Kiwis Take New Look At Their Vietnam Vets

New Zealanders honor their once-maligned soldiers for the first time, 26 years later

For New Zealanders old enough to remember, Kim Phuc remains frozen in time: She is immortalized in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a naked nine-year-old girl, arms outstretched, fleeing a napalm strike in South Vietnam in 1972.

Last week, however, New Zealand was introduced to the adult Ms. Phuc, who traveled here to help convey a message of reconciliation and forgiveness to a nation preparing for its first-ever commemoration of soldiers who served in the Vietnam War.

"We have to learn from the past, but can't live in the past," Phuc says. "We cannot continue the hatred." Her message came as veterans began gathering in this South Pacific capital last Saturday for the military parade that never took place in 1972, when New Zealand pulled the last of its troops out of Vietnam.

Like Kim Phuc, yesterday's young soldiers have faces changed with time. They came accompanied by wives, girlfriends, or just alone. Some wore military garb, others jeans and checked shirts. More than 60 American veterans traveled from the United States, and hundreds came from Australia, but mostly these were New Zealanders - perhaps as many as 2,000 of the country's 3,890 regular-forces troops who served in America's undeclared war in Vietnam.

"We started the march outside of the main streets of the city, and so didn't know what to expect when we hit the center of town," recalls Glenn Jameson, who joined his veteran father for the march. "But when we got there, there were thousands of people lining the pavement, watching and clapping. I turned around and looked at my father, and I started to cry."

Mr. Jameson wasn't the only one a bit overwhelmed in recent days, as the city hosts other Vietnam-related events - memorial services, art exhibits, speakers, and a gala concert. The aim of the organizers, a veterans group called Parade '98, is to bring about a cultural reconciliation between those who served in Vietnam and wider New Zealand. For years now, veterans groups have pushed for this kind of remembrance.

PRIME Minister Jenny Shipley and Wellington Mayor Mark Blumsky, whose offices gave grants for the events, are too young to remember what led to New Zealand's involvement in Vietnam. The decision to commit troops was made in 1966 after visits by US Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Following a personal request from President Lyndon Johnson, then-Prime Minister Keith Holyoake dispatched an artillery battery to Vietnam, signaling the start of a six-year involvement.

In all, 37 soldiers died in action, and another 187 were wounded. While casualties were relatively light, nationalism ran deep in a country with the population of a medium-sized American state, and an everybody-knows-everybody culture. Like Australia, too, the perception of a nation obediently doing the bidding, lapdog-style, of the US superpower aroused its own kind of resentment, which continued long after the servicemen returned. In a psychological twist familiar to Americans, some took to blaming the soldiers themselves for the perceived humiliation.

Even recently, especially following New Zealand's abrupt decision in1987 to formally end its military alliance with the US, the resentment has appeared to extend to all things military - at least if one were to judge from the graffiti throughout the city.

Four successive governments declined to look at questions such as the impact on veterans of exposure to Agent Orange, the defoliant used during the war to strip the jungle canopy. In the spirit of the recent parade, the current National Party-led government of Mrs. Shipley announced it will investigate that issue, as well as social security benefits for the dependents of veterans.

Local commentators urged New Zealanders to let their veterans finally live in peace. They have had little of it this hectic week, but to judge by the mood of the thousands who surged through the wintry streets, many Vietnam veterans here have finally found the kind of commotion that they can live with.

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