One of Wagga’s former soldiers says he and more than 9000 other infantrymen were lied to.
When Bob Bak was sent to Malaysia with the Australian Army Rifle Company in 1971 and again in 1976, he was told the purpose of the operation was for training.
But, formerly secret military documents have since indicated this was a deliberate deception, stripping veterans of deserved “war-like service” recognition, associated entitlements and benefits.
Mr Bak said soldiers and airmen stationed at RAAF Butterworth Air Base between 1970 and 1989 were sent for “strategic protection”, with troops ordered to keep the base and its assets secure.
The operation came at a time when the success of communist terrorism in Vietnam was a global concern. The Australian government, in response, said it would commit troops to Malaysia, as part of the Far East Strategic Reserve Land Forces.
Despite being publicly labelled a “peacetime” deployment, Mr Bak said a number of military documents found the government had been “well aware of the seriousness of the threat”.
According to the Rifle Company Butterworth Review Group, this means personnel deployed to the base during this time were serving in war-like conditions.
“Documents clearly outline a cover-up of these tasks as training,” Mr Bak said. “(But) we were at a constant state of readiness. We were given operational rules of engagement to apply when necessary … that put us in danger.”
For this reason, Mr Bak said the group was demanding recognition of war-like service and pushing for the launch of a public inquiry into the alleged cover-up.
Without the appropriate recognition of service, he said every defence member involved in that operation had been denied significant associated benefits and entitlements, like the Service Pension.
The Daily Advertiser understands the criteria for war-like service requires there to be an “existing enemy threat; an incurred danger, resulting from being present during declared rules of engagement and the carriage of live ammunition; and an expectation of casualties”.
“We were told to carry live ammunition during during security patrols,” Mr Bak said.
“It was also carried by nominated members during training outside the base to protect from wild animals and belligerents … We had orders to shoot.”
He said a recorded “direct army order” called on all senior personnel to refer to all matters as “training-related”, despite orders later revealing the deployment of the Rifle Company Butterworth was for the “security and protection of Australian Defence Force assets and service families living on and near the base”.
Mr Bak said he and other service veterans were tired of being ignored by the government and were calling for further submissions to add to the group’s petition.
The Department of Defence was contacted for comment but failed to respond before deadline.