“‘I don’t want to talk to those mongrels, they’re the enemy’.”
Retorts that veteran advocate Ken Atkinson has heard from clients across western NSW - slating the Department of Veteran Affairs.
“No, they’re not, if you treat them right, they're not the enemy - they will help you,” he tells them. “The trouble is with the Vietnam fellows, it's the way they got treated when they got home. They had paint thrown at them, they were urinated on - horrific.”
Ken is the president of the Vietnam Veterans Peacekeepers & Peacemakers Association that covers the Mudgee and surrounding districts, and they service 60 vets in the area. It not only serves as a drop-in centre, but it’s an advocacy, run by volunteers. Ken helps vets from all conflicts, and peacekeeping services file compensation claims to the DVA, so they can afford to get help recovering from trauma associated with their time served. The main claims they receive are for vets suffering from PTSD, anxiety, depression, and alcohol and substance abuse. The VVPPA work to get them set up with much needed psychiatric help - not readily available in the region - as well as helping them get transport to and from mental health clinics, one as far as northern Sydney.
Ken said they have had a lot of Afghanistan vets come through lately, who suffer mainly from PTSD, and he narrates their desert battleground plight. “If you're on a patrol and one guy steps on a homemade bomb, he’s blown to smithereens, it’s going to affect you really bad, especially if you’ve served with that guy for a couple of years … and you’ve got to pick the pieces up, put them in a bag, and take him back to the camp,” he said.
Ken himself did a 14-month tour in Saigon from 1966, and returned significantly battle-scarred. He took on the advocate role because of difficulties he had getting a TPI pension - a payment for those who are totally and permanently incapacitated due to wartime, or peacekeeping services. “It took me just about four and a half years to get through,” he said. “And the DVA threw every dirty trick they could at me, and I thought right … you can’t do that to other people.”
And hence Ken’s inspiration to become only one of five advocates to meet the needs of all vets in the west region - tellingly more volunteers are needed.
“Realistically to cover western NSW, ideally we would like 50 advocates, but it’s hard to get the guys to volunteer,” he said. “We have veterans that put claims in from Tamworth, Moree and Orange.”
Ken said there were about 25,000 vets Australia wide waiting for compensation, 18 of those being from the Mudgee and surrounding areas. Last year they put 48 claims through, and the year before 52. He admitted the DVA is overburdened. “The delegates are just so overworked, then they have to put up with people like me, who argue with them,” he said.
If you would like to support the VVPPA, donations and volunteers are more than welcome.
Call Lifeline 13 11 14.
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