Don’t Mention The War

Another ANZAC Day has come and gone. As with previous years I donned a suit with my medals affixed and attended a Dawn Service. This year, however, something seemed different. From the moment I stepped foot onto the rain-sodden grass of Warrawee Park and walked towards the Oakleigh Cenotaph I felt like an interloper at an event that I should have felt at ease attending. As far as I could tell under the glare of the nearby street lights, I was the only Modern-Day Veteran in attendance.

As I do when I attend any Military commemoration service by myself, I circled the crowd looking at faces and chests to see if I could recognise a former colleague or identify someone who has deployed on the same campaigns as I have. For the first time, I spotted neither; in fact, the only medals that were being worn were those of the attending Victorian Police Officers for their service to VICPOL, descendants wearing World War One and World War Two medals, and the Vietnam era medals worn by the local RSL Sub-branch representatives. At this Dawn Service I was alone; and I felt alone

The Service was like most others, the requisite boxes were ticked and despite some technical glitches due to the wet weather, the Service was completed as intended. However, two things occurred that would ensure I will not be attending another Dawn Service at the Oakleigh Cenotaph. A man, more than old enough to know better, spent the entire Last Post, Minute’s Silence and the Reveille with his concentration focused firmly on the iPhone glowing brightly in his hands; something I very much doubt he will do ever again after some quiet words from me. The second incident highlighted a growing trend I have noticed over the past several months. I was approached by the representative of the local council to pose for a photo with the attending local member for Monash Council. There was no request for my name, service details or any other personable interaction, I was requested to act as a prop in a photo opportunity to make a politician seem like he cared about ANZAC Day

Due to my previous volunteer work for Soldier On, I am no stranger to standing in front of a camera and playing the part of the modern-day Veteran for a cause or fundraising event. In the few short years since my participation with Australia’s highest profile ESO and subsequent withdrawal from Veteran Support Organisations and media engagements, I have seen an increase in the number of modern-day Veterans step in front of the camera and share their experiences with the community. A Veteran’s experiences on deployment are very personal and something that isn’t easily shared with others; especially strangers. When speaking to the media I would have a pre-prepared script in my head that I would follow. Even the details that I would share that seemed extremely personal were details that I had censored or had omitted entire events from to protect friends, family and myself.

In an age where so many rely on social media and smart devices for their news and real time information it should be no surprise that many Politicians, businesses and ESO’s have embraced a more arguably aggressive media campaign leading up to and on ANZAC Day. From my vantage point at the back of the crowd during the Oakleigh Dawn Service it was easy to spot the dozen or so camera flashes each time a local Politician or business owner laid a wreath at the base of the Cenotaph. A brief check of two of the attending member’s social media accounts the day after the Service indicated that the photos taken during were posted online less than an hour after the actual wreath laying. Such instances are not rare, in fact, during the Dawn Service itself I could see multiple groups of younger persons taking selfies with either the congregation or Cenotaph in the background. The same was clearly evident during the day when television news programs reported on the various Capital City Dawn Services; it was a sea of smart phones glowing brightly, replacing what used to be candles providing a sombre atmosphere.

A concerning emergence this ANZAC Day was the promotion of the ‘Struggling Modern-Day Veteran’ identity by various media outlets and some ESO’s. It’s a very fine line to tread at the best of times, but on the one day of the year when patriotism, jingoism and emotions can become blurred, some media reporting and ESO social media posts/promotions were seen by some people as being in bad taste.

On one side of the coin is an article published by the ABC and written by Jane Cowan regarding Australian Veteran Chris May’s experiences during and after his deployments to Afghanistan. As co-founder of ESO Young Veterans, Chris is at the forefront of Veteran advocacy and often speaks of his personal experiences as way to engage, educate and de-stigmatise the issues many Veterans face regarding mental health and suicide. As someone who has done this previously and quite openly, I applaud his stance and candour on these issues and without a doubt the decision by both Chris and the ABC to publish this article on ANZAC Day was one that was not made without careful consideration. In this instance it was an article that was published with an aim to inform and educate; and not push an agenda or promotional angle.

On the other side of the coin was a text message I and many thousands of others received in the afternoon on ANZAC Day from ESO Soldier On.

Without being too critical of an organisation I once supported and represented, the timing and wording of the text message leaves a lot to be desired. I openly question the aggressive tone of the message, especially considering the audience receiving it would be primarily made up of Veterans and Veteran’s families. Have we not served and sacrificed for our country? Do I really need to honour the memory of my dead friends, men killed in action on foreign soil, by sending $25 to Soldier On now?

The Veteran ESO network is particularly vast in Australia with some organisations focusing on providing support and support programs tailored to a specific activity or operating within a small geographical area. Other, larger ESO’s, aim to engage with and provide support to a larger community of Veterans across many states and sometimes nationally by providing a multitude of support programs, activities and fundraising opportunities. It is via these fundraising opportunities that many ESO’s engage with the broader community and raise the necessary funds to continue to provide support services to Veterans and their families.

It is often through this engagement via a fundraising platform that the wider community, without any direct connections to a wounded or service-affected Veteran, learns of the issues facing those of us that reach out to an ESO for assistance. Our experiences enter the public domain, with the aim of helping others; we share details that are often very personal and sometimes tragic. As I have written about before, some ESO’s are competing over finite sources of funding while simultaneously exploiting the experiences of Veterans and maintaining their focus on a what is a predominately negative narrative.

Of course there will always be articles and social media posts written about the negative experiences of Veterans. Whilst we await the provision of adequate Government provided support services and wade through the quagmire that is interacting with the Australian Defence Force and the Department of Veterans Affairs; Veterans will continue to express their frustration and anger to a wider audience. We will continue to reach out to ESO’s for support and they will continue to reach out to the Australian public to open their ears, hearts and wallets to fill the gaping hole left by failure of the Government and DVA to provide timely, tailored and adequate support for Australia’s Veterans. But must they do this by continually presenting the Modern-Day Veteran as a victim?

Those of us that live with physical and mental injuries deserve the best chance at a positive recovery. Each day is treated as a new step on a long journey to better our lives and the lives of those people we call friends and family. Our relatively new identity as an Australian Veteran is not and should not be treated as a burden. We are told to focus on the positives in our lives as we continue with our recovery. Should not those organisations purporting to assist us do the same?

What Does ANZAC Day Mean To You?

It is the question that gets asked every year; What does ANZAC Day mean to you?  The quick, neat and politically correct answer is: “honouring the brave men and women who have served our nation in war and remembering those that died doing so”.  But is that what the day really means to people?

As a child, I remember waking early and attending the Dawn Service with my Father at his various Units.  I knew my Father was in the Army and I knew he had been a Soldier since long before I was born.  The many medals he wore on his uniform reflected a lifetime spent serving his Nation; the same uniform and medals he would meticulously set up and layout the night before each Dawn Service.

