Speech to the RSA National Conference 2018

It has been a full year since I last stood before you as a new Minister.

A year since I was provided the opportunity to translate my passion for Veterans and Defence issues, into actually getting stuff done.

Today I can report back that over that year:

  • I’ve met with many of you who are in this room, and with other service personnel (both serving and retired) and other veteran centred organisations (both nationally and internationally).  Listened to your views and received an appreciation for how we can provide better support to veterans
  • I have travelled to numerous RSA’s throughout the regions, with more visits to come.
  • This year the Government also approved funding for the RSA and No Duff to support their quest to develop better support services for Veterans.  In particular those suffering from PTSI.

 In addition:

  • I’ve tabled the Paterson Report which is a Review of the Veterans’ Support Act and how it is operating.
  • Aligned with this, I’ve Appointed a new Veterans’ Advisory Board and tasked them with looking into the question of who should be considered a veteran and how veterans might be recognised.
  • I’ve appointed new members to the Veterans’ Health Advisory Panel
  • And launched the Veterans’ Affairs rehabilitation strategy
  • I’ve made available some $400,000 for the Veterans’ Health Advisory Panel to use to fund research into the health of Vietnam War veterans and their families
  • I’ve declared service in Moscow between August 1978 and July 1992 to be an Operational Deployment, and we are looking into several others
  • And most importantly, I’ve overseen as Minister the conclusion of the work to repatriate our fallen.

Te Auraki

And it is with Te Auraki I’d like to start:

I’m proud to tell you that Te Auraki – the repatriation project - is now complete.

Over the last six-months the Defence Force coordinated work to repatriate 35 personnel in four tranches from six countries:

  • Three servicemen from Fiji and American Samoa were returned to New Zealand on 7 May 2018.
  • 26 servicemen and one child from Malaysia and a serviceman from Singapore were returned to New Zealand on 21 August 2018.
  • Two servicemen from the United Kingdom were returned to New Zealand on 26 September 2018. 
  • Two servicemen from the Republic of Korea were returned to New Zealand on 7 October 2018.
  • And I have not forgotten Able Seaman Marchioni.  If peace is declared between North and South Korea, then we may have a chance to see if we can find him.

The New Zealand Government and its people very much appreciated the care given by the countries that looked after our fallen.

In particular we registered our gratitude to Malaysia for the way they cared for our fallen and the dignity they accorded them.  I have also expressed gratitude to Air New Zealand for the support and assistance they gave us in providing an aircraft for the Malaysian repatriation.

I’d like us to take a moment to recognise those returned service personnel who lobbied previous governments, for so many years.   People like Paul Thomas, Andy Peters, Bob Davies and Sir Wira Gardiner. 

Both the nation, and the families of those who came home; have much to thank you for.

And I’d also like to thank the Prime Minister and my cabinet colleagues for agreeing to expand the objectives of Te Auraki so that 35 personnel could be bought home, instead of the 27 which was originally planned.

All of the work by so many people, helped us put right the inequity that was created in 1955 when the policy for repatriation changed. 

It was privilege to be a part of the ceremonies welcoming our comrades home – and to have the RSA and representatives from other veterans groups there as witnesses, to support the families of the deceased.

And I’d note in particular the number of RSA members who supported the families at reinternment.

Paterson Report

As you’ll all be aware, Professor Ron Paterson recently reviewed the operation of the Veterans’ Support Act.

I commend the RSA for its support during the process. Your members, played a key role in ensuring that Professor Paterson’s report was reflective of the views of those who have served.

I thank those who took the time to make detailed and often heartfelt submissions, during the consultation meetings around New Zealand. 

In May this year, I tabled the report in the House. It contained 64 recommendations.

Many are already being progressed by my officials, and they’ll be reporting to me later this year on how some of the more complex matters Professor Paterson raised can be addressed.

Veterans’ Advisory Board

One of the recommendations was that it is time to look again at the question of who should be considered a veteran, and how veterans should be recognised.

Whilst this was out of scope of the Terms of Reference, it was considered significant and worthy of consideration. 

And also, I have appointed a new and refreshed Veterans’ Advisory Board which is now headed by Lt Col (rtd) Leith Comer and on 31 August, I announced this Board has been tasked with looking into this key question. I’ve asked them to report back, by the middle of 2019.

