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The invisible costs of service life and why fixing DVA is not the only answer

Reader's Contribution by Andrew McDougall

So far, the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide has focused its interim recommendations on the bureaucracy of Government and DVA’s inability to provide timely services to veterans. Blowouts in DVA claims processing has highlighted requiring an immediate response; however, there are deeper systemic issues impacting DVA, and most likely, anyone who has served in the ADF. The work needs to be prioritised, but I believe the Royal Commission needs to dive below the surface of the DVA issues and carefully consider the impact of the culture within the ADF and how we support the transition to Civvy Street. Fixing DVA and related legislation is just a small part of the long-term solutions we need.

If you could imagine for a minute a magically fully reformed DVA, one that found and trained sufficient personnel who are able to competently have all claims processed by the end of the year; now tell me, how much better that would make things for veterans and their families?

From my point of view, the DVA claims process is the tip of a very deep iceberg. After all, there is no shortage of ex-serving people who have had their claims approved and still struggle. I find myself wondering why the Royal Commission has not yet publicly identified any deeper issues of concern and made recommendations to deal with the precursor events that inevitably lead veterans to make DVA claims in the first place. Importantly, why is there no mention of the methods used to break us down and rebuild us as part of the conditioning and inculcation for service life? Is there no need to question the need and effectiveness of such processes especially when weighed up against short-term and long-term effects of such experiences?

Believing something is wrong with you, when there isn’t, is a terrible way to live. That’s not to say plenty of veterans haven’t suffered and don’t need support. I’m saying, there are plenty who haven’t been anywhere near a battlefield yet still struggle after leaving the services. Why? I believe it’s due to our approach to training and the apparent need to reduce one’s identity to fit into the limited parameters of the military mould. My view is that we need to better understand the effects of the training process and really understand to what extent the traditions of military training remain suitable for the modern ADF recruit.

There are many issues, and this is but one that I have picked up on, and it won’t be resolved by reforming DVA. DVA is there to pick up the pieces, and as we know it hasn’t been doing a good job of it, but my point is that the problems exacerbated by DVA originated elsewhere. If we don’t address these issues, nothing much will change.

Sadly, even with a fantasy-world DVA, we’ll still see people struggling long after their claims have been dealt with. Financial worries will just be one less problem. And those who have their claims rejected will still feel discarded.

We cannot seriously expect these underlying issues to disappear simply by fixing the organisation that gets involved at the very end of the process?

If you still think a reformed DVA is the most immediate issue facing the veteran community, I invite you to consider these next few points, that for some, contribute to a loss of self-agency and even a loss of resilience when outside of the firm structures of military life.

The age at which we join

Andrew McDougall

I joined the services straight from high school as a bright-eyed 18-year-old. Have we ever considered the impacts on a person who, throughout the years they’re still developing as a young adult, is suddenly stripped of superfluous elements of their individual identity, supposedly for the benefit of the group? How does someone 20 or 30 years on, suddenly faced with finding a new career, know what they’re interested in? How do they listen to that inner voice that has been silenced or suppressed for their entire adulthood? Yet, that’s exactly what happens when we discharge. We need to make important choices about career and locality with zero understanding of what we actually want from life. Does anyone else see the danger here?

Service needs first

For those unfamiliar with service life, the term “service needs first” s thrown around whenever there’s the inevitable clash between what you or your family want and what the service wants. Not only do we learn to subordinate our own wants and needs to the service, but we also lose the ability to think and behave in a way that supports ourselves as the authority figure in our own lives. We spend years in an organisation that is the approving authority for so many parts of our lives (the need for permission to participate outside sport is a classic example), yet after we discharge and it’s all up to us. Surely, we’re on the path to learned helplessness here? I’d also argue that the culture for many in leadership positions to constantly ‘red pen’ their subordinates' work only compounds this issue. If not creates additional issues around ‘our work is never really good enough’.

PMKeys Number and Rank

The two things that identify you when dealing with the military are your PMKeys Number and Rank. It’s a dehuminising system that reduces you to a number and defined position with defined qualities and pre-supposed aptitudes. If you don’t see yourself as a person and are treated as such within your professional environment, how do you make life choices that are supportive of someone worth caring for? How do you develop a healthy sense of self-worth that will support your future endeavours? Tie this in with our identity being so closely linked to our role, and its subsequent loss upon discharge, is there any wonder so many of us struggle with the transition?

Privileges of rank

Rank has its privileges; we’ve all heard it. Not that life outside of the services is much different with pay and benefits differ across all industries and roles. Yet, combine this with what I’ve already written, and our people learn to believe they belong in this tiny box that is set by their rank and role. How does an infantry Corporal who, throughout their entire professional existence, has lived within the narrow limits of service "pay and entitlements" discover that they can dream big and actually believe they are capable of attaining so much more? And we see the effects every day with far too many separating and taking whatever job they can get. Most of us set the bar too damn low.

