Veterans Minister Chris Penk calls for NZ to recognise veterans' service 365 days a year

Veterans Minister Chris Penk says New Zealand can - and should - do better at recognising the service and sacrifice of veterans.

And he says that when rules stop the heroism of New Zealand soldiers from being acknowledged with bravery awards, the Government should look at changing them.

"That's not necessarily good enough for [us] as a Government and as a society, to say, 'well, the rules say this'. We get the ability to change the rules."

Penk told The Hui host Julian Wilcox that veterans should be recognised not just on Anzac Day but also the other 364 days of the year.

"I think we can and should do better."

His comments come as a more than 50-year push to have the heroism of Ngati Porou soldier Private William (Bill) Papuni recognised has hit another roadblock.

Papuni was just 23 and unarmed when he pulled two Australian soldiers out of a burning tank while under heavy enemy fire in June 1971 during the Vietnam War.

His Victor 6 platoon colleague Lance Corporal John Adams, who helped ferry the two men to waiting medics, was awarded the Military Medal. But the courage of Papuni and medics Mike Williams and John Galley during Operation Hermit Park has never been officially recognised by New Zealand.

A 53-year campaign by their commander Norman Fry for military medals to recognise their outstanding acts of gallantry has been unsuccessful.

Papuni died, unacknowledged by his government, aged just 33.

This month Defence Minister Judith Collins was the latest in a string of ministers to reject Fry's request to honour Papuni.

"We need to respect the judgement of past decision-makers as we will rarely be in a better position to substitute our judgement for theirs," she wrote.

However across the Tasman earlier this month, thousands of school pupils gathered to re-create the story of Papuni's courage as emblematic of the Anzac spirit.

Four rangatahi Māori from Tāmaki Makaurau were invited to join the Newcastle and Hunter schools combined Anzac production earlier this month: Maui Hitchens (Ngāti Porou, Tuhoe); Tia Ormsby (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Maniapoto); Poppy Aislabie (Te Aitanga a Mahaki); and Jakoby Herrick (Ngati Whatua ki Kaipara, Nga Puhi) along with the artistic director of StageAntics Emma Bishop.

Hitchens and Ormsby describe the opportunity to bring the story of Operation Hermit Park to the stage as an honour.

"We've spent months researching and talking to veterans [about] their experience during the war," Ormsby said.

Hitchens added: "It's important for rangatahi to learn about this stuff, because we don't learn about the war at school." 

He played Fry in the production, a role made more unnerving because Fry was in the audience watching along with Mike Williams.

Fry is pleased that the heroic actions of his men were being celebrated by a younger generation.

"Any way the story is kept alive and is passed down the generations so that people understand what Bill did and Mike did is really important. We really appreciate your performances," Fry told the rangatahi.

The young actors are determined to carry on the fight to have the veterans recognised, Ormsby said.

"Just to be acknowledged in Aotearoa for that bravery, I think it's super important. Ko mātou te rangatira mō āpōpō and we need to keep these stories alive and well looked after for the generations to come."

After watching their performance on The Hui, Penk told Wilcox: "I don't think anyone could fail to be moved by what they've seen. Extraordinary story clearly."

Penk also paid tribute to the role and history of the Māori Battalion.

"The place of Māori in the Defence Force over the years has been massive; hugely significant especially in today's terms."

He acknowledged that Māori veterans have disproportionately poorer outcomes and said he was open to the idea of a kawenata or covenant between Defence and the Crown.

"There is a relationship between defence on behalf of the Crown and those who sign up to serve, but actually, it's deeply relevant to the veterans' question," he said.  

"Because... a young person who might think about joining [the] Navy, Army, Air Force today, if they're going to say, 'well, in 10, 20, 30 years from now, what does my life look like? How will I be supported then?'

"Then actually, that's a good argument, even in terms of the current Defence Force, to treat [veterans] well."

Made with support from Te Mangai Pāho and New Zealand On Air.