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Senator Penny Wright talks about Australia's 'forgotten' veteran

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 12 Aug 2015

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (21:15): I am speaking tonight on behalf of one of my South Australian constituents, Mr John Harold Ali, who first came to see me 18 months ago and told me a tale of secret men's business: a clandestine arrangement between one of the most powerful nation's in the world, the United States, and its willing ally, Australia, at the height of the Vietnam War.

It was an arrangement that saw the conveyance of trucks and weapons through Vietnam into Cambodia, a country that neither the US nor Australia had a right to be in, under the auspices of a so-called civilian aid program. It was an arrangement that forever changed his life, bequeathing him a legacy of poor health, fractured relationships, anger and frustration-and never any adequate acknowledgement of the service that he had done.

My advocacy over the last 18 months represents only a small part of a much longer battle that John has been fighting for a basic recognition of his service to our country. I promised John to put his honourable story and his shameful treatment by successive Australian governments on the record, in the Senate. Tonight's speech is about trying to secure this Australian man, who put his life on the line for his country 44 years ago, a fair go. John is now aged 66. He has post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD, and he regularly visits a psychiatrist. He jumps at the sound of thunder and takes about 20 tablets a day. His marriage of 23 years broke down because of his condition. He has almost died as result of three strokes he has experienced in his later life, and he lives with the debilitating health effects of experiences he endured, in service to his country, back in 1971.

Let's go back to meet John as he was then, a naive 22-year-old working as a diesel mechanic, in Adelaide, for an agricultural equipment company called International Harvester. It was the time of the Vietnam War and one day, out of the blue, his employer approached him to go to Canberra to meet with the Liberal government of the day. Feeling honoured and intrigued, John Ali made the journey and, with some other young men, he was ushered into a meeting to find himself face-to-face with the then defence minister Malcolm Fraser and a group of other serious-looking officials.

At that meeting he was invited to serve his country on a top-secret mission. The mission was to unload Australian trucks transported to South Vietnam by ship and to drive them through Vietnam, a declared war zone, into neighbouring Cambodia under a combined arrangement for the Australian and US governments and in conjunction with both Australian and US military forces. It had to be top-secret because neither of those governments were supposed to be in Cambodia at the time. Under the description of a civilian aid program, these trucks were loaded with arms, ammunition and 44-gallon tanks of fuel.

John accepted the mission, partly because he had previously missed the call-up due to his work as an apprentice. In that Canberra meeting, the young men were told they could not tell anyone where they were going or what they were going to do, including their work colleagues, with the exception of their parents and any spouses or girlfriends. Each of the trips through Vietnam to Cambodia took four to five days and passed through areas of extreme danger as the Vietnam war raged around them. Other veterans who served with the Australian Defence Force, and whose service has been officially recognised by the Australian government, have told me that when they were asked to volunteer for operations in these parts of the country, at this time, they refused to go, because it was too dangerous.

Although John was originally told his posting would be for six months, it was extended twice and his stint ultimately lasted for 18 months. John recollects that he undertook this journey six times. Between times he stayed in Cambodia, awaiting orders to return to Vietnam to start the next mission. As well as driving trucks under army control and dodging mortars, he witnessed villages and people destroyed by rockets. Twice he watched crazy so-called friendly soldiers throw grenades into crowded bars after arguments. On one of those occasions, he only narrowly escaped with his life. Frightened and trying to survive, he tried to keep a low profile but constantly felt he was a target. While over there he also contracted dengue fever.

When John returned to Australia, he struggled to adjust to normal life, feeling constantly anxious and nervous. Initially he was reassigned to his old job-as was the case with those who had left employment for Vietnam-supervising the night shift, but this was too much for him after his experiences in a war zone and he was moved to the day shift. Over time he built a career and by the 1980s he was in senior well-paid work. However, he developed PTSD, which eventually led to his resignation from his job at Ford about 10 years ago when he was in his mid-50s. The stress, anger and symptoms of John's PTSD ended his marriage of 23 years, and he has been plagued by debilitating health effects that have blighted his life.

So what is John Ali seeking? It is what he has always been seeking: recognition of the true nature of his service for Australia in Vietnam and Cambodia and assistance with his medical expenses. Both of these outcomes would be achieved through eligibility under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986,-I will call it the VEA-which provides for the granting of pensions for those who have been injured in the course of their service and for the payment of medical expenses

Section 5R of the VEA empowers the Minister for Veterans Affairs to make a determination that a person is a member of the Australian Defence Force if they were rendering particular 'relevant service' for the purposes of eligibility for payments or support under the Act.

John's application for this assistance has been consistently refused by ministers in both the current Liberal-National government and previous Labor governments. At no time has the service of this 22-year-old mechanic, enlisted by the defence minister at the time and caught up in the proxy Cold War conflict that was being played out in Vietnam been officially recognised as being service on behalf of Australia by any Australian government.

Relying on weasel words and the shadowy arrangement under which John's service was secured, letter after letter insists that John was employed by International Harvester on a United States program, and, as such, he is not eligible for benefits under the Veterans Entitlements Act. In the most recent letter of 2 May this year, Darren Chester, the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence stated:

His visits to Vietnam had no connection to the Australian military commitment in Vietnam at that time.

