Vietnam vets still living with PTSD

Coming home to New Zealand, he found that he and his comrades couldn’t even join the RSA. Vietnam vets were not welcome until later when RSA membership needed a boost.

In 2006, at Wanganui RSA, Don presented a verbal submission to the travelling Joint Working Group on Concerns of Vietnam Veterans, declaring that veterans had been exposed to a toxic environment during operations, that they had been abandoned by a New Zealand Government “without scruples and morals”, that they had been spirited home “under the cover of darkness”, “not as noble warriors or descendants of noble warriors”.

In his submission he listed common ailments shared by so many Vietnam vets – heart disease, hearing loss, cancers, skin disorders, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – many of which did not stop at the soldiers on the receiving end but continued through generations. In an interesting mix of accusation and poetry, the submission is a powerful victim impact statement, and many vets presented their own versions.

In 2008, Helen Clark apologised on behalf of the Crown, as proposed by the Joint Working Group. Help was slow in arriving and too late for many.

“They have since extended help to include their wives and families and ongoing generations of the veterans,” says Lois. “Once they heard submissions from all these other guys and found how prolific the problems were … ” Many of the veterans had multiple marriages because their problems affected relationships, they found it hard to hold jobs, their health was a real issue … “And the fact they had psychological problems that weren’t being addressed either. It meant families kept breaking down.” As Maori men, they tried to cope without outside help, turning instead to self-destructive aids like alcohol. The problems worsened. There were suicides. Children were born with multiple defects, the toxins having affected DNA. Much of this came out during the Working Group hearings. “It was a legacy the guys could never have predicted,” says Lois. “It was essential that families and future generations had some sort of support.” She wonders why it took 40 years before anything started and why wives and partners had to form their own network of support and protest.