The revamped Veterans Advisory Board comprises a very strong group of people.  Most of them have served, but not all. They were chosen for their skills and experience across many sectors, much wider than just Defence.

None of them were appointed to represent the interests of any of the individual Services, because all those interests, or interest groups, will be able to have their say directly to the Board.

This is a big question, and they’ll be looking at it from a wide perspective, on behalf of all of us.

Do not underestimate the consequential effects if things change.  They may be substantial.

I’m looking forward to receiving their report – and taking some action. Hopefully before the next election.

Centenary of the end of the First World War

At the end of next week we’ll commemorate Armistice Day.

It’s going to start with a 100-gun salute on the waterfront near Te Papa, and then we’ll commemorate the moments after the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War.

We’ll be thinking again about our forebears who paid the ultimate price.

For 100 years we have rightly commemorated the First World War and paid our respects to those who fell. 

But I think it’s time, in light of the challenges we face today, with our contemporary vets, to spare some time to think about those from all wars and conflicts, who came home. Survivors of the horrors they had experienced over five long years.

I think we have a duty of responsibility to think more about those who were wounded, maimed or disfigured, and who were left to forever suffer the effects of what we now acknowledge as PTSI. 

When I was growing up as a kid in Pahiatua, the views on veterans were pretty mixed.  Many were viewed as a bunch of drunks who went down to the RSA, had trouble at home and were generally a bit messed up.  No one stopped to ask the question why.

This Armistice Day we should take time to reflect on how they managed their challenges in peacetime – and how they reintegrated back into their families, their friends and their communities. 

We should also consider how hard it must have been for the families to accept back into their lives these badly damaged men and women.

Today’s service personnel

The challenges of reintegration are as real today as they ever were.  For some in this room, I am sure it is a challenge you remember.

For many, it is something we still deal with on a daily basis.

New Zealand is still sending men and women away on operational deployments. But they’re different today from the conflicts we took part in during the two World Wars. 

We no longer see large numbers of conscripted personnel – and mass casualties.  Barely a family in New Zealand was left untouched in those days by tragedy and loss. 

Today, our forces in conflict zones are all volunteers. Their deployments are time defined, and may be brief.

During their careers service people may take part in several operations – different types, different environments, different risks.  They may be involved in stabilisation, peacebuilding, disaster relief and reconstruction in fragile and unpredictable environments, contributing to collective international and regional security efforts.

These might not require mass mobilisation, but they do still require our military to be highly trained, flexible, and properly equipped for the kind of engagements they face. Some of the experiences during these deployments are never easy, and they can change our personnel forever.

And when they come home, they know that just around the corner, it might well be South Sudan, Korea, Afghanistan or the MFO they’re off to next.

Each and everyone of these deployments leaves their mark and poses their challenges upon return, and each of these deployments leaves these people when they leave the service life in need of some form of support.

And that’s where we all need to step in.

As proud as I am of the service I did in my time, I’ve now travelled all over to see our people in operational theatres, and I have to say, they’re better than we were. They’re extremely smart, bright and capable men and women.  We also need to recognise that the Defence Force has changed.

For example, the number of women now serving in senior ranks with distinction, such as Col Melanie Childs is something we should all be proud of. 

Funding

One year ago when I stood before you with the Prime Minister, and I gave you a commitment.  This commitment was aimed at improving the reintegration and mental health support for our contemporary veterans. 

Within two months, I came through on that promise and secured a one-off grant for $250,000 to support the important work of your organisation and a $25,000 grant for No Duff.

Then in April of this year this Government proved that it stands beside you and welcomes the support you provide to the veteran community.

We announced there will be $1 million in grants made available to you over the next four years. In addition we provided No Duff Charitable Trust with further $100,000.

This funding acknowledges that our returned service personnel need the specialist support services provided by the RNZRSA.    

The funding has been made available to you, so that you can better work on the frontline of support work – and so you can continue to help those who have served, and who are suffering ongoing trauma.

Especially mental health trauma.

Where the RSA fits

But this funding does not come without expectations.  The Government only provides funding to reputable organisations which do good work in their communities.  They also must demonstrate that they are providing the service in the most efficient manner possible.

