Post traumatic stress disorder affects many who have served this country but little is being done to meet their needs.
As a kid during school holidays, I would be sent off to a country town to stay with elderly friends of the family, who I called Nan and Pop. There, I would roam the streets unsupervised from morning to dusk, saying hi to neighbours and patting their dogs.
There was one particular man I was scared of, however, who would sit on his front porch all day, several doors down from Nan’s. He had only one leg and would stare blankly for hours on end. He looked so sad, it seemed as if he was perpetually crying.
Off to war: It’s time our nation’s government provided better services to our veterans, many of whom suffer ongoing conditions such as depression and PTSD upon their return.
Generally there was a respected truce between us. He would see me and I him but neither would acknowledge the other. One day I asked Nan what had happened to the man’s leg and why he was so sad.
“He lost his leg in the war,” she answered. “Don’t be scared of him. Reg is a lovely, gentle man. I’ve known him since he was a kid. He’s just not been right since he came home from the war. A lot of the boys who went from here aren’t.”
I took this on board as well as a seven or eight-year-old can, and the next day I decided to wave to Reg. To my delight, he waved back.
That afternoon I took the 20 cents I had earned cleaning out Nan’s chook pen and bought two Paddle Pops, one for me and one for Reg. I was tenuous climbing those stairs to his porch but Reg’s reaction was worth my tiny terror. The soldier’s face lit up and a tear trickled down his bristly cheek.
Reg didn’t say much but I visited him every day during that stay, telling him how Nan’s chooks kept escaping and how she swore as she tried to catch them. Sometimes Reg would have a Mintie or a biscuit for me. I believe we became firm friends.
It was a year before I returned to the town and the first thing I noticed was Reg wasn’t at his porch, so I ran to ask Nan why. She looked distressed and put me on her knee and told me Reg was “gone”.
“He just couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. “We can only hope he is in a happier place.”
I couldn’t comprehend suicide at the time, but hell – I do now. I’ve had several friends and many more acquaintances take their own lives over the years, and today I have one dear friend I worry about daily, who I fear may do the same.
It’s because my friend today has the same blank look as Reg, half here and half somewhere else he doesn’t want to be. My friend was a policeman and now suffers acute post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If it wasn’t for his loving family and their constant care, I have no idea how he would survive. The fact that the very force he suffered for has all but abandoned him to deal with an aggressive and cruel insurance company for compensation is beyond me. It disgusts and angers me to my marrow. And the police force is only the tip of an insidious iceberg of neglect in this country.
Tomorrow I will be attending a rally in Melbourne, on the steps of Parliament House, joining veterans, families and supporters calling for a royal commission into the Department of Veteran Affairs.
From 1999 to the start of February 2016, some 249 soldiers returned from wars in the Middle East have committed suicide, more than 30 in 2015 alone. This is only a roughly accrued estimate – the actual number is probably far more. Compare this to how many soldiers died in war in Afghanistan – 41 dead and 261 injured – and it becomes clear the real battle these soldiers face is not at war but home, in the country they fought for.
Since 1975 Australia has deployed 120,000 troops on overseas operations. The numbers suffering mental illness is estimated to be between 20,000 and 30,000.
Yet these men may have been better off staying in battle, where at least they would have received attention, because little is happening here.
As the number of post-1975 veterans has been growing, the DVA has been reducing staffing numbers and cutting back entitlements. There are different processing elements, depending where you are in Australia, with most still operating a single file, paper-based system. Veterans have no way of telling where claims are up to or in which state they are being handled, and files are often lost.
Veterans are required to attend up to five appeals to gain their proper compensation because of this poor administration, and the use of adversarial work cover assessors under-evaluating veteran incapacities to lower compensation amounts.
From lodgement of claim to payment – if the claims go through the appeal process – can take up to five years.
This is too long! These people are suffering now – good men like Reg, haunted by what they have seen and done protecting our freedom. It is a national disgrace and one every citizen should get on board to protest.
And while we’re at it, let’s look at the police force leadership and demand they treat their own with respect, dignity, care and compensation too. Because I will be damned if my friend decides there is “happier place”. That place should be his home, and it is up to all of us to ensure it is.
Source: Saturday Age columnist Wendy Squires is a journalist, editor and author.