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Agent for system change recalls Vietnam Vets' class action

HISTORIC: Bill McMillan from DJP Lawyers, Gladstone, was one of more than 10 lawyers involved in the Agent Orange class action in 1980, representing thousands of Australian and New Zealand veterans who had been affected by the chemical that ruined many thousands of lives.
HISTORIC: Bill McMillan from DJP Lawyers, Gladstone, was one of more than 10 lawyers involved in the Agent Orange class action in 1980, representing thousands of Australian and New Zealand veterans who had been affected by the chemical that ruined many thousands of lives. Brenda Strong

FROM representing 43,000 clients in a Vietnam Vets' class action in the US, to appearing in 17 matters in Gladstone Magistrates Court last week, local lawyer Bill McMillan has always enjoyed being a voice for the people.

Mr McMillan, Special Counsel at DJP lawyers, was one of more than 10 lawyers involved in the Agent Orange class action in 1980, representing thousands of Australian and New Zealand veterans who had been affected by the chemical that ruined many thousands of lives.

Mr McMillan recalled about 15 visits during four years to a Long Island courthouse, where the original claim was filed, as he fought for instalment-type payouts for veterans disfigured and destroyed by the botched chemical drops.

"I got involved with Vietnam Veterans in 1980, I was asked to represent them in a class action in the US and then I was asked to represent the New Zealand veterans," he said.

"I had 43,000 clients at one stage in the class action and it ran out of steam but we got a settlement in about 1986, but by that time what was apparent was that the major difficulty was PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)."

Mr McMillan did not give up after helping secure the settlement for those involved in the Agent Orange case; a national serviceman prior to the Vietnam War, Mr McMillan remained passionate about Veterans' Affairs, fighting for decades to have PTSD in returned soldiers recognised by the authorities.

Shell Shocked Soldiers are today diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a condition still struggling to gather government understanding, says Bill McMillan.
Shell Shocked Soldiers are today diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a condition still struggling to gather government understanding, says Bill McMillan.

"The government took a lot of convincing, I was often on the phone to the repatriation commissioner and he eventually saw that there was such a beast and that what was emerging was something," Mr McMillan said.

"They had the history, after the First World War they called it shellshock and after the Second World War they called it war nerves."

Going through the main effects of PTSD, Bill recalled a case in which he had represented a returned serviceman with a severe case of PTSD.

"One of my cases was a young soldier, he'd been de-mobbed and instead of moving away from the Enoggera area he moved to Ferny Grove," Mr McMillan said.

"The Ferny Grove area was just a matter of a heartbeat from Enoggera army barracks and every time the army helicopters would fly overhead he'd just fold up into a foetal position because it reminded him of Vietnam."

Not just a problem of the past, Mr McMillan believes that the situation with current returning soldiers had the potential to result in even worse cases of PTSD, unless more could be done.

"In the various war zones you had The Gulf War and the fellows there had the same problems and again governments just don't respond quickly enough," he said.

"Then of course you've got Timor, then you've got Iraq and now Afghanistan and the boys from Afghanistan it seems are even worse, probably because you've got young children and families and they're going in and finding bodies of civilians."

South Vietnamese officers sit dejectedly on a curb outside the Presidential Palace shortly after North Vietnamese troops captured the Palace in Saigon on April 30, 1975.
South Vietnamese officers sit dejectedly on a curb outside the Presidential Palace shortly after North Vietnamese troops captured the Palace in Saigon on April 30, 1975.

McMillan said his passion for the work with veterans was spurred on by the way the Australian public greeted those who had simply followed orders in Vietnam.

"I just feel that Veterans were treated as second-class citizens for probably 15-20 years, they were asked to just change, 'you're finished, you're out of the services now, goodbye', and they just felt that they were rejected," he said.

"They (Vietnam Vets) set up a camp in Cape York to just get away from living, they couldn't stand seeing people who are other than themselves," McMillan said.

He said much like post-war side effects; PTSD affected many of his clients through the years, but said there were still a lot of misconceptions surrounding mental illness and those who suffered.

"There's still of course a very high cynicism about people with a mental disease," Bill said.

"The general public will often think they are faking it number one, number two, the people themselves are embarrassed to admit they have a problem and you can't see it (mental illness), you can only see the effects of it."

I think a young offender is like a young twig, it can be bent back to the main trunk.

He has some strong views about practising law, including the one underlying message that has remained with him his entire career.

"Everybody's entitled to the basic premise in our criminal justice system, which I find encourages me to keep involved... Everybody is entitled to a fair trial, no matter who they are," he said.

With a genuine interest in the future of the Australian system, Mr McMillan believes youth offending, and the way young offenders are dealt with, could also be refined in order to provide the best chance of rehabilitation.

"They're (youth offenders) a different proposition altogether," he said.

"I think a young offender is like a young twig, it can be bent back to the main trunk.

"They're (State Government) talking about boot camps, they're using bootcamp... but if they can be diverted away from the friends and associates that they've been dealing with and shown that there is a better life available if you're consistent with the norms of civilised communities, it's got to be better than them going to jail and learning the tricks of the trade."

For a man who has worked for the both the prosecution and defence, law is in his blood, his daughter is now a QC in Brisbane and the humble lawyer hopes he can help a few more locals before he hangs up his robes.

"Now I'm just providing a voice now to those who haven't got one," he said.

Topics:  gladstone magistrates court lawyer vietnam veterans



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