Growing up, my Father rarely spoke of his time in Vietnam; there was never any depth or emotion to what he would tell my sister and I.  Each year as ANZAC Day approached, my Father, a very quiet yet authoriative man, would become withdrawn and focused.  To me this wasn’t unusual, this was just something my Father did prior to ANZAC Day; the one day of the year he would go drinking with his friends.
I look back to those years and I wonder if my Father and his brothers experienced the same with their Father; a Veteran of World War Two.

I have spent previous ANZAC Days attending the Dawn Service, have taken part in and commanded Catafalque Parties, have marched through a number of Capital and rural cities and have stood on foreign soil and listened to a bugler play The Last Post.  This year I will once again take a set of medals from a box deep within my wardrobe, pin them onto a suit jacket and attend a Dawn Service close to my home.  This will be the sixth ANZAC Day out of uniform since leaving the Australian Army.  Not long into the day I will take off my jacket, un-pin my medals and place them in their box and back into the wardrobe to await the long year until they next see the light of day.

But why do I and so many others wake up early, put on clothes that often make this one day of the year our best dressed, and attend the various commemoration activities?  If you listen to the media, various football codes and the RSL, it’s about remembering the men that landed at ANZAC Cove more than one hundred years ago; an act that helped to forge our National identity of a small yet determined Nation.  Even as a child I found this a hard concept to understand.  Unlike my Grandparents and Parents, I wasn’t born after a World War; there had not been a major conflict involving Australia since the Vietnam War and Australia was more than a decade away from participating in major Peace Keeping operations in Cambodia, Rwanda and later; East Timor.  My generation was born into relative peace time, we weren’t baby boomers, we weren’t exposed to the hardships and austerity measures of our parents’ childhoods and we were long removed from those few left that had fought at Gallipoli.

For many of us that joined the Australian Defence Force in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s we were quickly thrust into an operational cycle that would see many service-people deployed to East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan.  For the first time in decades, Australia was sending men and women to fight for their country on a large-scale.  During these deployments we lost friends, young men, who’s names now join the more than one hundred thousand others on the walls within the Australian War Memorial.

In the years since our withdrawal and subsequent redeployment to the Middle East, we have continued to lose more and more service-people to suicide, yet this is not something that is spoken about widely in the lead up to ANZAC Day.  We continue to hear about those that fought in Wars and Battles from the last century.  Our elected Politicians will wear a memorial pin for the day, and of course, a few modern-day Veteran’s will be thrust in front of the camera at sporting events across the country and used as a prop to sell a false kinship between professional sportspeople representing a team and someone who has represented and served a Nation.

To some Australians, ANZAC Day is, and will always be about the original ANZAC legend; the subsequent generations that have served Australia are little more than another contingent of Veterans marching down the main street of their town or city.  For others the day is an opportunity to enact a misguided interpretation of jingoism by starting their drinking early and displaying various patriotic symbols and emblems.

The disconnect between the general population, media, Veteran community and Veteran Support Organisations has grown over time.  The days of the stereotypical Australian Veteran – the cocky and stoic Digger – are far behind us; yet the legacy of that era still remains.  This ideology has been so ingrained into the Australian psyche that is comes as shock to many that Veteran suicide, substance abuse, homelessness and unemployment are so rife.  The RSL and some ESO’s use ANZAC Day as a foundation for their fundraising efforts, the shock value behind the struggles of many modern-day Veterans is used in the same way the AFL and NRL use the ANZAC legacy to sell tickets and make money.

The individual Veteran is once again being replaced by what the Department of Veterans Affairs, the RSL/ESO’s and media believe the archetype should be presented as.
Instead of Australian men and women standing tall, side by side and sharing with other Australians their experiences in uniform in faraway lands, we are experiencing a degradation of our collective Veteran Identity.

That is the foundation on what ANZAC Day is built upon.  Veterans supporting Veterans and entrusting our legacy, stories and experiences to a Nation that will undoubtedly provide more generations that will go to war; continuing a cycle that has existed for more than a century.

For me ANZAC Day is about the days and nights I spent in uniform, both in Australia and overseas.  The men and women I shared good and bad times with.  The men I called friends who spilled their blood on foreign soil and didn’t come home alive.  The men and women I knew – and those I never met – who took their own lives long after their feet touched Australian soil again.  We each have a story and it is up to us with who we share that story with.

One ANZAC Day a few years from now I will sit down with my children and begin with… “I was once an Australian Soldier…”

 

22 Push-Ups For A Much Bigger Issue

I have been asked a number of times to participate in and also what my opinion is of the current viral trend of the 22 Push-Ups In 22 Days Challenge.

When this first started appearing on social media I was in two minds about it.  Sure, it’s raising awareness for Veteran Suicide but…
My first issue was that it stated US Servicepersons Suicide statistics and not Australian.
Secondly, it often stopped being about the cause and more about the individual/group in a lot of instances.

When I’m watching people bust out one-handed push-ups or advertising some supplement while doing so; I am watching that person steer a serious issue towards a ramp getting ready to jump the shark.
The actual shark jumping occurred when various Defence groups, specifically the Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force, started producing slick videos as part of pseudo-recruiting initiatives.  Pardon the language, but, kindly go fuck yourself with a big garden rake.

One of the biggest contributing factors of suicide amongst Australian service people is the stigma and bullying that often comes with asking for assistance for mental health issues.  Many a person has teetered on the edge, reached back for something to hold onto and found an uncaring SNCO/WO or Officer with their arms folded.  Sure they didn’t push, but they sure as hell didn’t try to hold them back.

Over 240 Australian Veterans have died due to suicide in the past decade.  Eight good men I served with in Iraq and Afghanistan are amongst that number.  I was almost one of them.

I have campaigned on this issue for a number of years.  I have stood before strangers in an auditorium sharing my story in the hope it would help others, implored Service Chief’s for fundamental changes to mental health support in the ADF, petitioned MP’s and Senators, and even spoken openly with a Prime Minister.

I can honestly say that in that time I have not seen a campaign that has rallied the Government into action.  Getting the public’s attention is the only way the Government will enact change for the better.  The simple fact is if dead Veterans, shattered families and constant pressure won’t change attitudes, 22 Push-Ups will not be the turning point in a battle that has spanned generations of Australian Veterans and countless armed conflicts and wars.

But it will be another vital piece in an incredibly big and complex puzzle.  Many people have set up fundraising pages to coincide with their Push-Up Challenge and I applaud them for that.  I would also recommend that anyone doing the Challenge take a few minutes and post their reasons for doing so on the Facebook Page of Hon Dan Tehan MP – Minister for Veterans Affairs.

