By Jamie Twidale
As a veteran who has lost mates to suicide, like many veterans and their loved ones I live with the ever-present fear of losing more. My experience with suicide is not unique among the veteran community.
I admit that I do not have the answers on how to fix this appalling issue, but I do believe that a royal commission is an essential first step in rebuilding trust between the veteran community, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the government.
My first experience with suicide was as a 17-year-old soldier. On my first day after initial employment training, I was being shown to my live-in accommodation at my new Army unit. The area was cordoned off by Military Police who were finishing their investigations after a soldier had suicided the previous evening. Back then, people only ever spoke about these things in hushed tones and it was generally glossed over.
My next experience a few years later was more personal. While away overseas on a training activity, one of my best friends, who had discharged the previous year, took his own life. This shattered me, with questions floating around in my head for years about what if I had been home, what if I had called him more, what if….?
Another one of my wider friendship group went the same way a year later.
In more recent times a former colleague committed suicide a few days after I saw him at a funeral.
I have close friends who are veterans of recent operations in the Middle East who I contact regularly because I worry that they are at risk; each have sought help and have support networks, but it remains a constant fear.
I share these stories simply to illustrate that as veterans we all have some experience with suicide or, according to the statistics, we are likely to. Suicide affects all ages and genders, all lengths of service, all types of service and not only those with mental health issues or warlike service, although the last two groups are much more at risk.
The statistics for in-service men and women are significantly lower than the general population, but this does not make it acceptable. However, the statistics for ex-service men and women are simply deplorable and a blight on society.
At the RSL Victoria Annual Conference the membership overwhelmingly voted in favour of a royal commission; and I say thank you to those that brought this motion forward.
I am in a privileged position in that I get to meet, talk with and hear from many serving and ex-serving veterans. What is clear is that while there is now consensus within the RSL in Victoria, there is not across the ex-service community nor across the RSL in other states.
I do not think we will ever get consensus; it is simply too complicated and emotive an issue. I personally have changed my own opinion on what is the best way to move forward.
Whether or not you are for an enduring National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention and whether or not the commissioner has the same or similar powers of a royal commission is not important. What has become clear to me is that there is a widespread lack of trust by veterans in the government institutions responsible for looking after the welfare of our serving and ex-serving people. This was made worse by the appointment of an interim national commissioner for suicide prevention without a transparent process and who was perceived to be too close to the defence establishment.
A royal commission may or may not find the answers we all seek, but what is certain is that a royal commission would go a long way towards rebuilding trust by giving mothers, brothers, partners and friends the opportunity to be heard in a forum that is truly independent.
Having a royal commission does not mean we cannot also establish the permanent commissioner for suicide prevention. But that commissioner can only start their work at the conclusion of a royal commission. The appointment of the permanent National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention must also be done through a transparent, merit-based process that ensures that the appointment is an appropriately skilled person who does not have recent ties to the ADF or Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA).
The arguments about cost are also irrelevant. Having a royal commission does not mean that funds are stripped out of DVA or away from veteran services. A portion of the money that will be wasted in the inevitable pork barrelling in the lead up to the next federal election would more that cover it.
RSL Victoria has now formed a shared view on this issue and in the coming weeks we will implement an advocacy strategy to call for a royal commission. This is what our members want, and it is what we will do. This campaign will include appealing directly to state and federal politicians and will seek to harness the voices of our members across Victoria in the lead up to ANZAC Day.
ANZAC Day is the day we pay our respects to those who have served and to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice; this year that will include raising a voice for those who have taken their own life as a result of their service.
Jamie Twidale is the CEO of RSL Victoria. He served in the Regular Army for 22 years both as a solider and later as an officer. He served overseas in Afghanistan, East Timor and the Solomon Islands. He is also a serving Reservist.