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Veterans to discuss compensation issue

by Martin Gibson

Friday, 6 July 2007


This weekend the district’s forgotten soldiers — our Vietnam veterans — are meeting to discuss their options to finally obtain compensation for damage from exposure to Agent Orange.


All those who are still alive want is a fair go after all these years, says chairman of the Poverty Bay East Coast Vietnam Veterans group, Ossie Tuhura of Victor Three Company.


The meeting will be held at the 2NZEF clubrooms in Palmerston Road.


It is hoped that at least 10 of the 20 surviving veterans will make it, but there are still men who find it difficult to be among others, says Mr Tuhura.


"There are some who live in the hills and only come to town for tangi and supplies, and there are others who find it too difficult to come.  But they always ring me afterwards to find out what happened."


The soldiers were brought back from the war without fanfare and were often ‘welcomed’ by protesters, he says.

They were told they did not belong in the RSA, which was "for people who fought real wars.”


They have seen their friends gradually die off at a rate far higher than the average for men their age. A study last year showed the degree of genetic damage among those exposed to Agent Orange is far higher than among people who have been exposed to nuclear blasts.


For years, successive governments have denied that our soldiers were exposed to the New Zealand-made defoliant.  Ross Niwa of Victor Two Company was flown home after sustaining several gunshot wounds.

This was almost worse than being over there, because he was suddenly alone, without the company of his comrades, he recalls.


No welcome, no counseling and, as his health problems mounted, denials that he had been in contact with Agent Orange.


"That’s nonsense!  We all got sprayed.  They are just trying to get out of paying — waiting for us all to die off or something."


The recent package of $30 million was an insult to the damage done, said Mr Tuhura.


The criteria are limited in such a way that many veterans with severe health problems will receive nothing. If they have the skin condition chloracne, or one or more of four types of cancer they are eligible for $40,000 compensation.


Their children will receive compensation of $25,000 only if they have spina bifida, cleft lips or palates or cancer of the adrenal gland or leukemia.  The US government only compensates its Veterans for paternal exposures for spina bifida.  I still wonder about that deal????


There is a $7 million discretionary fund that defence minister Phil Goff said could be used for discretionary payments to Vietnam veterans’ children and grandchildren in cases "which might not fit very clearly with the rules.”


As 3202 soldiers served between 1959 and 1975 in Vietnam — where 72 million litres of herbicide including New Zealand-made Agent Orange were sprayed — this money might not go far.


It is estimated that the genetic damage could last as long as seven generationsWhen I first started in data gathering the estimate was three to four generations but that was before the New Zealand DNA strand damage report came out in the last six months.


For this reason, New Zealand war veterans have threatened the Government with a
$5 billion class action suit.  They hired Australian law firm Slater and Gordon, who won $1.5 billion from James Hardie for clients affected by asbestos poisoning.


There is also a claim lodged with the Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal for $170 million for the ruin to Maori bloodlines from the poisoning.  Sixty percent of soldiers in Vietnam were Maori.


The claim is not just for Maori, says Mr Tuhura, but also for their Pakeha comrades who were with them.

Of the 3202 New Zealanders who served in Vietnam, 38 were killed in action, 569 have died since, and 1309 are on war disablement pensions — that’s almost 60 percent dead or disabled.