At the going down of the sun we will forget them

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Contributing editor-at-large Tess Lawrence writes that the loyalty and service of veterans has been "...rewarded with a comparative humiliating pittance of a pension and an inadequate superannuation scheme and death benefit that leaves many of them and their widows living and dying under the breadline and under the radar of the general public."

From somewhere in another sepia time zone bleeding into this 97th Anzac Day, a lone magpie warbles in the dark, nature''s own melancholic bugler of the Last Post, calling out to the huddled throng gathering to form a human wreath around Daylesford''s Cenotaph.

A reluctant dawn has yet to awaken the weary battalions of ghosts of wars past and present, whose spirits we invoke to salve our conscience and decorate our history.

A chiffon veil of misty rain, like the gentle tears of angels, anoints us. And we are of all ages and disposition; some even direct descendants of the names etched onto the monument and cut deep into the hearts that surround it.

In some homes, lights are on. The sick, elderly and frail will stay home and murmur their own prayers or curses. There will be older Diggers among them. Some unable to march. Some who refuse to march. There will be neglected widows cast onto the pyres of bureaucratic indifference along with the orphans of war.

Candles will already have been lit and faded photographs of young men frozen in time by the camera lens before they were frozen in death by a bullet, will ritually be brought down from the mantelpiece in Nan''s lounge room and dead lips lovingly fingered and kissed.

All around Australia, in regional villages not dissimilar to Daylesford, millions of us emerge to remember and mourn our dead, forming human Avenues of Honour at dawn services and parades.

But some of us also came to mourn the living, our 57,000 Veterans or so, who for decades, have shamefully been left for dead by the Gillard and previous Australian governments.

We weep for the dead. But the dead would surely weep for their brothers and sisters in arms, who survived these wars only to be treated as third class citizens in their own country and trashed, discarded and demeaned.

Some are in the seventh age of man. They have been subjected to systematic elder abuse by this nation. Not only have they been robbed of their youth, but they have been robbed of comfort and peace of mind in their middle-age and dotage. This is not right. This is not Justice. They have earned a fair go.

Their loyalty and service was rewarded with a comparative humiliating pittance of a pension and an inadequate superannuation scheme and death benefit that leaves many of them and their widows living and dying under the breadline and under the radar of the general public.

But hey, it''s Anzac Day, the day when our Government props up a myth of how we really treat our Diggers. It seems we honour the dead and despise the living. Forget about the ungrateful dead. And forget about the ungrateful living. It''s enough to have the honour of wearing the uniform, right?

Embedded in the hypocrisy, political expediency and Government manipulation of this sacred day is the foul stench of treachery of the very people we purport to celebrate on This One Day of the Year.

In Julia Gillard''s speech at Gallipoli. No mention was made of the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan et al. Best not to bring it up. Too embarrassing; couldn''t let the descendants of Colonel Mustafa Ataturk, who clearly thought better of our Diggers than Gillard does, know how wretchedly Australia treats our Veterans and indeed, our current serving personnel. Not a good look.

Our politicians can afford to mouth empty words and disgorge empty platitudes upon our dead, in this country and on foreign shores.

After all, the dead do not vote.

Prime Minister Gillard and our other fat-walleted politicians can afford to deify the dead with impunity.

They stand erect and proud alongside battlegrounds, graves and coffins draped with the Australian flag and publicly exhort heroic deeds and the payment of the ''ultimate'' sacrifice, whilst basking in the going down of the sun, like the political vultures they are — feeding off the well-picked carcass of our military history.

They shamelessly dress the corpses of those killed in action in Afghanistan in hypocrisy and hyperbole, anointing them with the perfumes of patriotism and assuring family members and the Australian public, that loved ones did not die in vain in this vanity war. More lies.

It is cruel to say they died in vain and crueller still to say they died through the political and military expediency of our collective political leaders.

Our Prime Minister and politicians have the audacity to treat these funeral services as little more than a poll bolstering photo opportunity, labouring under the delusion that some of the grandeur and solemn pathos of the moment might rub off on them.

They are not fit to even walk in the shadows of the dead or the walking wounded who return from our squalid wars.

Many of our Veterans are tired of such grotesque political exhibitionism and their hostility is palpable.

They have grown older as we who are left grow older. It is up to those of us who can to fight on their behalf — with them and for them.

