Invisible War Wounds Killing at Home

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Diggers* are being left to pay the ultimate price for emotional damage sustained in war zones, writes Samantha Healy.

THE SUNDAY MAIL February 27, 2011, p51:
AUSTRALIAN families, friends and communities have buried 23 soldiers killed Afghanistan since 2002.Each one was hailed for heroism, remembered for their larrikinism and commended for dedication to their mates and mission. But there is an even sadder often silent statistic that is forgotten – the number of soldiers, sailors airmen and women who have ended their lives for reasons that command a full military funeral of a fuller public acknowledgement by politicians. New [Department of] Defence figures show that 31 enlisted Defence personnel have, or are believed to have, committed suicide since 2005. Of those, 10 were in Queensland – the highest among the states, seven suspected suicide cases in NSW and six in the ACT. The suspected suicide deaths of two other Queensland soldiers earlier this year are also being investigated by the coroner but are not included in the figures at this stage.

Young Diggers president Jarratt believes the number of confirmed suicides is just the tip of the iceberg with many more going unaccounted for once they have been discharged from the defence forces. “Look at Vietnam. The number killed was far outweighed by the number who took their own life in the years after their service,” Mr Jarratt said. “We call it the invisible wounds of war, people dying not in combat but as a result of combat, years later.” He warns the problem will get worse as more young soldiers embark on multiple deployment to wars where their enemy is not always easily identifiable. In 2009, Professor David Dunt of Melbourne University’s School of Population Health compiled a report on suicides in the veteran community for the Federal Government. Titled Review of Mental Health Care in the Australian Defence Force and Transition Through Discharge, the report looked at the risk of self-harm, the contributing factors among ex-service members who have comitted or attempted suicide, the extent of suicide in the veteran community and lifestyle or other factors that may be contributing to suicide. It made recommendations on its findings. The acclaimed professor, who was given unprecedented access to the files of Defence and Veterans Affairs, found that suicide data was “harder to quantify” once defence personnel had left the ADF.

The 2009 report found that the ADF had done well in supporting mental health research but “less well” in supporting ongoing recording of mental health clinical data (client characteristics, contact type, diagnosis, quality-of-life measures etc) which is routine in public community mental helth services. “On the one hand we need better statistics and analysis but on the other hand the programs we offer should be as effective and accessible as possible. We owe that to them.” Prof Dun told The Sunday Mail. “We need to apply a report card to each recommendation made, to make sure they are not bogged down in bureaucracy, that they are working and still apply.”

While suicide statistics among enlisted personnel are kept by Defence no one is adequately monitoring suicide among veterans after they have been discharged. The Sunday Mail asked the Department of Veterans’ Affairs about suicide rates among veterans and was told that they were unable to provide any “comprehensive data”. This is despite the department commending Prof Dunt’s inquiry into suicide rates among veterans in 2009. After the report’s release, DVA said it was “committed to supporting veterans at risk of suicide and increasing the awareness of members of the veteran community about “suicide prevention”.

There is no argument that DVA provides a range of services to assist veterans at risk from suicide but without adequate data about the rate of suicides among its own clients it would be near impossible for DVA to determine the success or failure of its programs and initiatives.

A DVA spokeswoman said it was difficult to obtain suicide statistics for several reasons. “DVA estimates there are currently around 370,000 surviving current and former members of the ADF, of whom currently only some 185,000 receive services from the department,” the spokeswoman said. “In most cases it would be difficult to determine the reasons why a person has committed suicide, and it may not necessarily relate to their service. For legal and/or privacy reasons, when a client dies DVA cannot inquire about the cause of death unless it has a direct bearing on entitlements for their dependants.”

Mr Jarratt said Young Diggers, run by veterans, was assisting Defence personnel who recently returned from Middle East battlefields who were getting into trouble with the law, self-medicating or struggling to adjust to civilian life. “Calls to us have quadrupled since those Brisbane troops came back in October … a lot just want to talk, a lot are sounding off and getting angry, some are just confused. “They feel they can’t talk to their mates for fear of being seen as weak, or their families because they don’t understand. “They don’t even feel comfortable talking to their superiors for fear of being stripped of any further deploy­ments.”

One of the young soldiers being assisted by Young Diggers is re-enlisting with the army because he feels “he can’t make it in the civilian world” and will be re-deployed on his third tour later this year. “That is the irony. Even the most screwed up of them are back in their comfort zone back there (in conflict). When you take them out of that zone they can’t cope,” Mr Jarratt said. Young Diggers also launched a new online toolkit called “Suicide -The Invisible Wounds of War” last week giving Defence personnel and their families a place to access information about combat stress, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide. The group said such stresses affec­ted 10-30 per cent of troops who had served in active combat zones. “The military, especially the army, is getting better. The navy is not,” Mr Jarratt said. “We have to do better. They served for us and now their lives depend on it.”

If you or someone you know needs help call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.youngdiggers.com.au or www.dva.gov.au for a list of places available to help.
* Aussie slang for ‘Soldiers’