On any reading of the evidence available, including actions and correspondence from Defence officials, this assertion is blatantly false.

John Ali was awarded a Vietnam Logistic and Support Medal and an Australian Active Service Medal 1945 to 1975, both awarded by the Australian Army in 1993 and 1998 respectively. The letter informing John of the medals, dated 3 September 1998, refers to an 'examination of his service records'. The Department of Defence website itself describes the Australian Active Service Medal as being awarded for service in or in connection with prescribed warlike operations from 3 September 1945 until 13 February 1975. This begs the question: what service records could they be if he did not, as asserted, provide service to the Australian government in the context of the war?

Ministers in both Liberal and Labor governments, always so ready to jump on the bandwagon of military service to our country when they think there is a vote in it, have been at pains to deny the legitimacy and justice of John's claim for assistance after the event. In a letter from then Minister for Veterans Affairs in the previous Labor government, Alan Griffin, dated 15 April 2010, John's service was compared to 'civilian surgical and medical teams in Vietnam, merchant mariners on MV Jeparit and MV Boonaroo in Vietnam waters, entertainers, or QANTAS aircrew who flew in and out of Saigon...'

But the circumstances of John Ali's service was entirely different to those groups in a number of crucial ways: most of those groups came to Vietnam fully self-contained; most needed little assistance from the military other than escorts, travel and accommodation; most were entirely independent of the Australian Army for the time they were in Vietnam and did not come under military command; and in most cases their service, although important, was transient and completely different to the lengthy attachments that John had with the Australian Army, the duties he undertook and the arrangements under which he was deployed.

Subsequent governments have also claimed that John was 'employed' by International Harvester during his time in Cambodia and South Vietnam but this is the figleaf that hides the real situation. There is no documentation that establishes this and International Harvester's workers' compensation insurance excluded war injuries and war zones. What would have come of him if he had actually been killed or injured at that time?

John Ali has consistently stated, and his evidence shows, that he was effectively under Australian Army command and control during his visits to Vietnam over 18 months. When he was initially briefed in 1971, he was informed that he was no longer employed by International Harvester and that he would be under the direct control of the Australian government. This was what he was told as a 22-year-old man. Upon arrival in Vietnam, he was met and transported by RAAF movements and told to make his way to Vung Tau on a military aircraft. Once there, he was met by a duty officer who informed him that he would be part of an Australian military unit. He was accommodated in the barracks among soldiers of that unit and he was administered by the Australian Army in all respects-command and administrative control-during these visits. During visits to Vung Tau, he was attached to the unit, reported to Australian Army officers and operated under the same standing and routine orders as any member of the unit. He sought leave from the base as the soldiers did, let the officers know where he was at all times, and even participated in regular patrols that the unit conducted.

When he arrived back in Vietnam for each subsequent mission, he was collected from the airport by an Australian Army land rover which would take him to the base. He did not have the resources to repair and maintain the trucks he was responsible for; these resources were provided by the Australian Army. The unloading of trucks from ships before running them across to Cambodia was coordinated by the Australian Army and Navy. He worked in the same capacity as a soldier, unloading all the vehicles and freight from the HMAS Sydney rather than stopping work when the so-called civil aid vehicles were unloaded. When in Vietnam waiting for the HMAS Sydney to arrive loaded with trucks, John was employed in a variety of other tasks to support the unit he was attached to, such as repairs and maintenance on other vehicles that belonged to units of the Australian Army. Yes, when John returned to Australia, he was given his old job back at International Harvester, but that was the general arrangement for Australians who served in the Vietnam war.

The reality is that John Ali simply would not have been able to do the work he was tasked to do without being absorbed into the command structure of the Australian Army. In the face of this information and evidence, which has been consistently provided by John and his advocates to Australian governments, I find it astounding that the Government maintains the shabby and deceitful claim that 'his visits to Vietnam had no connection to the Australian military commitment in Vietnam at that time'.

In John's words, he 'doesn't want a million dollars'. He just wants his service to be rightfully acknowledged and to have his significant medical needs met, just as we would expect for anyone we as a nation have asked to serve on our behalf in a hazardous situation like this.

There were about six other young men in that intake that caught up John Ali and changed his life. These include Robert Oultram, who lives in Queensland and has similar needs. This is a shameful story. The Liberal government of the day enlisted John Ali and other young men to risk their lives in order to do the bidding of a powerful American ally at the time. Then, over 40 years, Australian governments have used the very secrecy surrounding the mission to disavow the involvement and the trauma these young men experienced-and disown their own responsibility as governments-leaving them high and dry, abandoned by the country they served.

The question then remains: what justice will there be for John Ali, Robert Oultram and the other survivors of this clandestine operation which took place over 40 years ago? And will they see any justice before they die, or is this a cynical operation by governments to outlive them? The answer to that question remains squarely in the hands of the veterans' affairs minister, Senator Michael Ronaldson; the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, Darren Chester; and the defence minister, Kevin Andrews MP. If you have heard this speech and you believe Australia should still lay claim to being the land of the fair go, why do not you get in touch with those ministers and let them know what you think.


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