Vietnam Veterans' Children At Risk!
Study Reveals Illness, Deformity,
700 Unnecessary Deaths Through Accident and Suicide
Media Release - 20 March 1998
The Vietnam Veterans' Association of Australia (VVAA) today
announced that the recently completed Vietnam Veterans' Health
Study shows clearly that their children are at risk, confirming
what veterans have been saying for 20 years. Apart from greatly
elevated rates of spina bifida, cancers and a range of other
normally rare diseases, the study reveals that the number of
deaths of Vietnam veterans' children from the combined causes of
accident and suicide is 250% higher than for other young
"We are horrified," said Mr Clive Mitchell-Taylor,
National President of the VVAA. "Australia has one of the
highest youth suicide rates in the world, but this is worse than
anything we could have imagined! The statisticians have told us
that they would have expected about 440 of our children to have
died from accidents or suicide, but the questionnaires completed
by our Vietnam veterans reports over 700 more deaths from
those two causes alone. How can anyone explain this,
or the range of genetic illnesses and deformities?"
Mr Mitchell-Taylor acknowledged the role of Minister Bruce
Scott and officers of Department of Veterans' Affairs in
commissioning and conducting this study. He said the study would
not have been possible without close co-operation and support.
The magnitude of the results have surprised all concerned, even
the veterans, who had anticipated most of the reported outcomes.
The Vietnam Veterans' Morbidity Study, completed by nearly 85%
of all Vietnam veterans, shattered all Australian records for
response to a Government survey. The VVAA was formed on the basis
of concerns about the health of veterans and their children, and
this comprehensive survey has been a goal for almost 20 years.
The overwhelming response confirmed beyond doubt the Vietnam
veterans' commitment to the study.
The responses themselves show beyond doubt that veterans,
their spouses and their children suffer from a range of illness
at rates undreamed of by other Australians. Examples include
leukemia and prostate cancer (300% of the expected rate), cancer
of the colon (350%) male breast cancer (2500%), ischaemic heart
disease (200%), motor neurone disease (6000%). The reported
incidence of spina bifida in children is more 1000% of the
expected rate, cleft lip or palate over 400% higher and absent
body parts 1000% higher. A high percentage of veterans' partners
have sought treatment for stress, anxiety, depression or sleep
Mr Mitchell-Taylor said "The findings of the report are
so significant that the Government must take action immediately.
Australians cannot ignore this problem for another single day.
The Vietnam Veterans' Association of Australia was one of
three ex-Service organisations represented on the Steering
Committee of the Health Study. Although the Report states that
there is a clear link between the findings and exposure to combat
stress and chemicals, it falls far short of addressing these in
its recommendations. The recommendations relate either to
validating the self-reported rates of illness, or to existing
regulations that recognise illnesses as being war-caused. The
Veterans' Entitlement Act does not include any provision for the
recognition of problems faced by children as a result of a
"I can understand Cabinet reluctance to open up this
door," stated Mr Mitchell-Taylor, "This was clearly
demonstrated in 1996, when Government research failed to
recognise a link between our service and elevated rates of Spina
Bifida. I said at the time that the study was flawed, and it has
been proven to be so."
"The VVAA bargain with the Government was simply this -
conduct the study, and we will support it with every resource we
have. If it proves that veterans and their children are not at
risk, we will go away. If it proves that there are problems, you
must address them."
"What do we do now? The VVAA asks that every Vietnam
veteran commit to the validation of the data. Let's prove that
the responses we gave were correct. Encourage the children, most
of who are adults in their own right, to allow their medical
records to be examined and confirmed. It can be done quickly, and
it can be done in a way that will satisfy the Government. At the
same time the VVAA undertakes to ensure that personal information
is isolated from the Department of Veterans' Affairs, with
validation being done through a third party. We will do
everything in our power to get this done quickly and accurately.
We seek the support of the entire veterans' community and the
Australian public to ensure it takes place."
After consultation with DVA, the VVAA expects that initial
validation of some of the rarer diseases of both veterans and
children will take place within a matter of weeks. Mr
Mitchell-Taylor asked veterans to remember, "We are jumping
this final hurdle for our children. We are doing it for
ourselves. We are establishing standards to ensure that the
veterans and peace-keepers who follow us will not have to go
through the same rejection and ridicule in seeking treatment or
recognition of illnesses."
Media Contact: Clive Mitchell-Taylor
Questions and Answers from the
Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia
In Relation To the Vietnam Veterans' Health Study
Why are the children of Vietnam veterans dying at such a
rate from suicide and accidents?
Firstly, let us make it clear that it is impossible to
differentiate between the two causes of death. Many suicides are
reported as accidents, some accidents as suicides. For practical
purposes we have to address them together.
We can only speculate on the causes. Depression, anxiety,
panic attacks and psychiatric disorders are common throughout the
Vietnam veteran community, but we are at a loss to explain how
this could be transferred so effectively to the second
generation. Perhaps Australians have under- estimated the effect
of living in such an environment.
There has always been a feeling in our community that exposure
to chemicals can result in genetic changes, some of which result
in mental illness and physical deformity. That has yet to be
proved to the satisfaction of scientists, but we are working on
it. This study itself will contribute.
Several studies have confirmed the high rate of suicide for
Vietnam veterans. Teenaged children in particular, see friends of
their parents choosing this option, and see it as an option which
they can use themselves.
What we have to do is make sure that the children are aware of
the risks of depression and low self-esteem, and are provided the
opportunity to seek treatment and counselling.
What do Vietnam veterans want now?