Blogged Down On Twitter #VeteranSuicide

I’m a somewhat prolific (ab)user of Twitter.  It’s a place where I am able to engage with a much wider audience about Australian veteran issues than I can on Facebook and other social and traditional media channels.  It is also a good place to complain about iiNet’s appalling service in Canberra.

Over the past several days I have had times where the black dog has started barking behind me.  I’ve resisted the urge to acknowledge it’s reappearance in my life, but with it being Mental Health Awareness Week, this has been quite difficult.  I have spent a lot of time trying to articulate my feelings, opinions and thoughts on veteran mental health support and veteran suicide into a single blog post.

The plan was to address the serious concerns I and many others have regarding the Australian Defence Force’s mental health support policies and the support avenues available to servicepersons once they discharge and begin re-integration into civilian society and life.  I found I was unable to focus enough to write anything close be being coherent with a clear narrative.  Instead after my Wife and child were fast asleep last night; I was able to communicate what I wanted to share via Twitter in 140 characters or less – give or take 16 tweets.

For those that want to read my SMS sized (over)share, here it is…


https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520163159173107712

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520163823383113728

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520164311004499968

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520164843970502657

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520165343935741952

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520165955503022080

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520166418495463424

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520167165345804288

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520167852989362177

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520168708224737280

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520169354181111808

Trois Etapes 2014 – Part 6 – Expectation vs Reality

Like all good things, this Blog series must also come to an end.  For those of you diligent enough to read through the preceding five posts, I give to you, the final part in this series.

It’s difficult to sum up an experience like the Trois Etapes into a short form Blog series.  There are many factors that come into play when choosing what to include, what photos to use and how to balance the narrative so that it doesn’t sway too far into what I like to call “too-much-Chad” territory.  There were certain events, photos and details that I had to exclude.  Not due to any lewd behaviour, but because some members of the team are still serving in ADF and most importantly, it is not my place to tell their stories no matter how inspirational and confronting they may be.
As previously mentioned in Part 1, this was a long journey for me; and now that it’s over I find things have definitely changed for me.  I’ve always been brutally honest on this Blog and that is something I set out to do from the start.  I chose the name “Blogged Down By Life” for a reason.  Many days I wake up and feel like I am bogged down by what my life has become.
I live with what is clearly defined and diagnosed as a mental illness; I live with a form of PTSD and I live with a sometimes debilitating depressive disorder.  But despite this I do not suffer from anything.  I have made choices in recent years that have defined the person I now am; some were good choices, some were not.  It is difficult to find a balance between the two when your outlook of life is immediately tainted with a pessimistic view and defeatist attitude.  The highs I experience in life are exhilarating and the lows, well, sometimes the black dog gets the best of me.
During the lead up to the Trois Etapes I experienced many highs and lows; and more often than not I let frustration get the better of me.  Dealing with a charity like Soldier On is a unique experience.  A small number of dedicated staff, a heavy workload and an increasing number of requests for support, mean that details were often late in being disseminated to the team.  Things that often frustrated me were frustrating the staff even more as they were the ones spending hours of their own time trying to fix potentially catastrophic issues.  Differing opinions, stubborn people on both sides of the fence and a constant stream of minor issues arising, threatened to derail this massive undertaking before we even left Australia.
Do I wish some-things had occurred differently?  The simple answer to that is yes.  It was an unfortunate fact that due to so many competing events and the juggling of several prominent people’s schedules that the event launch our trip deserved did not happen.  The majority of the promotion for this event was on Soldier On’s Facebook page and my team-mates saturating social media with the details.
I am a more prominent advocate and supporter of Solider On and this is often a slippery path to navigate.  Through my early interaction and fundraising I essentially planted the seed that would grow to become Soldier On Cycling; a community of like-minded people and veterans that were using cycling a means to recovery and also to raise awareness for the charity itself.  This is something I am extremely proud of and elated to see what the idea has now grown into; different chapters in several different cities and of course the Soldier On cycling kit.  But what this meant for me, on a personal level, was that I had quite suddenly became a face and a voice for Soldier On; not something I was prepared for.
This quite suddenly came to a head earlier this year when an older Blog post about my interaction with the RSL went somewhat viral across ADF and veteran aligned social media groups.  I received an enormous amount of responses to that post and subsequently many others I had made.  The majority were people agreeing and supporting my stance; however the negative comments ranged from differing opinions to abuse to outright death threats.  This was my first taste of what my outspoken views on veterans issues would attract.
As the year progressed and Soldier On Cycling promoted and conducted the Remembrance Ride I chose to heavily promote the event on this Blog, my personal social media accounts and in the local and national media; something I do not regret doing.  While the Remembrance Ride achieved a great many things, most notably through a heavy saturation in the media; I had been left wondering if Soldier On’s participation in the Trois Etapes achieved the same level of achievement.  Over the last few days interacting with various people through social media, both friends and strangers, the overwhelming opinion is that we either didn’t achieve what we set out to do or we simply went on a holiday to France.
Do I agree with this?  No.  I do believe there were some missed opportunities leading up to the event that were out of our’s and Soldier On’s control which left more than a few people asking what was going on.  One point that I do take issue with though; is that the seven of us went to France on a holiday.
Each rider was chosen to participate for various reasons.  Either because of their tireless efforts in raising the profile of Soldier On, or by being affected by their service in the ADF; mentally or physically.  Like myself, many of the team has a devoted a great deal of their own time and funds to promote Soldier On and the issues younger veterans face on a daily basis.
Did I see the trip to France as a reward for this?  No.  I honestly saw it as an opportunity to promote Soldier On and Soldier On Cycling to a potential new global audience; and this is something we, as a team managed to do.  But, this is something that was not relayed back to our’s and Soldier On’s supporters and critics back in Australia.  There is no finger of blame to point for this, it was something that just did not occur.
The most important achievement by the seven of us travelling to France and racing in a cycling Pro-Am was the personal growth that occurred in each of us.  I shared personal accounts of survival, loss, hope and desperation with a group of men that I will never forget.  I saw men breakdown physically, mentally and emotionally after successfully riding up a mountain.  Why?  Because this was about breaking down barriers and rebuilding our lives with hope and self-confidence.  At some point during the event we all conquered something that was holding us back in our lives.  For several of us this was the most physically and mentally demanding thing we had done since taking off the uniform.
My story was not dissimilar from many of the others and since I have returned I have received emails and messages asking me why fundraising money was spent on sending us to France.  It should also be remembered that I am not an employee or ambassador for Soldier On.  I don’t know the breakdown of the budget for Soldier On; but I do know that the vast majority of the Trois Etapes trip was funded by private sponsorship from Defence industry partners.  It should also be noted that both our photographer Matt and driver Bruce paid their own way for the entire trip!  Also, each of us that participated spent a large sum of money leading up to and during the event to fund various travelling expenses.
This post was supposed to be a wrap-of our final week in France.  Where we as a team made up of young Australian Veterans, toured the Belgium Battlefields of World War One, paid our respects at the graves of long dead Australian servicemen and visited the Menin Gate and saw the tens of thousands of forever young Australian men’s names etched in stone.  Instead I wrote a post defending Soldier On, my team-mates and myself.  I try to not let the negativity get the best of me, but when I am forced into a corner by dozens of abusive emails and messages I will defend myself and the others.
Chad
BELGIUM 014
.:WWI Cemetery:.
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.:WWI Cemetery:.
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.:WWI Cemetery:.
BELGIUM 024
.:WWI 100th Anniversary:.
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.:Team Soldier On and coach Scott Sunderland & co:.