In the ghostly light, Daylesford students deliver an incisive homage to our war dead that far eclipses the contrived earnest spin of politicians. Schoolgirls sing Advance Australia Fair and the lone magpie would not fault their sweet voices warming the cold air, nor wish to.

Later in the service, they return to sing ''God Save the Queen'', which is described as a ''hymn''.

Just as well few dare sing other verses of this imperialist battle cry, since it puts the boot into the Scots, the French, the Presbyterians and of course, those Catholics; the British Throne''s disdain for the latter even enshrined in its Constitution''s holy conjugal, marital and progeny orders.

But none of the above precluded our Prime Ministers from despatching Australians to war, or Catholic Diggers from dying for the British Monarch: nor any of the other millions of loyal subjects in the Commonwealth diaspora from laying down their lives or sustaining wounds.

It is outrageous colonial and political servility that, even today, Australian Defence Forces swear an oath to The Queen, and to her heirs and descendants — and not to Australia and its people.

Australia doesn''t even get a mention — apart from the swearer identifying if he/she is from the Australian Navy, Army, or Air Force.

One can''t but help contemplate this whilst listening to the speeches and staring at the various theatres of war on foreign shores documented on the Cenotaph.

Former Headmaster, Mayor and now President of the Dayleford RSL, Keith Pyers speaks to us with the ease of a brotherly neighbour. The rain has blotted his notes, but not his heart. The PA system, too, is on the blink, but Keith is not fazed and no-one gives a fig.

He speaks frankly of war''s horror, and the sacrifice paid in more than blood and reminds us of the women, the ''true sisters'' who also fell.

Bugler Jack Walker''s poignant Last Post inevitably is accompanied by our sniffles and tears.

But if we cannot weep together at such times, when can we? And if we can''t be angry at the waste of humanity, at such times, then our subservience to conflict over resolution will prohibit us further complaint.

For more than 30 years, Jack has been the Bugle Boy for Company ''D''.

This year, as in years past, there is a given point in Jack''s rendition of the Last Post where you would swear the bugle itself gently chokes back a tear with the bleak sadness of it all.

Jack says it''s because he''s getting on in years and not breathing right and that the bugle is too cold and the brass hasn''t warmed up enough for the notes to slip through without touching the sides.

Sure. He always says that. But I suspect it''s because the doleful cry of his bugle is the very lament of shared sorrow. And like many villagers and visitors, he is thinking of kith and kin who went to war.

For years, Jack has paid homage to those in uniform who never returned to this dear village. Some went and never came back. His own Aunt lost two sons within seven months, he later tells us.

Some went and returned but never really came back to us because they were forever damned and damaged, lacerated in body and mind; the walking wounded.

Couldn''t speak about it. Wouldn''t speak about it. Told they shouldn''t speak about it and to get on with their lives even though they were dying inside. Sometimes through anger. Sometimes through pain. More often through both.

After the service, Keith invites everyone across the road to the Daylesford RSL for the traditional Gunfire Breakfast.

It is a wonderful and more than ritual gift to the community and, inside the RSL, it is warm and cosy and the aroma of lashings of scrambled eggs, bacon and sausages, tea and coffee in styrene cups, lifts the mood and conversation as we look around to see if all the darling regulars are there. Not all are. I hear someone say, it''s to be expected. They can''t go on forever. Their legs give in. And the cold''s too much for them. And it''s too emotional as they get older.

I sit down at a table with long-time cobber and local real estate agent John Evans and Jack Walker and Keith Pyers and, as usual, there''s good natured banter and greetings in the room and we''re all up for a yarn.

Before too long we''re talking about the torrid circumstances in which some returned servicemen and women live; their dismal superannuation payouts and miserly death benefits, and of how they were brutally betrayed by the Government, Greens and Independents last June when the promised passing of the Fair Indexation Bill was voted down.

Keith was a uni student in the 1950s when he and 49 other 18 year-olds were despatched to Woodside in South Australia to train as National Servicemen.

“They needed more 18 year olds to make up the numbers, so they just picked 50 Victorians along the Western Railway line. That''s how they did things in those days."

Keith is unimpressed with the treatment endured by Veterans.
"It is urgent for the Government to address this issue. It is one thing to celebrate Anzac Day — but another thing not to remember the men and women who need our support as a result of their service and sacrifice to this country."

"We forget," said John Evans, "that commitment by a young lad was also a commitment by everyone around him, even his footy club; everyone is affected, his family — sometimes drastically.

He continued:

“As a community we are duty bound to look after him and any ongoing battles he might have.

