> Calls for change to army discharge certificates issued under Whitlam government

Calls for change to army discharge certificates issued under Whitlam government

On a small piece of paper, six typed words have caused half-a-century of anguish for Hervey Bay man Alan Williams.

In February 1973, Then-Private Williams was issued an Interim Discharge Certificate by the Australian Military Forces, citing “upon the grounds of exceptional hardship” — words that have haunted the former conscript ever since.

Mr Williams was among 2,200 young men issued the discharge certificate simply due to a change in federal government.

At the time, he was not even old enough to vote.

He had served in Australia for 13 months.

Hands hold a black and white photo of a young soldier cleaning boots.
Alan Williams was discharged just a few months before completing his service when the Australian government changed.(ABC Wide Bay: Brad Marsellos)

“Having been discharged on a hardship clause, you are in a very grey area now as far as Veterans’ Affairs go,” Mr Williams said.

“We are the only group of National Servicemen that don’t qualify for the Australian Service Medal.

“There was a lot of debate when they first issued the anniversary of the National Service Medal that we should even qualify for that because we were discharged on a hardship clause.”

A 1972 polaroid photo of a man wearing Australian army uniform.
As a young man, Alan Williams was proud to be able to serve Australia.(Supplied: Alan Williams)

On the 50th anniversary of the Whitlam government’s election, Mr Williams, now 70, feels it’s time to “right the wrong” done to him and his fellow conscripts.

“It takes the government to have enough balls to fix it,” he said.

“But because it’s a group of around 2,000 men in their 70s, sweep it under the carpet, forget about it.”

Five decades later, however, his chances remain slim.

Government change brings ‘sloppy’ discharge

With the Vietnam war dragging on and causing growing public and political unrest, the Labor Party promised during the 1972 election campaign to end selective conscription under the National Service Act.

Three days after Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister, he stood by his promise and the legislation to end conscription was passed.

This led to men like Mr Williams who had been called up being immediately discharged without completing their 18 months’ military service.

Holds hold a "Interim Discharge Certificate" from the Australian Defence Force.
The wording of the discharge certificate issued to Alan Williams.(ABC Wide Bay: Brad Marsellos)

“A lot of them burnt their discharge cards in disgust,” Mr Williams said.

“It was the will of the Australian people who elected Gough Whitlam and his main thing was to end national service.

“The will of the Australian people should have been observed and given us an honourable discharge, not been sloppy about it.”

Former MP calls to fix ‘anomaly’

Brian Courtice was the federal Labor member for Hinkler from 1987 to 1993 and is now a political commentator and historian.

Mr Courtice clearly remembers the year when 23 years of Liberal rule ended.

He said the discharge certificate was an “anomaly” that should be corrected.

Brian Courtice looks at the camera, leaning on a fence post
Former Labor MP Brian Courtice believes the discharge could be amended.(ABC Wide Bay: Scott Lamond)

“They should get full recognition,” Mr Courtice said.

“After 50 years, things should be put right and they should be given their medals from Veteran Affairs.

“In retrospect, I don’t think the minister for the day understood that we should have provided medals and recognition of these soldiers … made it clear on their papers the reason they ceased service was that the government made a decision to end conscription and end the Vietnam War.”

Mr Williams said he had suffered the consequences over the decades, including being rejected from job applications.

“About 1980, I applied for government jobs,” he said.

“I was told I … couldn’t be offered the position because they felt I was hiding something about the national service discharge.

“Because it’s on the grounds of exceptional hardship, ‘What aren’t you telling us?'”

A older photo from 2002 of a medal being pinned on a man.
Alan Williams recieved the Anniversary of National Service Medal in 2002 but fails to qualify for the Australian Service Medal.(Supplied: Alan Williams)

The ABC contacted the Veterans’ Affairs Minister, but was directed to the Department of Defence.

In a statement, the department said, “It would be inappropriate for Defence to comment on an individual’s applications for honours and awards”.

“The Australian government recognises all those who have served our nation in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations, including all National Servicemen. We thank them for their service,” they said.

“The type of discharge, or medals received, does not impact a veteran’s access to DVA services or support.”

A young man’s desire to serve

Thinking back 50 years, Mr Williams remembers being excited watching the national service lottery, waiting for his date of birth to be picked out.

As a young man, he believed his call-up was a ticket to adventure like the popular war films of the time and a chance to serve his country with his mates.

Now, he appreciates the toll the Vietnam conflict had on many of his friends, but it’s difficult for him to feel pride in the 13 months he served for Australia.

Mr Williams said he had made multiple attempts to have his official discharge changed, only to hit roadblocks.

“Just simply amend our discharge certificate and give us a new discharge certificate that we fulfilled,” he said.

Mr Courtice believes it could be easily fixed.

“It’s just telling a few public servants to do it,” he said.

“It’s not that hard.”

A man hold a "Interim Discharge Certificate" from the Australian Defense Department.
Alan Williams with the discharge certificate issued to him when the National Service Scheme ended.(ABC Wide Bay: Brad Marsellos)

The Department of Defence said support was available to all veterans, including National Servicemen, offering access to mental health care services.

“Defence seeks to transition members from service in a respectful and positive way that recognises and values the service they have provided to the Nation,” it said.

“Recognising the service of members of the Australian Defence Force is a long-standing tradition.

“Defence’s honours and awards system seeks to recognise the nature and/or duration of a member’s service.”

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