Thank you to my Wife, daughter, family and friends.  Without your support I wouldn’t be here today, let alone have made over the French Pyrenees.
Thank you to my team-mates: Andy, Justin, Shane, Matt, Dan and Adam.  Hopefully you all know how much your support and encouragement meant to me.
Thank you to Scott, Bruce, Matt, Jodie, Kate and Jenine – none of this would have happened without your help and tireless efforts in supporting us.
Thank you to Soldier On for their incredible work and support: Pearl, Clare, Dion, Carlie, John, Danielle, Meredith, Anna and especially Tony – (for being a friend, a mentor and being you).

Mental Health Stigma, The ADF – An Ongoing Cycle

I sit here typing this with my infant daughter asleep in my arms. For me the days, months and years since I was at the lowest point in my life have been a road to recovery. For many others this isn’t the case.

This week we farewelled another Australian Soldier who had succumbed to the emotional wounds he suffered years ago while serving his county in Afghanistan. The reasons why he never recovered from his invisible injuries may never be known; but the fact still remains he is another lost to a battle that still continues in the minds of many. A never ending war of light versus dark, good versus evil and ultimately life versus death.

Four years ago I lost this very battle. Four years ago I found myself alone in a dark hole I couldn’t escape from so I accepted what I believed to be the fate I deserved. Despite the odds stacked firmly against me I am here today. The reasons for this are solely due to the unwavering support from my family and friends.

When I hear of an Australian serviceperson taking their own life I feel a deep sadness for not only them but for their family as well. When a person decides to take their own life there is nothing you can do to stop them; nothing. This of course does nothing to comfort them in their grief; but knowing a tortured soul is finally at rest should.

I don’t pretend to know everything about mental health issues, mental health support or suicide. I know only of what others have shared with me and from my own experiences. And one of the most harrowing aspects to this silent battle is the ever present stigma that is attached to admitting you have a mental health illness.

Support, like the causes of mental illness, is very much an “experiences may vary” scenario. I have heard of support avenues being offered that were exceptional, some mediocre and some downright dismissive and a catalyst for suicide attempts. My own recovery was made up of all three; although the bad experiences often overshadow the good.

My initial experiences with asking for support from the ADF reads like a how-to-guide on rejection, dismissal and victim blaming. The desired effect for me to shut up and go away worked; albeit long enough for it to become someone else’s problem.

I don’t begrudge the ADF as an institution for this; but a stigma against mental health, especially PTSD and depression, still exists within the upper ranks. My time in the Australian Army ended two and half years ago. I was happy with what I had achieved as a Soldier; especially on operations. If I had my time again I would definitely sign up to serve, but in saying that I would certainly do some things very differently.

In regards to my mental health support, in hindsight, I wouldn’t have accepted the dismissive and intimidating culture of the SNCO’s and Warrant Officers I encountered. I experienced a level of bullying from people of certain ranks that should have known better. The attitude of some pushed me over the edge and directly attributed to my attempt at ending my own life. I am still angry and bitter at how I was treated and how I didn’t act to better protect myself. But when one is so mentally exhausted everyday activities such as eating become a chore, so the seemingly simple act of speaking up for yourself just does not happen.

This stigma still exists and is still prevalent within the ADF. Not a week goes by that I don’t get asked for advice and help from a still serving friend on how to deal with someone acting as a roadblock to their recovery. Sadly, more often than not, this person will be a SNCO or Warrant Officer in a position that requires them to be responsible for Soldier’s welfare; something that they clearly fail at.

I don’t know how the ADF can fix this in the long term, but I do know that the majority of SNCO and Warrant Officers are incredibly supportive to mental health support. One thing that the Service Chiefs and CDF could try is taking action against those that hinder Soldier’s recovery by denying their access to support, bullying those at risk and continuing to deny illnesses such as PTSD and depression exist.

Before I left the ADF I named two Warrant Officer Class One’s, both RSM’s and two Warrant Officer Class Two’s both SSM’s in a minute to the Chief of Army as habitual bullies who made physical and psychological threats to me and others; yet no action was taken.

It is the cycle of generational suicide in the ADF that still continues that proves the current system for mental health support, reporting and ongoing care is not yet good enough.

An Evening At The Australian War Memorial – Updated

ABC’s Big Ideas has released the Boys Don’t Cry program online for viewing.
The televised version is shorter by about 20 minutes and doesn’t include my speech at the end of the forum.  The online long version does.  I invite you to watch is however please be aware that some of the program is fairly confronting including what I have to say at the end.

Long version of the Boys Don’t Cry segment

Big Ideas Boys Don’t Cry segment

On Wednesday evening, 20 November 2013, I attended a panel discussion at the Australian War Memorial on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  The event was hosted by journalist/writer Paul Barclay on behalf of ABC TV and Radio National.

On the panel were former Chief of Army LTGEN Peter Leahy; author and Beyond Blue ambassador Allan Sparkes; Beyond Blue board member Professor Brett McDermott; and the wife of a former British Royal Marine, Emily.

I was asked about attending the panel a few days earlier by my friend Jason.  Originally I didn’t want to attend as I honestly thought it may be a trigger for an anxiety episode; so I declined.  It wasn’t until the night before that I decided to go along and hopefully have a chance to speak to whoever was on the panel.  I had no idea who was participating in the discussion other than LTGEN Peter Leahy and hadn’t really thought about what was going to be discussed.

In the afternoon prior to the start of the forum, I rode from work up to the Australian War Memorial.  As is the norm, I was wearing my Soldier On jersey and happened upon new Soldier On team member Tony; who many moons ago was my Troop Commander when I served in Iraq.  Jason arrived next and soon we were joined by Anna, Meredith and Dion from Soldier On.  After I got changed into something more appropriate than skin tight lycra, we went into the BAE Systems Theatre.

After the introductions Paul started the discussion with some questions about PTSD in the military for LTGEN Leahy.  The conversation and questions started to flow freely within the panel with some very emotional stories being shared by Emily and Allan.  Prof McDermott gave some very interesting insights on PTSD for not only military personnel; but also for emergency service persons and of course their families.