The RSA has a strong reputation, built up over the last 100 years.  But, as your Chairman pointed out to you in his address, reputation counts for nothing in the changing world.

We continue to see individual RSA’s folding.  Leaving gaps in support services for Veterans. 

Taupo closing gutted me.  I was there attending the reunion of 1 Ranger Company.  I went up to the bar and asked the woman serving, ‘so how’s the club going?’

She said “not well, we close in two-week’s time.”  And then I got a bit of a brief history and I was not impressed.  And the irony for me is that we then retired to the Onward Bar.  Now, the Onward Bar is a bar set up by a Contemporary Veteran.  Who did service in the New Zealand Army, and then was injured doing private security in Iraq.

Out of his own money, he set up a bar as a place where people can go.

It’s more like a museum than a bar, and it looks like a lot of the RSA’s looked like, with a lot of paraphernalia, the difference being is that this bar reflects more contemporary vets. 

But, it guts me that in a place like the central plateau, with Waiouru just down the road, that you would lose a place like the RSA.

In a community that is not known as an impoverished one, with plenty of discretionary spending, and with a lot of service men and women residing in it. 

It goes to show, that if RSA’s don’t modernise, and work with their communities, then they will fold.  But, likewise RSA’s taken advantage of by those who administer them, will fold.

For the last 100 years, your organisation – the Royal New Zealand Returned Services Association - has played a central role in supporting men and woman when they come back home from conflict.  And their families.

Today the membership is broader and many on local RSA executive committees have no Military background.  Without some of these people these RSA’s would fold.  When I was at Huntly I saw that most of the committee were volunteers with no service background, and the RSA was a success.

If you are to survive for another 100 years, and I say we because I’ve been a member of the Palmerston North, Christchurch Central, Templeton, Rangiora and now Carterton RSA’s

If we are to survive, the work we do, for which we were formed, must be taken seriously. There must be a strategic plan, and there must be reformation.  And I congratulate you for taking the first step of passing a new constitution.  

People who are charged with the executive duties, must be good people. Vetting and auditing systems must be tight, because you’re not just there to protect the RSAs themselves, but the reputation of the RSA as a whole.

I know from what I am hearing that you’re facing massive challenges, and I know that your board has worked tirelessly to provide a level of professionalism and encourage you towards modernisation, I welcome that and I congratulate you all for that.

We have a huge task as returned service men and women, and gaining the confidence of contemporary veterans is one of them.

There are 30,000 of them out there now.  Of the 41,000 veterans, 30,000 of the served in places like Timor, Afghanistan, the Indian Ocean and Bosnia.

And just like I was dubious about setting foot inside an RSA when I returned from the Sinai, because I didn’t feel I’d done the sort of service that WW1, WW2 and Vietnam vets had done, I tended to stay out. 

But, I still admired the RSA, so eventually I joined. Today’s vets are no different, they did six months in Iraq.  How do they, in their head, compare that to the horrors of World War One?  How does an Afghanistan Veteran in their head, compare themselves to a Vietnam Vet.

So when they do get up the courage to walk in the door, if it doesn’t’ look like smell like and feel like their home, they might not come back in again.

And then they might come into an RSA one day, and they hear that it’s a bit dodgy, and the books are not right, and the membership is down, it could probably be understood if they choose to hang out at the Onward Bar to talk about the issues they’re grappling with.

I want the RSA to be that place, that when these young men and women, come back from a deployment, they can call their home.

And I’ll leave that challenge with you, but I’m always here to assist.  And I encourage you to work with your board to look closely at how things can change.

You know, it used to be that you could get a message in the newspaper and people would respond to that.  Our young people don’t work like that today, they work off their phone, and if it’s not on there then it’s never going to happen.

They like to be directly linked and directly connected, by email and social media and they like to see that communication is relevant to them.

They look upon many of you as their heroes, you participated in theatres that some would struggle to comprehend.  Many aspire to be like those who went before them, and being the humble and professional people they are, they’re not going to say that their service was equal to anything that came before them.  

They’re always going to be a little shy, and they’re going to gravitate to what they know, through the means that connects them. Their phone.

Good luck, you know you have my subscription and my blessing.

Thank you for hosting me.