Last year, we learned the shocking fact that we lost ten times more serving and ex-serving ADF members to suicide than in all overseas operations since 2001, with 2017 recording the most suicides. By all accounts, the problem is worsening. I’m aware that we lost at least four veterans over one week just before Christmas. So last year looks set to break records again.
The Commando community hasn’t been spared and again condolences to the family and mates of SGT Kevin Frost for their loss in December. I know that everyone in and out of uniform will be sick to their guts from this endless bad news. Unlike in Britain, the veteran suicide rate in Australia is not receding. It’s only increasing. So, what can we do to actually start to drive down the veteran suicide rate?
The first option is to do nothing. Some say that there is a veteran centric focus at DVA now so let’s see how that goes. Some, including a number of veterans, have argued that the general suicide rate is the real problem, defying the fact that the post-service suicide rate for veterans is distinctly high. Some have even argued that shining a stronger light on the issue might cause a new wave of suicides, but medical research has found that discussing suicide directly can actually have the opposite effect and in fact reduce its prevalence.
The second option, which over a quarter million Australians have signed up to and that the Liberal NSW Premier and the Labor Party supports, is to call a Royal Commission into veteran suicide. This has become necessary since the problem is out of control and nothing else has worked.
As the ‘heavy artillery’ of inquiries, a Royal Commission alone can have the holistic mandate to ask the hard questions and find the right answers, even if inconvenient, and free from all pressures. DVA and Defence are not the bad guys. But the veteran suicide rate still shows no sign of abating. We need answers now, not when DVA’s limited reforms are complete, way off in the Ulu.
In reaction to this second option, opponents of a Royal Commission have rallied around a second superficially attractive solution, it says: instead of giving the money to lawyers, let’s instead give the estimated $100 million directly to suicide prevention programs and DVA core services. This is a false choice – it’s not one or the other. The funding for a Royal Commission would not come out of the DVA Budget. The funding wouldn’t come at the expense of core support services or the veteran centres being rolled out across the country, such as the Darwin centre, that I’ve proposed be named in honour of Scotty Palmer, a born and bred Territorian, a Commando, killed in Afghanistan serving with 2nd Commando Regiment.
A Royal Commission’s mandate needs to be broad enough to take in the complex and multifactorial causes of veteran suicide and it needs to look at the best practice of everything. Though transition to civilian life is generally tough, most veterans transition successfully and make great contributions in their civilian lives. But when as many as one in five of our mates really struggle after military life, it is unacceptable that we have an ad-hoc veterans support system and continue to have lessons unlearnt.
Far too many of our comrades are hurting and if there is a primary role for an Ex service organisation, it should be to make sure that Government and non-government supports are the best they can be and are as best coordinated and targeted as possible.
A Royal Commission can’t bring back those we’ve lost, but it can help many future veterans. We need to stop the dragging of feet. Unnecessarily long delays to inquiries are harmful to veterans’ wellbeing. This Royal Commission is decades late so now is the time, we’ve exhausted all credible alternatives, it’s time for a Royal Commission.
This piece was first published in Commando: The Magazine of the Australian Commando Association on Thursday, 23 January 2020.