Mr PEDERICK (Hammond) (16:25): I rise today to talk in my supply grieve about my constituent Mr John Ali of Murray Bridge. As a 22 year old, Mr Ali worked as a diesel mechanic for International Harvester. In 1971, his employer asked him to travel to Canberra to meet with government officials. He was honoured and very naive. He in fact met with Malcolm Fraser, Minister for Defence, and was asked to serve his country on a top-secret mission. His mission was to deliver 600 military trucks and 150 four-wheeled trailers through Vietnam to Cambodia. His mission was so secret he was told he could only tell his parents and his spouse and no-one else, not even work colleagues. Mr Ali signed defence secrecy documents.
Although the original posting was for six months, this was extended twice and Mr Ali spent 18 months in Vietnam and Cambodia, noting that an Army tour was 12 months. Mr Ali was given no training or title or rank, but on arrival in Vietnam he was told by the hosting unit that he was to be included in the manning for rationing and accommodation with 102 Field Workshop. He received no military training prior to deployment. His only military training had been with school cadets years before at school in Adelaide.
In Vietnam, Mr Ali had no independent facilities or tools and used Australian Army resources to repair and maintain the trucks. Mr Ali worked with another mechanic, Bob Oultram, who has since passed away and will never see proper recognition. During his time spent with the Australian Army, he was expected to stand to with the unit morning and night. He was issued with a uniform and was expected to conform to unit standing orders.
Mr Ali undertook the journey from the port in Vietnam to Cambodia four times. Mr Ali also stayed in Cambodia at times waiting for instructions. During the time that he assisted with the delivery to Cambodia of these vehicles, he was expected to leave the relative security of the 102 Field Workshop without a weapon of any kind. Once all the vehicles and trailers were delivered, the Cambodian army undertook the responsibility to arm and train Mr Ali with their weapons. He could then go out into the field to recover broken down vehicles suitably armed and trained.
Over the period of 18 months, Mr Ali and Mr Oultram were placed into combat situations. Their weapons were AK-47 rifles, ironically also the weapon of the enemy. These Australians became very competent with them, practising every week with the Cambodians on their firing range. These men were put in an untenable situation, yet they managed, with the help of the Americans, including the CIA, the Cambodians and the Australian Army, to complete their mission. For almost 18 months, John and Bob proceeded to transfer and repair the vehicles, including training the Cambodian army drivers and mechanics.
The team's compound in Cambodia came under attack on two separate occasions by a mortar attack and a ground assault, and they narrowly missed injury by a rocket-propelled grenade. On three separate occasions during his time in Cambodia, Mr Ali came under enemy fire and saw Cambodian soldiers receive severe wounds. It is no surprise that Mr Ali now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. On another occasion, while in Phnom Penh John missed being captured by Vietcong agents by mere minutes. The situation in Cambodia became increasingly dangerous. Both the American and Australian embassies were closed and abandoned.
During his time in Vietnam and Cambodia, Mr Ali witnessed many terrible things, including villages destroyed by rockets and civilian deaths. He dodged mortar attacks and witnessed grenades thrown into a bar after an argument. He was actually further into the bar when the grenades went off. He also contracted dengue fever. On arriving back in Australia, Mr Ali resumed his job with International Harvester. In 1993, Mr Ali was awarded the Vietnam Logistic and Support Medal, and in 1998, the Australian Active Service Medal 1945-75 with clasp Vietnam by the Australian Army.
It has been claimed by the federal government that there was no record of Mr Ali having served and no record of Mr Ali having a service number. In fact, a recent freedom of information request has uncovered his full service record. His service number is 9991121. Back in Australia, Mr Ali developed poor health and PTSD from his time in a war zone. This has been exacerbated by successive governments denying his claim for recognition and a gold card. He has suffered four strokes and is extremely ill with post-traumatic stress disorder. Mr Ali continues to visit a specialist and has had numerous breakdowns.
It has been over 30 years since we finally welcomed home our Vietnam veterans with marches but Mr Ali has still to receive the recognition he deserves for his unquestioned service to his country. Many representations have been made on behalf of Mr Ali over the years by veterans groups and other advocates. I would like to acknowledge advocates Bill Denny AM, BM, Adrian Walford and Ray Duthie for their dogged determination on this issue. Other advocates for Mr Ali have since passed away, including Ron Coxon and Michael Schar.
Ministers over the years have provided excuses such as Mr Ali was not employed by Defence and was a civilian contractor. Prior to 2019, civilian personnel in Vietnam were not recognised or granted gold cards, but in 2019, about 240 doctors and 210 nurses who were in Vietnam during the war, as well as a small number of technical and administrative staff who worked in Vietnam under contract with the then Department of External Affairs as part of Australia's contribution to a Southeast Asia Treaty Organization aid program in South Vietnam between 1964 and 1972, were granted gold cards. I believe the facts demonstrate Mr Ali is a Vietnam veteran and should be treated accordingly with full benefits and recognition.
I would like to acknowledge the member for Barker, Tony Pasin MP, who has advocated for Mr Ali over many years by writing to numerous federal ministers on this issue. I have advocated for Mr Ali to be fully recognised for his service in Vietnam since 2020. I have met with Mr Ali or his advocates on many occasions. I wrote to the state Minister for Veterans Affairs in 2020 on John's behalf and have also written letters of support. My office has also liaised with Veterans SA on this issue.
I acknowledge the latest push for Mr Ali to be recognised, assisted by the Minister for Veterans Affairs, the Hon. Geoff Brock MP, to which I have added my support. The minister has recently written to the federal minister and I hope this most recent approach will bear fruit. Mr Ali was prepared to serve his country without question and without hesitation when he was asked to. Mr Ali has sacrificed much in the service of our country. We should do all we can to honour this. I sincerely wish this shameful chapter to be resolved quickly, thus allowing Mr Ali to live in peace for the rest of his life with his family.