Work-life balance

I see many commanders doing their best to help figure this out, although I do believe many will continue to fail. Why? Simply because operational tempo and training requirements don’t leave much room for anything else. Due to that old ‘service needs first’ thing, personal life is forced to take a back seat. We try to do the right thing by our partners and families, giving them as much time as we can when we are home. The problems arise when we put everyone else first and neglect our own, and usually unidentified, needs. This leads to burnout. Which we misidentify and try to ignore for the benefit of everyone else. The importance of proper self-care is not prevalent in the military. This is something we carry through to our post-service lives.

Purpose and passion

Many leaving the services want to find a purpose. Understandably so. They’re coming from an organisation that has allowed them to, at times, live with a purpose. However, imagine being immersed in an environment that discusses ways to be a better soldier. Every day, that’s all you hear. When you read it, it’s a book on leadership (recommended by your Platoon Commander). ‘Here’s the latest in professional development, we’re discussing urban warfare’. On it goes. Yet the day after you discharge, you’re looking for a purpose. Based on what exactly? Purpose and passion (yes, they’re different) come from a thorough knowledge of self, which has been suppressed for years if not decades. In addition, your purpose was essentially the same as the organisations. Is it any surprise finding a purpose alludes so many?

Emotional withdrawal

I’m not positive that was the phrase I was after, nonetheless, it should not come as a surprise we become emotionless (apologies to the medical professionals, I know I’m likely using an incorrect term) throughout our training. Our job is to kill and destroy. Pesky emotions will not help this cause. Add in emotional conflict when we spend significant time away from loved ones and should it be any surprise we struggle? The best example is hearing ex-serving saying they can’t relate to their new civilian coworkers. Yes, you can. Once you learn to grow as an individual capable of so much more. Then you’ll realise what a narrow emotional band you operated in for years.

We dress the same and we talk the same

If we’ve suppressed our own unique voice for so long, what are the skills to find it again? Where’s the encouragement to explore those parts of our personality dormant for so long? Who’s helping us to navigate the inner turmoil that may come from unexpressed needs and wants that are finally beginning to bubble to the surface? To give voice to what is seeking expression from within? The point is that we’re no longer part of the group and our future is best served by growing in all ways as an individual. Yet, this is never discussed. No one is helping us navigate this difficult adjustment.


We understand service life comes with sacrifice and that there are many times when we must endure it and we learn that suffering is unavoidable. Yet, if the service creates this belief that we must suffer, that we must do it tough to prove our worth, how do we unlearn this? How do we create and lead a successful life if we believe suffering is part of the experience? How do we learn to recognise self-sabotaging behaviour that may arise when life is good? Add low self-worth, poor understanding of self, and little idea of what they want to do with their future, is it really any surprise many veterans see suffering as part of being who they are?


The subsequent turmoil that comes from losing our identity is well established. However, I do think we overlook just how much our identity is reinforced throughout our time in the military. As stated above, to the organisation you’re a number. To others within the organisation, what role you do is far more important. Meet anyone for the first time and you would likely have rattled off rank, name and unit before talking about anything else. To the point we can struggle to consider whether there’s any depth to us beyond our position within the military (yes, that itself will not bode well for positive mental health). Then the day after discharging you’re just a person, a nobody. What a change. Is it any surprise many immediately look for a company or role that is similar in identity (police, defence sector, ex-serving support services), or significantly struggle if that identity void remains empty?

Fear of failure

The organisation is not tolerant of failure, and for good reason. Our training and promotion courses are no better with students often chasing the ‘DS solution’ (Directing Staff). Ignoring the obvious issues around the style of learning this would create, there’s no safety in learning from failure. Now, if we combine this learned fear of failure with group behaviour (dress and speak the same), how are those forging a new life as a civilian going to learn how to deal with such issues? After all, if we truly want to grow and push ourselves, some failure will be inevitable. Some will adapt, but many will remain trapped not understanding the invisible scripts holding them back.

These are some of the ways service life conditions us and our families. Yes, I do believe spouses can be just as affected by these aspects of service life. That’s not to say I blame the military. No, I see that as negative energy. Being a member of the ADF is a unique vocation and one that needs to be understood from the core in order to help people through the process of rejoining the civilian world.

Many of the things I have spoken about in this article will always be a feature of military life, however, I believe that we can be better informed and even do away with unproductive aspects that unnecessarily whittle away our identities and our resilience.

Finally, I want to say that fixing the issues with DVA cannot be the only solution. That alone will do little to make lasting change. However, I believe if we help those separating navigate and begin to unwind the conditioning that is part of service life, that’s when we’ll see real progress. Plenty of us have managed to go it alone and eventually succeed, it’s time we make it a major focus for all.

Andrew McDougall initially served for 15 years in RAAF before commissioning into the Australian Regular Army as a pilot where he served a further 9 years. He continued his service after discharge by joining the RAAF as a reservist. Andrew believes that we can, and must do better in supporting those leaving service.

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