By Luke Gosling OAM, MP
Former special forces officer Major Heston Russell lost more of his mates to suicide than during four deployments to Afghanistan.
More of his friends died by their own hand off the battlefield than on it. Sadly, he’s not alone.
There have been 465 reported suicides of servicepeople between 2001 and 2018, 33 deaths in 2018 alone.
And what’s worse is we know that there are many, many others who go unreported.
When it comes to protecting, supporting, and helping our veterans, Australia is losing the war.
That’s why I’m calling for a royal commission into veteran suicide.
Labor and many veterans worry that the Federal Government's proposed National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention will not be up to the job. That this is simply a marketing exercise, and won't have the resources or independence to ask the hard questions.
Hugh Poate’s son Robbie was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2012, and Hugh and his wife Jenny have been helping troubled veterans ever since.
Hugh says: “There is a strong public perception that a Defence officer is inappropriate to head such a commission. For the commissioner to be truly independent that person should have no current or former association with the ADF inquiry.”
We have a problem. And we need a full royal commission to fix it, to lay out the plan for Australia, to hear from experts and families, so that the public understand the suffering of some – not all, but some – of the people that have served our nation, protecting us and our interests, and to get enforceable recommendations on how we can prevent these tragic, avoidable deaths.
I encourage businesses and organisations to employ veterans, because of the awesome drive and task focus of our serving men and women. But it’s true that some need our help to prepare them for life after the military, to manage their mental health and wellbeing, to heal any injuries from their service, to make sure they’re fairly compensated, to set them on new employment pathways, and to ensure stable housing.
Male veterans are 21 per cent more likely to die by suicide than men generally, but alarmingly they had a 66 per cent higher suicide rate when they discharged for medical reasons compared to men who discharged voluntarily.
The rate of suicide among ex-serving women is twice as high than the general female population.
That is appalling. And it is so sad.
As a veteran who’s mates with hundreds of veterans, and as the brother, son, and grandson of veterans, depression and suicide is an all too familiar story. I really wish it wasn’t.
Sometimes the financial cost of a royal commission is raised as a reason to “not go there”. But it makes me sick that the Federal Government, which has just splashed one trillion dollars in its budget, warns the nation that a royal commission on veteran suicide would cost up to $100 million.
What price should we pay for the liberty our veterans have fought for? Risking and sometimes losing their lives? What cost for ensuring that they remain alive and well?
We have an opportunity to learn from their experience, and to give the parents of young Australians considering serving our country the confidence that the system has been reviewed and fixed, and that they’ll be looked after.
Labor and I back the ADF. We back the Department of Veterans Affairs. We back ex-service organisations and acknowledge the significant work they’ve all done in improving the systems that help our veterans and their families.
We’re doing a lot better than we have in the past, so it’s not all bad. But what we need is a plan, not a piecemeal approach.
The evidence is overwhelming. Now more than ever, we need a royal commission. Lest we forget.
Luke Gosling OAM MP is an ADF veteran and the Federal Member for Solomon that takes in military establishments at Darwin and Palmeston. Luke comes from a military family, his grandfather having served in World War II, his father in Vietnam and he and his two brothers having all served in the ADF.
If you or someone you know need support you can contact:
Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14
ADF All-hours Line (for current ADF personnel and their families): 1800 628 036.
Open Arms Veterans & Families Counselling (for current and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families): 1800 011 046