Look at it this way; he is not being allowed to come home and live in peace; the peace that he fought so hard for is denied to him — and his family. We''re not supposed to live on the dole. The dole is a support. But you should be able to live on a veteran affairs pension, especially if you''ve been traumatised and hurt in any way."

In all these months of involvement with this story, I have not met a single person who is not horrified at the plight of the Diggers. For decades, there has been this misconception that our defence personnel enjoy brilliant pensions and superannuation schemes, second only to politicians.

We also naturally suppose that is the case because even if defence force members do not go to war, they sign up to be prepared to do so.

Nothing could be further from the truth. They have been ripped off. By experts. The Australian Government.

It was political treachery writ large in the handwriting of deceptive Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and her lying frontline troops.

Senator Kate Lundy, even unto the 11th hour, deceived the Diggers into believing she would be voting for the Bill. She did not. The Bill was defeated by one vote. Hers.

Documents concerning this were leaked to me and I wrote about this betrayal in Independent Australia shortly afterwards. The article has now prompted more than 2,000 comments from Diggers and supporters, from rank and file alike.

The truth is, our returned service personnel have been despicably treated by successive governments, which is why the Opposition hasn''t slapped this issue on the Parliamentary table.

Geezus, why would you, when you''ve got a feral parliament and house business to attend to, like allegations of sexual harassment, rorting taxi fares and paying for prostitutes on credit cards – and that''s just for starters – and we''re talking politicians here, not constituents. Get real!

The Vietnam War is not over for our Veterans. Now they are at war with their government. And this one they are not going to lose. Some have died in the past year, fighting this injustice.

Mates joke that the Government is behaving like James Hardie Industries in avoiding its responsibilities and duty of care and hoping that the Diggers will die out before Justice does. Many a true word spoken in jest.

All this against the backdrop of outrageous increases in parliamentary pensions, the continual political scandals involving the abuse of public funds and rorting of the system, the scandals and continuing mismanagement within the Defence Force, the $4 billion slashing of the Defence budget and the opulent funds available for everyone else it seems — except the Diggers. Just the other week, Australia gave $7 billion to the Euro International Monetary Fund.

The 100th anniversary of ANZAC will be celebrated between 2014-18. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.

Wouldn''t you think that the Gillard Government would do the right thing! It is unfathomable that Tuesday''s Federal Budget would not bring the Veterans some joy and dignity.

Diggers have been treated as if they are whingeing malingerers, feigning the likes of PTSD and other psychological disorders, including the physical and mental after effects of Agent Orange and other deadly chemical weapons, undeserving of a fistful of dollars extra in their pension, constantly having to prove that the injuries to body, mind and soul are legit.

Some have documented their treatment at the hands of Veteran Affairs and bureaucracy and discussed how often they feel exhausted and demoralised by constantly having to justify their very existence. This eats into the self-esteem of some.

The Gillard government would have them turning up their slouch hats and begging on street corners to buy a loaf of bread.

Artist Geoff Maidens drew inspiration from a photo of Military Cross winner and Fair Go campaigner, Brigadier (Ret''d) Neil Weekes to compose this evocative image of a Digger with a begging bowl that says it all.

I know from my discussions and meetings that these human beings are hurting inside. If you take time to read some of the comments, you will read their poignant stories in their words, not mine.

They also efficiently and eloquently demolish the many facile and febrile arguments staged by the government''s contrived accounting methods. So I''m not going through them all here. This is not just about the money.

The muscular Fair Go campaign by the Diggers (and this term of course, has come to embrace matelots, navy and air force) took Canberra by surprise.

The campaign has sustained energetic momentum and bombarded politicians and ministers with emails and letters and exposed their truly ridiculous and lazy pro forma responses.

Moreover, Diggers have now galvanised themselves into a formidable electoral bloc. Given family members, friends and supporters they could easily muster enough political firepower to cause havoc in marginal seats. And intend to.

They have forensically analysed all seats and electorates — and know how many Veteran pension recipients are in each and what percentage of votes it will take to dislodge incumbents from their soiled trenches.

Watch out Julia Gillard. Watch out Craig Thomson. Watch out Mike Kelly. Watch out Warren Snowdon. Watch out Stephen Smith and Penny Wong and Kate Lundy and Wayne Swan. Watch out all of you. Greens, Coalition and Independents alike.

