High death rate among Korean war veterans

The study covered most of the 17-and-a-half-thousand Australian men who returned home after serving in the War, between 1950 and 1953.

It found at least 17,700 were dead, representing a mortality rate 21 per cent higher than expected in the general male population.

Gerry Harrison, president of a Korean War veterans’ group in South Australia, says he agrees with the study’s suggestion that part of the reason is exposure to excessive quantities of pesticides, solvents and other chemicals.

“We were faced with a lot of chemical sprays in Korea, which was never considered by the Australian government. When we took over positions from previous units, we found that a lot of the living areas were contaminated by lice, fleas, you name it, it was there.

“We had to use a lot of chemicals to kill them off. Sometimes, we even used to have to resort to using flame throwers.”

Mr Harrison says another reason for the veterans’ high mortality rates was combat stress — a factor only recognised after Australian troops returned from the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s.

“In the 1950s, that was called war neurosis, shell shock, battle fatigue. You know, it had a lot of different names. It didn’t have “post-traumatic stress” as a name. It was only since the studies done by the Vietnam veterans that it’s been recognised as a prime concern for a lot of guys, being mentally stressed.”

The federal Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Dana Vale, says the study found increased mortality among the Korean veterans from cancer — and circulatory, respiratory and digestive diseases.

Ms Vale says the high mortality rate is despite the veterans’ access to comprehensive medical treatment.

The mortality rate study follows one which found a higher-than-average cancer rate among Australian Korean War veterans.

Ms Vale says the government will respond appropriately on completion of one more study — covering the general health of surviving veterans.

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