MARCH FOR JUSTICE — WAR AND PEACE OF MIND
By Tess Lawrence | Contributing editor-at-large
"One of the more insulting things that I ever heard whilst a member of parliament came from a colleague who laughingly said 'for the next four weeks I'll kiss your arse. For the next four years you'll kiss mine.'"~ disaffected former NSW Labor MP Ian McManus, cautioning against tongue-kissing Labor candidates in election mode.
Diggers have asked Defence Minister Stephen Smith for a face to face meeting to discuss the scuttled Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Amendment Bill 2010.
Groups are considering a national protest march on Canberra and pitching an army tent on the lawns of Parliament House in a show of solidarity and support for widowed families and physically and mentally ill veterans.
On standby in Canberra is a 'home guard' volunteer group of veterans and supporters keen to pitch an Ambassadorial 'Welcome Tent' for visiting interstate Veterans.
Vietnam Veteran motorcycle groups are also supporting the burgeoning 'Fair Go' campaign for the Australian Defence Forces, Land, Sea and Air divisions, and the Defence Forces Family is now galvanising a powerful army of defence and welfare groups and institutions dedicated to the health, safety and wellbeing of both retired and serving personnel.
There are concerns that the level of financial hardship is already so extreme amongst some of the veterans and their families that one volunteer counsellor fears that killing the 'Fair Indexation Bill' (FIB) will be viewed by some already ill, vulnerable and isolated veterans, as further rejection by society and could lead to self-harm and a worsening in post-traumatic stress.
"For some Veterans, especially those who served in Vietnam and who experienced that wall of rejection when they returned home, life has been particularly difficult.
"Some still deal with severe and varying types of depression and anxiety.
"Although there has been a welcomed turnaround in attitude towards those who served in 'Nam’, it has been difficult for some to shake off that lingering feeling of hurt and anger.
"Often such feelings bring about a lack of self-esteem and worth.
"Some of the Veterans were exposed to Agent Orange and other toxins and the Government's reluctance to acknowledge this, has also caused issues.
"The rejection of a pension increase can be seen by those vulnerable to accumulative factors as further invalidation of them as individuals and as a group. In this community, we sadly place values on people according to how much they earn.
“Put simply, they interpret ‘the Government' as speaking for the wider community saying "sorry mate, you can't have an increase because we don't think you're worth it".
“I don't know much about the actual Bill as such, but I do know that discussion of financial hardship and broken promises often arises...
“As an ordinary citizen, I think it stinks.
“And yes, since you've asked me, I would march in protest on their behalf if it came to that.
"As a matter of fact, I was one of those who marched in protest against the war in Vietnam.
“But I was protesting against my Government and not the soldiers.”
In yesterday's Fairfax media, journalist Dan Oakes writes about Defence Force investigators seizing psychological records of two Special Forces personnel serving in Afghanistan who were involved in a tragic incident on 12 February 2009, when five children and an adult were killed.
These acquisitioned reports and psychological assessments were dated before any subsequently dumped charges were made against the men, but were used in evidence against them by Defence Department Prosecutors.
The revelations have ignited outrage amongst the Defence community. There are critical legal and ethical implications in such a contentious invasion of privacy and violation of what many see as a privileged bond of trust between doctors and the military.
Some view it as betrayal by Defence Department 'suits'. Most agree that personnel in warzones such as Afghanistan and Iraq need access to intensive psychological counselling and de-briefing.
But as one veteran told me:
“Why would you bother even speaking with doctors, if it's only going to be used against you at a later date?
“You just wonder, what the hell is going on with all this shit? Are we the enemy or what?"
It's not just on the blood soaked sands of Afghanistan or Iraq that this is happening. In fact, it's a widespread practice. It happens to Diggers on Civvie Street.
Today, I've seen an email from a Veteran recounting his personal experience. Three years after starting treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, his wife of 25 years left him.
During Family Court proceedings, his wife's lawyers had access to his psychological history.
These issues impact on the wider community.
Ian McManus, like many of his brethren, lives with the mental demons of the Vietnam War.
This afternoon, commenting on the Fairfax story he said:
“When the Government needs them (Diggers) to put their lives on the line, they are called 'Our Finest'.
“When they ask for some justice, they are treated like lepers."
"My psychological and health problems arising from past experiences gives me an insight into these fine soldiers who need to be treated with the utmost respect from both the Government and Defence and not to be betrayed for simply seeking justice and fairness for their efforts.
“If this has not been the case, the Department of Defence must quickly advise serving personnel of that fact, before morale, particularly in the active zones, is seriously affected.
“If it is found to be factual, then the leadership of Defence has committed a serious disloyalty, and trust between themselves and their subordinates will be severely eroded.
“This issue must be cleared-up, immediately.”