I wasn’t the only veteran in the crowd; but I was the youngest.  There were a few Vietnam Veterans present, family members of veterans with PTSD and a few senior Defence officers that were skulking around the back pews in civilian attire.

As the discussion progressed LTGEN Leahy was asked some questions about support services available to veterans.  I have a lot of respect for this man; he was an exceptional Chief of Army and has done a lot to help veterans with his current position as Chairman for Soldier On.  But there is a distinct level of detachment from what a high ranking officer is told and what happens on the ground.

Some of his responses started to irk not only me, but a lot of the crowd listening to him.  There were more than a few audible scoffs at some comments about the Department of Veterans affairs doing their best to help all veterans.  One comment in particular drew a very audible “get fucked” from me.  The former Chief of Army said that when a Soldier asks for help, he or she will always receive it.  Paul mentioned the story of MAJGEN John Cantwell and LTGEN Leahy was in agreement.  Whilst MAJGEN Cantwell has done a lot to help break the stigma of PTSD in the ADF; it is also true that a very senior Officer is never going to be turned away when they ask for assistance.

Allan Sparkes shared his story of PTSD and depression from when he was a Police officer; and the ostracising that he experienced as a result.  His story was a very raw, no punches pulled recount of his darkest days and his termination from his employment without his knowledge.  His story was very reminiscent of many veterans from the Vietnam War up until today’s conflicts.

Emily’s story was one of amazing courage from both her and her husband Adrian.  She spoke of her time in the United Kingdom when Adrian returned from deployment in Afghanistan a changed man.  He had experienced traumatic events and as a result developed PTSD.  His struggles with mental health affected his wife and two daughters as they watched as their husband and father dealt with his issues now that he was back at home.  His eventual discharge from the Royal Marines was a result of a physical injury and just like the majority of occupationally injured Australian servicepersons; Adrian was soon pushed out the door with very little support and preparedness for his transition to civilian life.

As the forum was drawing to a close Paul invited Dr Brendan Nelson, director of the Australian War Memorial to speak and field some questions from the panel.  He spoke about the AWM’s role with supporting veterans of recent conflicts by having interactive exhibits and involving them with other projects the AWM is conducting.  As a former Minister for Defence he expressed his desire to see more support forthcoming as the Afghanistan War draws to a close.

As 7pm was quickly approaching a few of us in the audience were wondering if we would get a chance to ask questions of the panel.  Adrian was next to take the stage and he recounted some of his experiences post deployment and how support for veterans is extremely slow from the government in Britain.  He spoke of having his claim for assistance being rejected on the first submission; a trend very similar to that in Australia carried out by DVA.

Adrian expressed his concern for veterans being forgotten after the withdrawal from the Middle East and a strong desire for them to be able to access the support they deserve and not repeat the mistakes of the past.  He likened the struggles of today’s returned servicepersons to that of the Vietnam War era in the way that the fight for support continues even after the war on foreign soil has ended.

Adrian’s address to the panel and audience had clearly reached out to everyone with many of the Vietnam Veterans visibly moved by his honesty.  As he sat down Paul checked his watch and asked us sitting in the audience if anyone had anything questions or comments.  I had been sitting and fidgeting for the past 10 minutes waiting for this moment.  Several different introductions and talking points had gone through my head and all disappeared in the instant I raised my hand and Paul motioned for me to stand up.

I was shaking before I even started speaking; this was always going to be an emotionally charged interaction from me and I started by introducing myself.

“Hi I’m Chad, I separated from the Army early last year and have deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan.  I have been diagnosed with PTSD, depression and anxiety and I want to know why not enough is being done to help Australian veterans.”

I addressed LTGEN Leahy first and exclaimed to him that history was indeed repeating itself.

“I am a third generation Soldier, my Grandfather served in World War 2, my Father served in Vietnam and I have served in the Middle East.  I watch as my Father and his mates still struggle with PTSD with many Vietnam Veterans taking their own lives since the war ended.  I watch as my generation struggles with the same issues and now my mates, people I served with, are killing themselves because of PTSD and depression; and nothing is being done to stop this.  There are more people in the ground because of PTSD and depression than there are that are on the wall outside who were killed on operations.”

I spoke of my efforts to get help when the weight was becoming too much for me to bear and that the first two times I asked for assistance I was rebuffed by my unit RSM’s; a statement that clearly shocked LTGEN Leahy.  I was asked questions from both Allan Sparkes and Prof McDermott about my interactions with DVA and I recounted how I was told that my claim was going to be slow as my PTSD and depression ‘wasn’t that bad’.  I explained to them that is was at this point that I withdrew my claim and stopped interacting with DVA as I felt I was being accused of chasing money and that by not receiving financial assistance my criticism of their practices would hold more weight in a public forum.

I described my battles with depression and that very few people understood; and the simple act of asking for help effectively stalled my career in the Australian Army for a number of years.  The feeling of being ostracised and singled out was always present and that few people would support me when I asked for further help.  I explained that while MAGJEN Cantwell’s story is not an isolated one, the level of support and assistance he received was.  The average Digger in a unit has to contend with the ever present stigma of mental health issues and ignorance present within their chain of command and the probable persecution for not being able to fulfil their duties without restrictions.

I expressed astonishment that the very organisation founded to protect the rights of and provide assistance to veterans was failing in its primary role.  I emphatically asked how in the forty years since the end of the Vietnam War servicepersons are still not being afforded the support we fought for.  How it was possible that DVA can state they are still learning and getting better with a straight face as veterans from multiple deployments and generations kill themselves while waiting to access support services.

By this stage the room was silent and I had been speaking for around 20 minutes.  The panel while sometimes asking me questions and making statements had clearly been unprepared for such a raw and uncompromising speech from someone.  I had brought up some points with personal accounts of systematic failures from within the Australian Army, Australian Defence Force and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

There were some topics that I shared with a public forum that had only been discussed with medical professionals and not even shared with my wife and family.  As my speech drew to a close I expressed the hope that one day veterans would receive the appropriate support from the Government but that it was very unlikely to occur in my lifetime and that my children probably wouldn’t see it happen either.

As I finished speaking I apologised for hijacking the Q&A session; Paul started wrapping up the forum and I sat down nervously.  Jason patted me on the shoulder and most of the audience was either nodding in agreement or wiping away tears.  I sat shaking and started to feel quiet anxious from speaking to a mostly unknown audience about issues so personal and distressing that I had spent the last few years repressing and ignoring them.

The rest of the evening was spent talking with members of the audience and panel.  I received a great number of business cards and offers of assistance and opportunities to speak to other veterans and people with PTSD and depression.  I found the response surprising and was shocked when LTGEN Leahy approached me as he was leaving.  He handed me his business card and told me to email him.  He offered to take me to see the Minister of Veterans Affairs to discuss the issues I had brought up.

