Repatriation of NZDF personnel begins with first remains exhumed in Fiji

A mission to repatriate the bodies of New Zealand defence personnel who died overseas after 1955 has begun in Fiji. 

Previous policy meant families needed to use their own money to bring their loved ones home.

Monday marks a historic and long-awaited reversal of the old rules.

"Families have looked forward to bringing their loved ones home for 60 years now, and it's now time to bring them home and return them to New Zealand," Te Auraki Project Manager Group Captain Carl Nixon says.

The commemoration was for flight lieutenant George Beban and leading aircraftman Ralph Scott, who was a fireman. They're the first of 37 servicemen to be exhumed. 

Graves of those who died in World War I and II are formally protected - but not so for those who served after that period.

Defence staff will visit six countries and nine cemeteries to do the disinterments, which is costing at least $7 million.

Ralph Scott's son, Ralph Mataki, says having his Dad buried alongside his Mum at the family plot in Feilding is important for him, as his father died before he was born.

"All I've ever known is Mum from day one - but now we can put Dad there and they're both together, and that just seems like the right thing to do," he said.

"I'm sure that on the day of his arrival back here it will be very emotional for me."

Archaeologists, anthropologists and dentists make up the team doing the work. 

"We'll lift them out of the ground and then we'll spend some time doing some analysis of those remains to satisfy that we have the correct people to return home," Lieutenant Colonel Charmaine Tate says.

Lance Corporal Bob Davies joined the Army as a 16-year-old cadet in 1964. 

As Second in Command of Infantry Rifle Section in Vietnam, he saw many mates perish who were buried overseas. 

"It means a lot to us all, but most of all of course to the families of the ones that were killed. It's been a long wait," Mr Davies says.

"And we believe the policies under which they were allowed to come home when they eventually were discriminatory."

The turnaround in policy comes decades after the rules stipulated those who died should be buried close to where it happened. 

Then another change meant only those who had the money could get the remains of their loved ones home. 

"Financially, I think families back then didn't have the money - and that's where the Government didn't step up," Mr Mataki says.