Dick Schafer, Vietnam veteran, is one of about 400 people to converge at Kalpower Station to commemorate the Battle of Long Tan
Dick Schafer, Vietnam veteran, is one of about 400 people to converge at Kalpower Station to commemorate the Battle of Long Tan

Veterans face new battle to claim a place of refuge



BRISBANE (AAP). ? By their own admission, you wouldn't compare it to the Garden of Eden and you'd be hard pressed to figure out the attraction.

But they call it their Mecca ? a sacred site where pecking orders, committees, chairmen and elections don't exist, and a place where the only rules involve cleaning up after yourself.

For veterans of Australia's wars, this adopted refuge they call Pandanus Park has become a place to rest, relax and meet up with old mates.

The State-owned property on Kalpowar Station on Cape York Peninsula, named after a tree found in north Queensland, has also become a land claim of sorts for veterans who believe they're entitled to a piece of the soil they helped fight for.

But veterans believe its real value lies in the therapeutic role the patch of old cattle property provides for those still battling wartime demons.

"We're fighting for veterans of the future as well as veterans of the past and present," says John Denman, 60, of Lismore.

"It's a thing that could eventually, if handled right, save the Government a lot of money in terms of pensions and potions."

Veterans from across Australia began squatting at the unused block of land in 2001 out of frustration that the State and Federal governments did not provide grants for veterans' retreats.

Each year hundreds of veterans ? including those who served in WWII, Afghanistan, Timor, Iraq and Kosovo ? come to the unused block of land to camp and carry out simple pursuits such as fishing, four-wheel-driving, photography and painting.

Many more are expected to swamp the far north Queensland property today on the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War on April 30, and August 18, the anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan.

According to Mr Denman, who fought in the Indonesian confrontation in Malaya in 1965, veterans will remember where they've been and where they're going.

"It's extremely therapeutic and the vast majority of veterans that have been to Pandanus are full of praise in the way that they've come home from a trip up there," says Mr Denman, who fought with 110th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery. "I don't pretend it's the Garden of Eden. It's not paradise on earth with fruits falling off the tree at every turn but it's a place where it's big enough, so we don't have to crowd in on one another."

As they begin the pilgrimage back to Pandanus today, veterans wait impatiently for legal custodianship as debate over the site's native title status drags on.

"As Australians, we don't look after our veterans enough," Mr Denman says.

"A lot of us have come back with busted backs and shattered nerves and to get anything out of the Government is like trying to get blood out of a stone."



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