What we want is immediate action in response to the study, and
to the agreement entered into with the Government. This agreement
was to conduct the study. If it proved that there was no basis
for concern, the VVAA promised to walk away from the health
issue. The Department agreed to act on the findings, but it
is difficult to convince the Vietnam veteran community that
'validating the responses' is action enough.
If immediate action is not a part of the equation, then let's
do the follow-up, confirm the figures, and then get on
with recognition and treatment.
How do we repay parents and children for this
suffering? That's something that we can work out with
What should the Government do about the Vietnam veterans'
The Government should fulfil its promise, and acknowledge
responsibility. The next step is to institute health and
education programs that can treat or perhaps prevent illnesses.
Then let's look at assistance for disabled children - paying for
treatment, medication, accommodation, building and vehicle
modifications, respite programs for carers, and so on. Finally,
let's help those who suffer from life-long illness, disability
and disease, through no fault of their own, to live a decent life
through the payment of pensions. Whatever we, as a Nation do for
veterans and peacekeepers, we should be doing for all the other
casualties of war.
If follow-up and validation is the only way to commence this
process, then let it be swift and accurate. Let it be carried out
by a third party to acknowledge the privacy concerns of many
veterans. Let it be monitored by the veterans' community.
Why do Vietnam veterans suffer from these illnesses more
than other Australians do?
This is the first Government publication to acknowledge the
role of chemicals and other unknown agents in contributing to the
ill health of Vietnam veterans. It confirms the statements the
VVAA has been making for so long.
This is only made worse by the psychological stresses related
to combat and living in a war zone where no place is truly safe.
The Vietnam Veterans' Counselling Service was created as a result
of pressure from the VVAA, and the consistent call on its
services demonstrates the continuing need for those services.
The strong relationships in the report, between exposure times
and the onset and rate of illness reinforce this chemical/ combat
link. Vietnam service is injurious to your health!
The rates for some diseases are similar to the general
population, or actually lower - how do you explain this?
Some of the results have surprised us. Particularly those in
relation to divorce rates and alcohol consumption.
There are simple explanations for both. Because members of the
VVAA consistently deal with those veterans who are not travelling
very well, our perception has possibly been biased. The
divorce/separation figures support this premise, and we would
expect those figures to be accurate.
Alcohol consumption in a report of this nature is also subject
to a natural human bias - that is, only someone who drinks more
than I do has a problem with alcohol! The increased rates for
cirrhosis of the liver, which is confirmed by other studies,
demonstrate that this bias exists.
Other figures are explained by the fact that only fit and
healthy personnel were selected to go to Vietnam. Many congenital
and common illnesses were the cause of individuals being rejected
for service. You should also remember that the higher figures are
also subject to this same initial distortion. The reported rate
for diabetes is 200% of the general population, yet all those
with diabetes were screened out of the services!
Finally, the VVAA undertaking was to address those issues that
were identified as being of concern. We accept the lower figures
for the most part, but would wish to follow up some specific
areas in the future.
What has been the role of the VVAA in the delivery of this
The VVAA has been trying for many years to obtain a definitive
measure of the health of Vietnam veterans and their families.
This was seen as the only way to prove beyond doubt the truth of
the anecdotal evidence that continued to mount.
After many years, an agreement was reached with then Minister
for Veterans' Affairs, Con Sciacca, to conduct such a study.
Before this, however, a nominal roll of veterans had to be
compiled. The next step was to conduct a study of the mortality
of Vietnam veterans since their return - the causes of death. The
VVAA was represented on the Steering Committee of this study, and
continues to work towards ensuring that positive health outcomes
are produced from this report.
Minister Bruce Scott took up the responsibility for honouring
his predecessor's commitment, and instituted the Steering
Committee for the Vietnam Veterans' Health Study (often known as
the Morbidity Study). The VVAA was represented on this committee,
together with representatives from the RSL and the Australian
Veterans and Defence Service Council (AVADSC), a peak body of the
The VVAA played a significant role in getting the study under
way in a short period of time, recommending an initial
data-gathering exercise in the form of a short questionnaire in
order to identify areas of concern. The VVAA was concerned that a
drawn-out process would alienate veterans who had already seen
too much time elapse, despite the risk that a short study would
require later validation.
The Association gave unequivocal support to the mail-out,
encouraging members and non-members alike to contribute to the
Analysis of the results has been carried out by the Steering
Committee, including the three ex-Service organisation
representatives, epidemiologists, scientists and other
specialists. The VVAA does not necessarily agree with all the
conclusions drawn, but is satisfied that the process was both
scientifically valid and reproducible.
The result has been that areas of concern have been identified
beyond any doubt. Follow-up will be required, but this can now be
focussed into tight areas of concern. The validation exercise
must be performed quickly and accurately, and isolated from the
Department of Veterans Affairs in the same way that the original
study was conducted by A.C. Neilson.
Will this end the isolation and rejection of Vietnam
veterans, or simply make them more bitter?
Frankly, the purpose of the Study was to identify areas of
greatest concern for veterans and their families, and doing
something about it. It wasn't aimed at
reinforcing the bad feelings that a number of veterans have.
The fact that there are so many areas of concern, and that the
outcomes are so bad, means that organisations like the VVAA will
have to work that much harder to make sure that the veterans and
family members who need care are properly looked after.
We cannot do that by feeling sorry for ourselves. We
cannot do it by having others feel sorry for us. We can
only do it by rolling up our sleeves and working with the
Departmental and Ministerial staff to make sure that this time we
get it right!