems and adapt their lifestyle to best suit themselves.
The bitterness engendered by the political response to veterans’ concerns about their health and the health of their children coloured the attitude of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia for many years. It is only lately that positive action by both the Department of Veterans Affairs and the VVAA has resulted in a relationship where the concerns of veterans are being addressed. The VVAA is represented on a large number of Government committees as a respected part of the Ex-Service community and is a major contributor to debate, legislation and administration involving veterans.
The VVAA remains a wholly volunteer body, whose sole interest is the welfare of veterans and the families of veterans. It has strong representation in every State and Territory, and very close ties with equivalent organisations in the United States and New Zealand. The relationship between the now R&SL and the Association has matured into one of mutual respect, and many members of the Association also enjoy membership of the R&SL.
Current issues involving the Association include the recently released results of the Vietnam Veterans’ Mortality Study, (commissioned by the Department of Veterans Affairs) and following through on the self-reported issues revealed in the long-delayed Vietnam Veterans’ Health Study, including spouses and children. The Mortality Study revealed that Vietnam Veterans have a death rate 7% higher than the general male population, with deaths from cancer 21% higher, prostate cancer 53% higher, lung cancer 29%, ischaemic heart disease 10% and suicides 21% above the general male population. This is a cause for grave concern, and work continues to ensure that the results of this study are reflected in Repatriation Medical Authority and Departmental documents. The nominal roll of Vietnam veterans was released in 1997, although it should be noted that the value of this work is in its contribution towards the Mortality and Health Studies. In addition to this, the End of War List for this war has just been compiled, and this will result in a review of awards which were recommended at the time but which were not awarded due to the imposition of medal quotas. All of these things contribute to addressing the issues of concern to veterans. The results of the Health Study were released in April 1998, and sadly, confirmed the worst fears of veterans in relation their health, and the health of their children. The VVAA is committed to accomplishing, quickly, accurately and completely, the validation which the government requires. It will then move to achieve the Association’s stated aims in regard to the Health Study outcomes.
Over the years there has been a persistent media presentation of Vietnam Veterans as ‘victims’. The Association believes that this is counter-productive. This is not an image that the VVAA wishes to perpetuate either for itself or for its members. Rather, it sees Vietnam veterans as achievers. Vietnam veterans have reached the highest level of business, professional and political ranks within Australia, and every one of them who has overcome psychological or health problems in order to raise a family and live a relatively normal life has overcome adversity in order to achieve.