Anzac Day: Veterans not getting support they need, feel forgotten about

10:01 pm on 24 April 2024
Members of the public laid poppies on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior following the Wellington dawn service

Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

On Anzac Day, thousands of New Zealanders will recite the words "we will remember them".

But some of the country's contemporary veterans feel they have been forgotten about, as they navigate long waiting times and hurdles to getting the support they need.

Contemporary veterans are service personnel who took part in operational service from 1974 onwards.

The number of claims for assistance made by veterans increased by nearly 50 percent in the last financial year, and the minister said staffing had not increased to meet the extra demand.

Brendon Baines served for New Zealand in Afghanistan and East Timor in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Years later, he was still dealing with the physical and mental effects of his service.

"I have PTSD from a training accident in Australia where a guy got set on fire. Got third degree burns to 70 percent of his body. Then six months later I got set on fire in Burham in a training exercise, which just cracked my brain really."

After waiting 12 months, he was declined support for his PTSD because the accident had happened in training, not on operation.

Baines said veterans should not have to prove their injuries were service related, and they should all get support.

He, and many other ex-soldiers he knew, felt let down by veterans' affairs.

"I know a lot of people who are struggling with them for knees, shoulders, backs. All the shit that gets worn out in soldiers. They want one specific injury that happened while you're overseas, but it doesn't look into 10 or 20 years of service."

He did not believe veterans' affairs had the capacity to deal with the increasing number of contemporary veterans.

"Vietnam and Korea, there just wasn't the numbers that there were for Timor, Afghan, Solomon's, the tempo has just gone up and I don't think VA can keep up with it."

Gregg Johnson also served in East Timor and Afghanistan, as well as Iraq.

He suffered from a brain injury, which he said was the result of being consistently exposed to explosions - a condition sometimes called breacher's brain.

It had been about two-and-a-half years since the problem was first identified and he said he was nowhere near getting the help he needed.

"At no stage has anybody laid out a process. A process of moving through the specialists or people I needed to see, to sign off. If I'd had that I could understand."

In Johnson's view, veterans' affairs needed a personnel change to function better.

"It needs to get some people in there who are proactive, who are actively looking and providing advice for veterans on the environment's they've served in and potentially the injuries they have faced."

National Party MP Chris Penk participating in Parliament's Justice Select Committee.

Minister for Veterans Chris Penk. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Minister for Veterans Chris Penk acknowledged the current situation was not good enough.

"It's taking far too long for their claims to be processed. And there are some historical reasons for that. For example, the number of claims is increasing and we need to make sure that we keep up with that large demand coming through."

Penk said the 6.5 percent savings cut the government wanted from the Defence Force would not affect frontline Veterans Affairs' workers, despite staffing being one of the key problems identified in its annual review.

"If, in the background, there are changes we can make to do things more efficiently, then we will. And then of course, going forward we'll use all the resources that we can. And if there's any additional funding, great, but we're certainly focused on those front-line services."

Penk said the Ministry for Defence was also working on a registry for veterans so it could better understand how many there were and what they needed.

The ministry did not currently know how many people qualify as veterans in New Zealand.

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