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Veterans' Affairs fails many

The department should focus on ex-soldiers' welfare, BRUCE HAIGH writes

There has been recent discussion in the media that troops wounded in Afghanistan have received the short end of the stick in follow-up treatment provided or organised by the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

About 30 years ago the department began morphing into a caretaker of the nation's memory and remembrance of war. It first appeared with the dwindling number of First World War veterans and the belated fuss the Hawke government made of them. The department was given the task of organising the travel and accommodation for these often frail but spirited veterans to Turkey, France and Belgium. They also provided sprightly carers to accompany them.

As part of this remit the department produced short histories on the battle sites to be visited and biographies on the travelling World War I diggers. Ten years on and the focus shifted to surviving World War II diggers. Ceremonies and tours arranged for this group became caught up and interwoven with John Howard's jingoism and skewed sense of nationalism, which eschewed black-armband history and promoted the importance of Australian military history as the primary force in shaping the character of the nation.

A, by now, politicised Department of Veterans' Affairs was willing to be co-opted into expanding their charter to take on the promotion of Australian military history and achievements. Pamphlets expanded into booklets and then into books, tapes, CDs and DVDs.

I went to France in 2010 to attend the reinternment of diggers on July 19 at the newly constructed and consecrated Commonwealth Graves Commission Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery. The event attracted what I thought were a disproportionate number of officers from Veterans' Affairs.

Later in the month I found myself in the Somme Valley just outside the village of Hamel, on an eastern ridge topped by a memorial to General John Monash and the soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force who took the town on July 4, 1918, in the first of a series of resounding victories down the valley. There was a person who appeared very interested in the memorial and upon introduction turned out to be an officer from Veterans' Affairs charged with examining the monument for wear and tear.

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I said to him that I had little contact with Veterans' Affairs, although I would like to, because being a former tank gunner, I wanted my ears tested. He seemed a little taken aback, but said he was from a different area of Veterans' Affairs - his area didn't handle medical matters.

When eventually I did get through to an area of the department handling medical matters, I gave my details and was told to ring back, which in itself was a difficult and frustrating experience. People skills appear not to be a strong point of Veterans' Affairs personnel dealing with vets. Anyway I drew a blank, because on my discharge form, the lady said, problems with my hearing had not been recorded.

A year or so later I received a letter from Veterans' Affairs saying they were coming to the central west, including Mudgee, and if I had something I wanted to discuss I should make an appointment. A number of other veterans living in Mudgee did likewise. The visit was cancelled by letter two weeks before it was due to take place. We were advised to ring a certain number and make an appointment in Sydney. For a number of veterans, for a variety of reasons, that was not an option

In my opinion Veterans' Affairs should be made to concentrate solely on the welfare of surviving veterans. They should be forced to abandon their proselytising and promotion of the Anzac legend. As far as government expenditure on recording and honouring the history of Australian involvement in war is concerned, I believe that should be the sole preserve of the Australian War Memorial.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, retired diplomat and former national serviceman.