Independent Australia has seen a copy of an email sent to Minister Smith on Sunday, 25 June 2011, by the disaffected former NSW Labor MP Ian McManus, in which he says
"It would be appreciated if you might make yourself available for a joint meeting with Senator Lundy and our group, by way of a deputation as soon as possible."
In the email McManus confirms that:
"I have recently become involved with other veterans to fight your government's recent decision on the above bill.
"I have emailed Senator Lundy advising that, as a Vietnam veteran and former Labor NSW MP, I and the veteran community are horrified at the treatment of this Government towards the very people it should be protecting.
"In the past few days, I have been approached by Ms Lundy to meet and have explained the process of those decisions.
"I have indicated that I would be prepared to discuss these matters, together with a number of ex-service people who are directly involved.
"As much as answers need to be forthcoming, Sir, attention must be given to addressing the concerns of those who are hurting the most at this time and that explanation must come from you as you are the Minister responsible for their welfare."
At the time of going to press, McManus had not received a response from Minister Smith.
By way of background, the FIB was lost by one vote. That vote belonged to Senator Kate Lundy.
Senator Lundy had given the Diggers a longstanding undertaking that she not only favoured fair indexation, but that she would vote for the Bill.
She fibbed about the FIB.
McManus wrote the email to Minister Smith the day after our June 25 exclusive on the hypocrisy of Senator Lundy and the Labor Party.
McManus had already unleashed his fury with Senator Lundy's betrayal in voting against the Bill, in an email on June 23 that was leaked to this reporter.
He threw a political incendiary into the 'Diggergate' debacle accusing the Labor Party of being diseased with "greed, corruption, self-interest, branch stacking” and of scoffing at constituents.
Caucus and Labor HQ went into political cardiac arrest, immediately assigning damage control spinmeisters with orders to shut down media debate, throw a fire blanket over McManus and Diggergate and to discredit Independent Australia and myself as indulging in journalistic histrionics.
But Matelot McManus remains defiant. Like Weekes, he served in Vietnam where, as a sonar operator for the Royal Australian Navy, he won the United States Unit Commendation for his service during Operation Sea Dragon in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Getting blokes like McManus and Weekes to even acknowledge their medals is like pulling teeth.
They are more concerned with the plight of widows and others in the Defence Family who are struggling and financially brutalised and abused by the Government. If you want proof, check out the Weekes daily log.
Both men are shamelessly irreverent. They both call a spade a shovel. In describing his contempt for what the Labor party has become, McManus says:
"One of the more insulting things that I ever heard whilst a member of parliament came from a colleague who laughingly said 'for the next four weeks I'll kiss your arse. For the next four years you'll kiss mine."
So on medical advice, please, no tongue kissing with Labor candidates anytime soon.
Whilst there does appear to be some sort of punitive media blackout in Big Media, that hasn't deterred the Defence Forces Family or the 'Fair Go' campaign and the coming days will see a sequence of pincer manoeuvres.
Nor has it hindered Independent Australia. We will continue doing what we instinctively do: bring you the news that the others are too timid or browbeaten to publish.
It is clear from the public comments on our article and the thousands of circulating emails that there will be no retreat or surrender from the likes of Brigadier Neil Weekes (Ret’d) or Ian McManus and they are determined to continue to be inclusive of others in this fight.
Despite attempts to divide and conquer the Defence Forces Family, Weekes and McManus stand on the frontline with the powerful Alliance of Defence Services Organisations that was formed late last year.
The ADSO is clearly in no mood to tolerate any more political obfuscation. This will be their first major political blooding.
When it enters into a room to walk the talk, their National Presidents lead battalions drawn from the ranks of the Defence Force Welfare Association, the Naval Association of Australia, the Royal Australian Regiment Corporation, the Australian Special Air Services Association and the Royal Australian Air Force Association.
In his regular Nui Dat Corner newsletter as Patron of the Vietnam Veterans' Association (Townsville Branch) and in his leadership in the 'Fair Go ' campaign Neil Weekes makes it obvious why he was awarded the Military Cross for Gallantry whilst serving as Platoon Commander, 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment in South Vietnam.
“Lead, follow or get out of the way” is his motto. In truth he gathers up all who stumble.
I know that at the moment he is on deck almost 24/7. He is receiving hundreds of emails daily. But somehow he finds time for everyone.
In his Nui Dat Corner, that will forever be Australia, he writes:
"..I know most of you have heard me rabbit on about this before, but this is a National disgrace (FIB)."
He called for those who are not pension recipients to join the fight. And one knows they will.
"We owe it to all our past, present and future warriors to ensure that they are given a "fair go".
"If we lose this battle then we doom them to be treated like second class citizens by future Governments, just the same as the current...recipients have been, and continue to be, treated by this and previous governments.
"We used to be a team and a damn good one at that. We stood by our mates during the moratoriums, during the protests. We helped our mates and their families, especially those in need."
Lest we remember to forget.