Former Moscow guard pleased with veteran recognition

by Tracy Neal / 16 April, 2018

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The New Zealand embassy in Moscow in 1980. Photo / AFP

A former guard at the New Zealand embassy in Moscow says being awarded Veteran status is an honour, after the years they were made to feel they were never there.

It was announced last week that Defence Force staff sent to the embassy at the height of Cold War tensions have been officially recognised for their service.

About 150 Defence personnel were sent between 1978 and 1992 as guards, and to help with construction work, during the apex of the spying war between Russia's state security agency, the KGB, and the United States' CIA and other Western intelligence services.

New Zealand's former deputy ambassador to the Soviet Union, and later ambassador to Russia, Gerald McGhie, said it was a delicate time, and New Zealand Defence staff were in the thick of it.

One former guard, whom RNZ cannot name for ongoing security reasons, said it was a tougher tour than people might realise.

He said the isolation, constant surveillance, threat of nuclear war and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster created ongoing psychological stress.

"I'm thankful they've finally done it, because it's taken a lot of fighting by some determined people, but a lot of information from that time has been lost or destroyed.

"In some ways, it was like we never went there so for it to finally get recognition that we were there is absolutely brilliant. The Cold War was on, we were behind the Iron Curtain.

"Technically we weren't military while we were up there ... we were classified as technicians."

The former guard's first deployment between 1988 and 1989 was as an embassy security guard. In 1992 he was deployed as a guard commander, providing the link between the ambassador and the military staff attached to the embassy.

He said life in Moscow revolved around basic food bought from the diplomatic shops - bottle stores and tobacco shops with food attached, such as meat, dried goods and frozen vegetables.

Phone calls home were $20 a minute, and heavily monitored.

"In the 1992 tour, Defence had by then granted us a three-minute call once a month back home. All calls were monitored by Soviet authorities so it was hard to talk freely."

All mail sent through diplomatic bags was also monitored.

"It was quite oppressive. As soon as you walked out the gates a phone was picked up by militia guards and depending if we walked left or right, that information was then passed to each guard."

Veterans Affairs' Minister Ron Mark has approved the recommendation that the staff deployment there was operational.

He said in his recommendation that he was satisfied that those covered by the declaration were at significant risk of harm.

The former guard said he was not aware of anyone injured while on deployment in Moscow, but there were ongoing psychological stresses.

"The New Zealand Embassy was only 1.5km from the Kremlin and during the 1980s there was big threat of nuclear war.

"We were within the first target zone, Chernobyl [nuclear power plant] blew when we had staff there and our food came from the area potentially irradiated by Chernobyl.

"Tiananmen Square had erupted and there were news blackouts so there was a lot of psychological stress."

The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 were a student-led democracy movement in Communist China's Beijing, which led to the massacre by troops of hundreds of demonstrators.

The former guard said his new veteran status affords him a few benefits, but they are limited.

"I now get a brass plaque for my headstone. When I turn 65 my super card will have a 'v' on it, but I won't get any more pension.

"If I go into hospital I won't risk losing that pension if there longer than six weeks, and if medical problems develop that are linked to my time overseas, I get better medical cover."

Former diplomat Gerald McGhie said he was pleased the New Zealand staff have been recognised.

"They did a good job in my time."

This article was originally published by RNZ.

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