He told me that the Service Chiefs would be made aware of what I had spoken about and that I should continue speaking up.  Both he and Dr Nelson expressed the need for younger veterans to be the public faces and voices of our generation and that I should be one of them.  I was very humbled by this statement and thought a lot about it over the following days.

At the conclusion of a big night, I farewelled Jason and the Soldier On crew, thanked the others and started riding my bike back home.  The next 45 minutes were some of the most contemplative times of my life as I thought about what I had said and the inevitable shock-waves that they would create for my family and I when the ABC airs Boys Don’t Cry on Big Ideas in late 2013/early 2014.

An Open Letter To The Minister For Veterans’ Affairs

An Open Letter to Senator the Honourable Michael Ronaldson, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Dear Senator Ronaldson,

On 12 November 2013 I sent both an email and a letter to you via your gazetted Ministerial Office contact details.  To date I have not received a reply nor have I received any acknowledgement that my correspondence was received by your office.  Although traditional mail does occasionally fail to arrive at its intended destination, an email with the correct recipient address does not.

My original letter to you was in regards to the comments made by your Department’s Mental Health Adviser, Doctor Stephanie Hodson, which were aired during a segment on Channel 7’s Today Tonight entitled Fighting A Mental War.  Dr Hodson’s comments were not only highly controversial, but also quite insulting to Australia’s Veterans.  To claim that a major part of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs inability to provide timely support to Veterans with mental health issues was in part the fault of the Veterans themselves is nothing short of victim blaming.

Did I, like many others ask to be haunted and troubled by the traumatic experiences from our deployments?
No, we did not.

Did I ask for help from within the Australian Army?
Yes I did and on numerous occasions I was told to “harden the fuck up”.

Did I ask your Department for assistance?
Yes I did, but instead of the support that I was entitled to, I was forced to jump through hoops and make my way through a maze of red tape.

Like many Veterans, I found the system that is supposed to provide us assistance and avenues of support was, in reality, creating more roadblocks on the long journey to recovery.  Roadblocks that ultimately resulted in me turning my back on DVA and finding the help I so desperately required from my family and friends.  To be honest I couldn’t help but assume this was a deliberate ploy by DVA; make it as difficult as possible for Veterans to access support services and they will eventually give up; saving the Department a large sum of money.

Unfortunately many Veterans do not have the type of support from family and friends that I do, and when the world is at its darkest, some will take their own lives.  This year alone more than twenty returned servicepersons have committed suicide.  I must stress that this number reflects only those that are clear cut cases of suicide and not single-vehicle accidents and incidences of drowning while intoxicated.

I was extremely fortunate to attend Paul Barclay’s Boys Don’t Cry forum at the Australian War Memorial on the evening of Thursday 21 November 2013.  During this forum members of the panel discussed various issues regarding PTSD and depression with a focus on the Australian Defence Force and withdraw from Afghanistan.  It would have been highly beneficial for a member of your Department or staff to have attended in an official capacity in order to answer some questions regarding the level of support offered by DVA.

LTGEN Peter Leahy was a member of the panel and spoke about returned servicepersons accessing support from within the ADF and DVA.  While I wholeheartedly agree that the ADF is getting better and that the stigma associated with PTSD and depression is slowly dissipating.  I found LTGEN Leahy’s claims that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is learning from the mistakes of the past a complete and utter fallacy.

This was an opinion that I shared with the panel and audience during the question time at the completion of the forum.  For almost 25 minutes I spoke about my struggles with PTSD, the systematic failures of the ADF and DVA when I was trying to access support services and my fears for Australian Veterans in the future.

The Department of Veterans Affairs exists for the sole purpose to provide assistance to Australian Veterans, whether they have experienced overseas service or not.  This is a role that DVA seems to fail at more often than not.

Senator Ronaldson you are quoted on the ABC’s World of Today webpage from a report by Lexi Metherell from Tuesday 10 December 2013 as saying:

MICHAEL RONALDSON: We cannot repeat the mistakes of post-Vietnam, where this country let down those men who were doing no more and no less than serving the nation at the nation’s request.

Senator Ronaldson I implore you to open your eyes to the facts.  The mistakes of “post-Vietnam” were the mistakes from post-World War 2 which was the legacy from the mistakes made post-World War 1.

I am a third generation Soldier; my Grandfather served in World War 2 and was stalwart for Veteran’s advocacy his entire life, my Father served in Vietnam and dedicated 42 years as a fulltime Soldier; and I have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  These mistakes you speak of, the mistakes of the past are in fact the Ghosts of the Past that continue to haunt us to this very day.

I watched as my Grandfather’s legacy and honour left with him as he passed away in a geriatrics ward; a man of such strong resolution, he dedicated the entirety of his post-war life to the Returned and Services League and spent a record 35 years as the President of the Corrimal RSL Sub-Branch.  The Department of Veterans’ Affairs bureaucracy come to forefront when matters concerning his palliative health care and DVA Gold Card became an issue in his final days.

I have witnessed my Father’s transition to civilian and retired life; not an easy feat after spending almost half a century serving this great Nation.  I watched as a child, my Father’s struggles with his past service in Vietnam and later as his friends died prematurely from illness brought on by exposure to hazardous materials and suicide brought on by depression and PTSD; long ignored and compounded by DVA’s ineptness and unwillingness to support struggling Vietnam Veterans.

To listen to spokespersons from the Government, Department of Veterans’ Affairs and even yourself; the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, speak of not having history repeat itself is insulting.

I have several friends with their names on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial; these are men now forever young that I mourn the loss of everyday.  A heavy weight that I and many others carry on our shoulders as we will not let their sacrifice for the people of Australia and Afghanistan be in vain.  Every loss is felt deeply within the Australian Defence community even if it becomes a just a distant memory for most.

I fear with the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Middle East almost complete, the spotlight will dim and the ongoing fight for support and assistance we have earned will not be forthcoming.  Many Veterans spend months waiting to see specialists and have claims processed.  Coupled with PTSD, depression, anxiety and the blasé attitude of some DVA staff this is a catalyst for self destructive and suicidal behaviour.

The number of Veterans who have taken their own lives now surpasses the brave 42 whose names are on display in our Nation’s capital.

Many of these Veterans have continued to fight long after their war in the Middle East ended.  Like a battle with the enemy this too is a fight for survival; and without DVA accepting responsibility and acting on its mistakes this too will cost the lives of Australians that once donned the uniform of a Soldier, Sailor or Airman.

I care not for excuses and the ongoing blame game of previous Governments.  I care only for you the current Minister for Veterans’ Affairs to stand up, acknowledge the mistakes of the past and find a way to move forward for the better.  I ask you Senator Ronaldson, to engage with us, those Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen that have fought against the bureaucracy of a Government Department that has learnt nothing over the past 100 years.

