Conscripted Vietnam veterans have told the ABC they feel abandoned by the Government and ashamed among fellow veterans owing to a decision to not award them a Vietnam War military medal.
- Terry Carmody said having his number drawn for conscription felt like “the only thing that I’ve ever won”
- He spent 170 days in Vietnam. The eligibility cut-off to receive an RVCM is 181 days
- Despite a campaign on behalf of 3,020 Vietnam vets who missed out on the medal, the Government said it had no plans to review the rule
When, at age 20, Terry Carmody’s number was drawn, sealing his fate as an Australian soldier for the next 24 months, he said it was “the only thing that I’ve ever won”.
After a tour in Vietnam as a signalman in 1971, he returned home to resume his job as a federal public servant.
But upon returning, Mr Carmody noticed Vietnam War veterans were wearing a medal he didn’t have — the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal (RVCM).
He soon learned that his 170 days of service in Vietnam made him ineligible for the medal, which required a soldier to either complete at least 181 days (six months) in the country or be killed, wounded or captured by enemy forces to be eligible.
Of the more than 15,000 national servicemen who completed active duty in the Vietnam War, 3,020 did not complete 181 days of duty and therefore were not awarded the RVCM.
National servicemen often didn’t reach 181 days of service if they joined a battalion that had just returned from Vietnam, forcing them to wait in Australia before they could be deployed.
By the time they reached Vietnam, their 24 months of mandatory service could have dwindled to below 181 days, automatically ruling them out from receiving the medal.
Mr Carmody said being ineligible to receive the RVCM left him feeling abandoned by the government and separated from veterans who had the medal.
“I’m not a real veteran, because I’m missing that piece, and that piece is the RVCM.”
Mr Carmody was diagnosed with depression in 1997, requiring ongoing therapy and medication, including a recent stay in a psychiatric facility in November 2019.
“Not having the full set of medals representing your time in Vietnam, you’re a second-class veteran,” he said.
Mr Carmody said being awarded the RVCM by the Government “would be everything to me, it really would”.
‘Vietnam has never left them’
Michael Rogers spent 127 days on Vietnamese soil as a lance-corporal with the 6th battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment.
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in the late 1990s.
Mr Rogers’ wife Robyn said not being eligible for the RVCM had contributed to him feeling forgotten by the Government, causing a ripple effect on their marriage and three children.
“When there’s an inner war still going on inside someone, you’re obviously going to be collateral damage,” she said.
“They all grew up with possibly him being somewhat of an absent father, because he was absent emotionally from them and from me also.”
Mrs Rogers said the RVCM represented recognition from the Australian Government, and would provide closure to her husband if awarded.
“The Government, which represents Australia and the Australian people, are just not recognising what they did, or not valuing it in any way,” she said.
“It would bring about a sense of closure that I don’t think he’s ever had, and just that sense of recognition finally for a job well done, and a service which he was proud to do at the time, serving his country.”
Why the medal hasn’t been awarded
Veteran Richard Barry has been lobbying the Department of Defence on awarding the 3,020 national servicemen the RVCM for 25 years.
His advocacy was recognised in early 2020, when he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal.
Serving 115 days in Vietnam as a national serviceman, he said the RVCM’s 181-day criteria was an arbitrary limit and didn’t reflect the sacrifice of soldiers.
“The Viet Cong weren’t interested in about whether you were there for 60 days, 90 days, 181 days. You could still be killed,” he said.
The Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal (DHAAT) conducted reports in 2014 and 2015 to address the eligibility criteria of the RVCM.
The second report concluded Australia did not have the legal authority to lower the 181 day limit of the RVCM, citing the defunct South Vietnamese Government as the only authority with the power to do so.
Mr Barry said there were precedents for changing the criteria of the RVCM.
On December 23, 1968, a military document announced that Queen Elizabeth had granted “unrestricted permission” to award the RVCM to philanthropic organisations aiding Australian forces in Vietnam, including the Salvation Army and Campaigners for Christ.
He said this decision contradicted article 3 of the directive, which established the RVCM and stated that the medal was available for personnel who “fight against armed enemies”.
In a statement to the ABC, the Department of Defence said “the inclusion of members of accredited philanthropic organisations as persons eligible for the RVCM does not alter the eligibility criteria of the award, and does not establish a precedent for Australia to alter that criteria”.
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel Darren Chester told the ABC in a statement that “the Australian Government remains grateful for the service of our Vietnam veterans”.
“This matter has been duly considered by Government and there is no intention for further review,” he said.