‘Betrayed and isolated’ – a career cut short by command indifference to burnout
By Kate Banville
Exiting a career in Defence after 11 years was the last thing Anthony White wanted. Until it became unavoidable.
White trained as an infantry officer before doing specialist training to be a ground defence officer in the Royal Australia Air Force (RAAF).
“You’re talking about someone who's gone through Duntroon,” he says.
“I had my command time, I’d done multiple deployments – humanitarian, warlike and border protection.
“When I came back I trained the guys to go over to Afghanistan through the Combat Training Centre.”
After years of high-tempo postings and deployments White could feel himself burning out, but when he put his hand up for help he was denied.
“My career was faultless but all I was asking for was a bit of a break,” he recalls.
In the end it was bureaucracy over welfare.
“I firmly believe if I was dealt a better command, I would still be in the Defence Force and I have no doubt about that,” White says.
“I’d been forward with my command and said I’d booked an appointment with VVCS [Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service, now Open Arms] for some counselling and my commanding officer turned around and said that she couldn't allow me to go there because it was during work time.
“I was pretty stressed at that time so I asked to be moved to a different position. I tried taking annual leave and then long-service leave and I was just blocked at every turn.
“I kept trying to exhaust all the avenues available within the confines of Defence and kept hitting ‘no’ until the stress compounded and I had a breakdown.”
Left feeling “bitter and betrayed”, White believes the entire “defence eco-system” needs a shake-up.
“It’s Defence, it’s DVA, it's ComSuper and all those supporting agencies like the RSL and charities who take money from DVA because they're all interlinked and there is so much politics,” he says.
“I think they need to have an understanding of the sort of people that they have produced in Defence – people that are go-getters, that want to be part of a team, that don't want to let anyone down and want to problem-solve.
“Defence members want to provide capability and that's your whole life in Defence and so when you move on no one talks about your personality type but they just tick a box and you’re left with it.”
White says the transitions process needs an urgent overhaul, particularly for those going through a medical separation.
“It was absolutely overwhelming because I was fighting to be alive yet I was required to organise all of my medical entitlements which meant that I had to go and learn legislation and figure out exactly how I was going to leave safely,” he recalls.
“I went to a transition seminar at the Brisbane RSL and they sat there and delivered presentations of PowerPoints to a bunch of medically cooked veterans and then they gave us a printout of the slideshows.
“I felt it completely missed the boat and was very much a ticking-the-box exercise Defence was doing just to say that they had done it.
“It wasn’t done to the standard that you are usually held to in Defence and just added to that feeling of being more and more betrayed and isolated.”
Citing his own troubled transition, White believes there should be a royal commission to address systemic failings within Defence and supporting agencies.
White does not support the Morrison government’s decision to establish the office of the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. He argues that the office is neither independent nor adequately resourced.
The interim commissioner, Dr Bernadette Boss, recently released the findings of a series of roundtable meetings with invited representatives of current and ex‑serving ADF members in all states and territories.
A summary of those findings notes that almost one in two veterans meet the criteria for a mental health condition in the year following discharge.
Kate Banville is a Townsville-based journalist. A seven-year Army veteran, she has been a defence reporter for the Townsville Bulletin and has also worked at WIN News in Townsville and ABC Gold Coast. Connect with her on Twitter: @katebanville