As we prepare to remember and mark the 100th Anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign; can you honestly say that today’s Veterans are receiving the appropriate level of support and assistance that our forefathers never got to experience; or like them will this fight become the legacy of my children when I am long gone from this world?

Respectfully yours,

Chad Dobbs
17 December 2013

This letter has been forwarded to Senator Ronaldson’s contact email address: officeoftheminister@dva.gov.au;
Tweeted to Senator Ronaldson’s Twitter page: @SenRonno;
Tweeted to DVA’s Twitter page: @DVAAus.

An Evening At The Australian War Memorial

On Wednesday evening, 20 November 2013, I attended a panel discussion at the Australian War Memorial on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  The event was hosted by journalist/writer Paul Barclay on behalf of ABC TV and Radio National.

On the panel were former Chief of Army LTGEN Peter Leahy; author and Beyond Blue ambassador Allan Sparkes; Beyond Blue board member Professor Brett McDermott; and the wife of a former British Royal Marine, Emily.

I was asked about attending the panel a few days earlier by my friend Jason.  Originally I didn’t want to attend as I honestly thought it may be a trigger for an anxiety episode; so I declined.  It wasn’t until the night before that I decided to go along and hopefully have a chance to speak to whoever was on the panel.  I had no idea who was participating in the discussion other than LTGEN Peter Leahy and hadn’t really thought about what was going to be discussed.

In the afternoon prior to the start of the forum, I rode from work up to the Australian War Memorial.  As is the norm, I was wearing my Soldier On jersey and happened upon new Soldier On team member Tony; who many moons ago was my Troop Commander when I served in Iraq.  Jason arrived next and soon we were joined by Anna, Meredith and Dion from Soldier On.  After I got changed into something more appropriate than skin tight lycra, we went into the BAE Systems Theatre.

After the introductions Paul started the discussion with some questions about PTSD in the military for LTGEN Leahy.  The conversation and questions started to flow freely within the panel with some very emotional stories being shared by Emily and Allan.  Prof McDermott gave some very interesting insights on PTSD for not only military personnel; but also for emergency service persons and of course their families.

I wasn’t the only veteran in the crowd; but I was the youngest.  There were a few Vietnam Veterans present, family members of veterans with PTSD and a few senior Defence officers that were skulking around the back pews in civilian attire.

As the discussion progressed LTGEN Leahy was asked some questions about support services available to veterans.  I have a lot of respect for this man; he was an exceptional Chief of Army and has done a lot to help veterans with his current position as Chairman for Soldier On.  But there is a distinct level of detachment from what a high ranking officer is told and what happens on the ground.

Some of his responses started to irk not only me, but a lot of the crowd listening to him.  There were more than a few audible scoffs at some comments about the Department of Veterans affairs doing their best to help all veterans.  One comment in particular drew a very audible “get fucked” from me.  The former Chief of Army said that when a Soldier asks for help, he or she will always receive it.  Paul mentioned the story of MAJGEN John Cantwell and LTGEN Leahy was in agreement.  Whilst MAJGEN Cantwell has done a lot to help break the stigma of PTSD in the ADF; it is also true that a very senior Officer is never going to be turned away when they ask for assistance.

Allan Sparkes shared his story of PTSD and depression from when he was a Police officer; and the ostracising that he experienced as a result.  His story was a very raw, no punches pulled recount of his darkest days and his termination from his employment without his knowledge.  His story was very reminiscent of many veterans from the Vietnam War up until today’s conflicts.

Emily’s story was one of amazing courage from both her and her husband Adrian.  She spoke of her time in the United Kingdom when Adrian returned from deployment in Afghanistan a changed man.  He had experienced traumatic events and as a result developed PTSD.  His struggles with mental health affected his wife and two daughters as they watched as their husband and father dealt with his issues now that he was back at home.  His eventual discharge from the Royal Marines was a result of a physical injury and just like the majority of occupationally injured Australian servicepersons; Adrian was soon pushed out the door with very little support and preparedness for his transition to civilian life.

As the forum was drawing to a close Paul invited Dr Brendan Nelson, director of the Australian War Memorial to speak and field some questions from the panel.  He spoke about the AWM’s role with supporting veterans of recent conflicts by having interactive exhibits and involving them with other projects the AWM is conducting.  As a former Minister for Defence he expressed his desire to see more support forthcoming as the Afghanistan War draws to a close.

As 7pm was quickly approaching a few of us in the audience were wondering if we would get a chance to ask questions of the panel.  Adrian was next to take the stage and he recounted some of his experiences post deployment and how support for veterans is extremely slow from the government in Britain.  He spoke of having his claim for assistance being rejected on the first submission; a trend very similar to that in Australia carried out by DVA.

Adrian expressed his concern for veterans being forgotten after the withdrawal from the Middle East and a strong desire for them to be able to access the support they deserve and not repeat the mistakes of the past.  He likened the struggles of today’s returned servicepersons to that of the Vietnam War era in the way that the fight for support continues even after the war on foreign soil has ended.

Adrian’s address to the panel and audience had clearly reached out to everyone with many of the Vietnam Veterans visibly moved by his honesty.  As he sat down Paul checked his watch and asked us sitting in the audience if anyone had anything questions or comments.  I had been sitting and fidgeting for the past 10 minutes waiting for this moment.  Several different introductions and talking points had gone through my head and all disappeared in the instant I raised my hand and Paul motioned for me to stand up.

I was shaking before I even started speaking; this was always going to be an emotionally charged interaction from me and I started by introducing myself.

“Hi I’m Chad, I separated from the Army early last year and have deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan.  I have been diagnosed with PTSD, depression and anxiety and I want to know why not enough is being done to help Australian veterans.”

I addressed LTGEN Leahy first and exclaimed to him that history was indeed repeating itself.

“I am a third generation Soldier, my Grandfather served in World War 2, my Father served in Vietnam and I have served in the Middle East.  I watch as my Father and his mates still struggle with PTSD with many Vietnam Veterans taking their own lives since the war ended.  I watch as my generation struggles with the same issues and now my mates, people I served with, are killing themselves because of PTSD and depression; and nothing is being done to stop this.  There are more people in the ground because of PTSD and depression than there are that are on the wall outside who were killed on operations.”

I spoke of my efforts to get help when the weight was becoming too much for me to bear and that the first two times I asked for assistance I was rebuffed by my unit RSM’s; a statement that clearly shocked LTGEN Leahy.  I was asked questions from both Allan Sparkes and Prof McDermott about my interactions with DVA and I recounted how I was told that my claim was going to be slow as my PTSD and depression ‘wasn’t that bad’.  I explained to them that is was at this point that I withdrew my claim and stopped interacting with DVA as I felt I was being accused of chasing money and that by not receiving financial assistance my criticism of their practices would hold more weight in a public forum.

