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Statement on 50th anniversary of end of Australian involvement in Vietnam War

On the 50th anniversary of the end of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, we Commissioners recognise and pay our respects to the 60,000 men and women who served in Vietnam, and their families.

Tragically, 523 Australians died during our nation’s involvement in the war, from 1962 to 1973. We honour and remember them for the ultimate sacrifice they made for our nation. We also acknowledge the experiences of those 3,000 Australian Defence Force members who were wounded, otherwise injured or suffered from illness during the Vietnam War.

We acknowledge the significant legacy of our Vietnam veterans in raising awareness about mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Their experiences have helped shape society’s understanding of these complex issues which today allows this Royal Commission to explore the ongoing stories of defence and veteran suicide and suicidality, as well as the contributing factors – particularly those linked to military service.

Since the war, we know many Vietnam veterans have sadly died by suicide; however, we cannot be sure of the true extent of this tragedy. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, at least 1,600 Australian servicemen and women died by suicide between 1997 and 2020. But this data does not include veterans who served before 1985, including our Vietnam veterans.

We acknowledge that the polarising nature of the Vietnam conflict – and the hostile reception our troops faced upon their return home to Australia – negatively impacted the mental health and wellbeing of many Vietnam veterans. Some have told us they’ve felt abandoned by the Government and a sense of shame because their service has never been appropriately recognised.

We also know the complex and lengthy process of making claims for entitlements through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, continues to cause immense frustration and distress among Vietnam veterans and other serving and ex-serving ADF members – and has cost lives.

The Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide is committed to formulating strong evidence-based recommendations that improve the lives and livelihoods of all those who have served and continue to serve.

But as Royal Commissioners, we’re here to inquire, not govern. So, Governments now and into the future must take real, decisive and sustained action to address the cultural, structural and systemic issues that have led to the unacceptably high rates of suicide in our defence and veteran communities.

It is already clear from our inquiries that we, as a nation, must do better at protecting those who protect us.

It is not enough to support and reflect on the sacrifice of our veterans on days of commemoration and remembrance. We must all play a part in holding Government to account when it comes to ensuring the mental health and wellbeing of those who risk their lives each day in the service of our country.

Lest we forget.