These military trained citizen activists are the real deal. What is more they have an impressive discipline and a loyal fraternity that their adversaries lack.

In the beginning, mainstream media and online media for that matter, seemed to have a blackout on the plight of the Diggers, but their persistence earned them a major breakthrough when Josie Taylor, presenter of ABC 7.30 Victoria, covered the story, interviewing Diggers and family members, including grandparents Lois and John Griffiths and Military Cross Winner and catalyst, Neil Weekes.

And there were cheers all round when Defence Minister Stephen Smith, who had arrogantly refused to meet with the Diggers and had been ducking and weaving questions on the subject of veteran pensions, was cornered on the subject whilst on a visit to Victoria.

If you want to see what our Defence Minister looks like when he doesn''t want to be questioned about the great unwashed for whom he is responsible, click here.

The campaign and general supporters have secured widespread print and electronic space. There is still much to do and they''re onto it.

There are a number of stalwarts and motivators who regularly contribute to the comments section that has now morphed into an important historical document of Veteran activism, as well as proving to be a great resource and information exchange.

It has also reunited people who had lost contact with one another through time and circumstance.

Some comments in particular are very moving. It is wonderful to see people talking openly about their feelings, circumstances and health issues. As managing editor David Donovan said, it has become a meeting place. And it''s so uplifting to see different personalities and moods shine through and to see irreverent humour expressed in what has become a gripping ongoing conversation, like an ebook.

I know what people mean when they say ''it''s about the journey.''

Last night, in order not to single anyone out in particular, I decided I would just include in this article whatever was the last comment posted. It turned out to be none other than KBHussell. I feel that the other gentlemen will consider KB a worthy representative.

Ken''s comment says much about the calibre of these men; their intellect, their life-experience and their contempt for spin and artifice. They tell it like it is. So refreshing.

KBHussell says:

3 May, 2012 at 10:59 pm

It is against my better judgement that I post this note tonight.

I am old, tired, angry, frustrated …………………and emotional. All good reasons not to post you would agree? To hell with it…………when you are hot you are hot OK? Here goes:

Dear Mr. Abbott,

In previous notes to IA, I have mentioned my first tour in Vietnam, 1967. Socks were in short supply for the diggers, the wharfies went on strike and defence stores were not always readily available. The posties went on strike, hence the “punch a postie” cry that went out.

On previous notes I have also mentioned our readiness for War in 1939. The lack of preparedness by our Government has been suggested as close to treason. Battle hardened troops from the desert were moved to PNG in uniforms ideal for the desert but hardly appropriate for a jungle war against battle hardened troops, experts in jungle warfare and camouflage, who out numbered us six to one. The only thing missing from our uniforms was a big light on each chest which said “aim here”!!.

Our troops today in Afghanistan are also ill equipped, relying on big brother, the good old U S of A, to keep us in the fight. Nothing has changed has it? As I write, the good old US of A troops are in our Northern regions by the hundreds, which will in time, become thousands. What was the saying in WW 11? Over sexed, over paid and over here? Nothing has changed eh?

Absolutely nothing has changed. In a previous note I suggested that “this precious stone set in a silver sea” – OUR COUNTRY – MUST be totally self-sufficient in terms of our National Defence. Nothing has changed there either.

Tonight, I hear “SHE” is reducing our Defence budget by $4 Billion in order to achieve a budget surplus!!!. Heaven forbid! Where are you Mr. Abbott? Where is your spokesman for Defence? What is the Coalition plan for long term defence our great country? Where are the Angus Houstons, Peter Cosgroves and all other “high flyers” formerly of the defence force? If they cannot hear the message – or should I say warnings – then they must be very comfortable in their lounge chairs and with their big pensions. Where is the RSL?!!!

What is it going to take to bring this government back to earth? Another bombing raid on Darwin? subs in Sydney Harbour or several thousand troops from another country to be hiding in our remote areas?

Mr.Abbott, in a recent note to you regarding your dream run down the highway with all lights green, I received an automated response. I hope this time, I will receive something from you – from your heart – about where you really stand in relation to the security of OUR country. Please forget your current plan of a daily bashing of the government and “her”. A wise man once said, “do not sweat the small stuff and everything is small stuff” – except of course the defence of our country and its veterans.

There is no question that those who believe in a fair go for Veterans and their families have proved the case well beyond prima facie. The Budget should acknowledge this.

What more do they have to do Julia? Give blood? Some of them have already done that.

Give them a Fair Go.

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