I described my battles with depression and that very few people understood; and the simple act of asking for help effectively stalled my career in the Australian Army for a number of years.  The feeling of being ostracised and singled out was always present and that few people would support me when I asked for further help.  I explained that while MAGJEN Cantwell’s story is not an isolated one, the level of support and assistance he received was.  The average Digger in a unit has to contend with the ever present stigma of mental health issues and ignorance present within their chain of command and the probable persecution for not being able to fulfil their duties without restrictions.

I expressed astonishment that the very organisation founded to protect the rights of and provide assistance to veterans was failing in its primary role.  I emphatically asked how in the forty years since the end of the Vietnam War servicepersons are still not being afforded the support we fought for.  How it was possible that DVA can state they are still learning and getting better with a straight face as veterans from multiple deployments and generations kill themselves while waiting to access support services.

By this stage the room was silent and I had been speaking for around 20 minutes.  The panel while sometimes asking me questions and making statements had clearly been unprepared for such a raw and uncompromising speech from someone.  I had brought up some points with personal accounts of systematic failures from within the Australian Army, Australian Defence Force and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

There were some topics that I shared with a public forum that had only been discussed with medical professionals and not even shared with my wife and family.  As my speech drew to a close I expressed the hope that one day veterans would receive the appropriate support from the Government but that it was very unlikely to occur in my lifetime and that my children probably wouldn’t see it happen either.

As I finished speaking I apologised for hijacking the Q&A session; Paul started wrapping up the forum and I sat down nervously.  Jason patted me on the shoulder and most of the audience was either nodding in agreement or wiping away tears.  I sat shaking and started to feel quiet anxious from speaking to a mostly unknown audience about issues so personal and distressing that I had spent the last few years repressing and ignoring them.

The rest of the evening was spent talking with members of the audience and panel.  I received a great number of business cards and offers of assistance and opportunities to speak to other veterans and people with PTSD and depression.  I found the response surprising and was shocked when LTGEN Leahy approached me as he was leaving.  He handed me his business card and told me to email him.  He offered to take me to see the Minister of Veterans Affairs to discuss the issues I had brought up.

He told me that the Service Chiefs would be made aware of what I had spoken about and that I should continue speaking up.  Both he and Dr Nelson expressed the need for younger veterans to be the public faces and voices of our generation and that I should be one of them.  I was very humbled by this statement and thought a lot about it over the following days.

At the conclusion of a big night, I farewelled Jason and the Soldier On crew, thanked the others and started riding my bike back home.  The next 45 minutes were some of the most contemplative times of my life as I thought about what I had said and the inevitable shock-waves that they would create for my family and I when the ABC airs Boys Don’t Cry on Big Ideas in late 2013/early 2014.

The Central Point Of Failure – The Department Of Veterans Affairs

I wasn’t sure if I should write this post.  My last opinion piece about the Department of Veterans Affairs was received quite well by the veterans community and prompted DVA to contact me to discuss my and many other young veteran’s issues.  What has prompted this follow-up piece tentatively titled “You Ignorant Fucking Bureaucrats!”?…

On the evening of 11 November 2013, undoubtedly scheduled to coincide with Remembrance Day, Channel 7’s Today Tonight aired a story about young veterans and the ongoing struggle for support with PTSD and mental illness entitled Fighting A Mental War.

The story began as a fairly straight forward account detailing the struggles of those who have had the unfortunate distinction of dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs.  Frustration, anger and depression are some of the emotions one can feel when dealing with a Government Department seemingly intent on ignoring your calls for help and ensuring you don’t get access to quality support services and ultimately rejecting financial assistance for your national service at war.

This may seem like an extreme statement but when the person asking for support is a young service-person trying to access help for depression and/or assistance after experiencing a highly traumatic incident(s); being rebuffed by the very organization founded to help you only causes more stress and compounds an already volatile situation.  It is a fact that more young servicemen and servicewomen have taken their own lives post-deployment than have been killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ordinarily I would take a story broadcast on Today Tonight with a few dozen grains of salt.  But after watching Keith Payne VC fire up (a man I have had the pleasure of spending time with in both Afghanistan and Australia) and the pitiful response from DVA Mental Health Advisor Dr Stephanie Hodson I was poised to hurl my remote control at my TV in disgust.  I sat staring in disbelief, I wanted to break something, I could feel my pulse rising and my face getting hotter as my skin became flushed with rage.

Ultimately I calmed down but not before I fired off a steam of questions and statements to DVA via Twitter, Facebook and email.  Minister for Veterans Affairs Senator the Honourable Michael Ronaldson was also in my sights and received a highly sanitized and more eloquent email demanding answers about his representative’s insulting statements.

What did Dr Hodson say?  Below is the transcript from Today Tonight’s segment.

“Any suicide is tragic, and the department actively monitors suicide in veteran community,” Dr Hodson said.
“We actually do need to work on getting our staff more trained, but also about getting through these claims more quickly.”

Dr Hodson denies the department’s failure to plan ahead is resulting in long delays, leaving claims and lives in limbo.

“The department is processing claims as quickly as possible, but we acknowledge that some claims can take longer than we want,” she said.

Dr Hodson claims part of the problem lies with the veterans themselves.

“The problem is that it’s not until someone is in crisis that they will actually start to look for the services,” Dr Hodson said. “The treatment is there for veterans; we just need them to come and put up their hand and get it.” 

The full video can be found here:
http://au.news.yahoo.com/today-tonight/lifestyle/article/-/19777434/veterans-with-post-traumatic-stress-disorder/
Dr Hodson’s comments on behalf of DVA start at approximately the 8 minute 15 second mark.

I want to stress I am not launching a personal attack on Dr Hodson; she is clearly a very competent and qualified medical professional.  She previously served 22 years in the ADF as a psychologist and has been with DVA for the past decade.  This is a woman who has dedicated the majority of her career helping service-persons with mental health issues.

I am however attacking the Department of Veterans Affairs for the systematic failure of the past 40 years.  I’ve watched as my Father’s generation has been let down by DVA and his mates have been driven to suicide.  Decades later the same thing is happening to my generation.

By Dr Hodson’s own account, DVA needs to do more work; but also claims that the Department’s failure to plan ahead is not to blame.  So to Dr Stephanie Hodson and Minister for Veteran’s Affairs Sen the Hon Michael Ronaldson I put this to you:

The last Australians withdrew from Vietnam on Anzac Day 1975.  That was 38 years, 6 months and 18 days ago; and yet Australian Servicemen and Servicewomen are still not getting the support that we deserve and have fought for.

To have not learnt from the past and continuing to ignore the Department’s ongoing mistakes is akin to giving a Soldier with PTSD a noose and pointing him or her in the direction of the closet tree with a strong branch.