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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 181

Mr EDWARDS (11:37 AM) —The issues I want to talk about in relation to the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007 go in some part to the administration of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. My comments will also touch on the issue raised by the previous speaker about the fact that some people have to jump through hoops for a lot of government departments. I want to talk about some of the problems arising in the veterans community because of the multitude of agencies they have to confront.

I want to begin by referring to an article in the Daily Telegraph written by Ian McPhedran, a person who takes a strong interest in defence and veterans issues. This article was published on 2 May. I am not going to quote it all, but I want to quote some of it. The article begins by saying:

According to Veterans Affairs Minister Bruce Billson and some self-proclaimed armchair experts, there is an “industry” feeding off mentally-ill Australian war veterans.

This is a bit rich at a time when the Department of Veterans Affairs is spending record amounts of taxpayer dollars fighting the compensation claims of veterans.

The article goes on to say:

Even more disturbing is the fact that Mr Billson jumped on the bandwagon. Fresh from crying crocodile tears for veterans on ABC TV, Mr Billson whinged about aggressive legal firms sourcing potential veteran clients.

Just so the facts don’t get in the way of a good story, Mr Billson would also know that legal firms have opted out of veterans work because they can’t afford the pro-bono effort required to combat a litigious Department of Veterans Affairs with a bottomless bucket of taxpayer dollars.

That department spent $5 million on private lawyers two years ago to fight veterans in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and has devoted $600,000 to a pilot program for using private law firms inside the DVA.

I also keep a fairly close eye on the emails that fly around the veteran community. A bloke that I have had a bit to do with over the years and for whom I have a lot of respect recently sent some emails to the minister and received a response from him. This is Normie Rowe, who is a very high-profile and well-known veteran. In one of the emails, Normie wrote:

But you know Bruce comparing our repat system with others doesn’t do it for me, what would do it for me is if instead of trying to find ways of winding it down, Government saw it as important to pro-actively look for ways of making compensation accessible to those who deserve it.

Get rid of Writeways, they just muddy the water, and have access to files and documents a private company shouldn’t have access to and that don’t even have anything to do with the matter they are supposed to be “researching”.

And then it would be a great step forward [if] Veterans were treated the same way upon return as they are sucked up to when they are sent off to war.

There is another email from Normie that I want to quote in part because it is pertinent to what I say here. He wrote:

... but if while I’m still alive diggers who deserve to be looked after are looked after, and don’t have to fight for justice until they commit suicide, then I’ll vote for and encourage others to vote for the party/ies who will save those lives. And will justly compensate diggers not sell them out.

Those comments lead into what I want to talk about today, which also includes the impact on veterans who have to deal with multi-agencies. I refer to a letter which is part of a report from a consulting psychiatrist. They were asked to do a report on a veteran who had returned from Afghanistan, who had been discharged from the Army and who has tragically committed suicide.

In quoting from this report I call on the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to look at their administration and at the way they are dealing with young men and women. It really worries me, as a veteran, that within the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, within Defence, within government and within this parliament there appears to be a complete lack of understanding of post-traumatic stress, a complete lack of understanding of the impact on young men and women of the conditions they confront in a theatre of war and a complete lack of understanding of the trauma and the memory that those young men and women bring home with them. Trauma does not come about only as a result of action or confrontation with the enemy; it can come about from a whole range of things. It can come about from having to be constantly prepared, constantly on edge, for combat. It can come about from being constantly on the alert, constantly aware of what is happening around you and constantly prepared to immediately defend yourself. Fear and the concept of fear have a lot to do with post-traumatic stress disorder. In my view, it is not just about the actual combat. Perhaps it will become more apparent as I quote from the letter. The psychiatrist, in his general comments about the young man whom he had been asked to assess, wrote:

Although somewhat better rapport was established toward the end of the interview—


was clearly reluctant to volunteer information during the assessment. Part of this appeared to be based on anger, frustration and irritation at repeated medical assessments and interviews, part I think is related to significant residual depression and anxiety symptoms in an individual who has been severely traumatised by his past experiences.

…            …            …

It does appear that the diagnosis that led to his discharge on medical grounds was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It also appears that, in parallel with this diagnosis—


has experienced significant depressive symptoms with suicidal ideation at various points. A third medical condition that is referred to is the presence of Panic Disorder.

The psychiatrist says:

[He] currently feels unable to work. His reasons include an absence of motivation and drive, fear in some situations, his concerns over the impact of a “stress load” and his “state of mind”. It was difficult to obtain more detail than the above and he responded with “don’t know” to a number of specific questions.

…            …            …

He also complains of constant fatigue, marked irritability and a whole range of anxiety symptoms including dread, fear, apprehension and marked avoidance.

The vast majority of these experiences are trigger dependent.

I want to come back to ‘trigger dependent’. The psychiatrist goes on:

Certain smells and noise can trigger these immediately. They are of a fluctuating pattern. He also describes sustained chronic suicidal ideation. He is clear that he has no current intent or plan and feels in control of his self-harm thinking. He also reports a reduction in concentration and attention which he feels then impacts on his short-term memory, which he describes as being reduced.

He also reports day/night reversal of his sleeping pattern, preferring to sleep during the day and being awake at night.

In terms of his mental state assessment, based on this history and examination—


appeared as a—


individual who looked his age and was neatly dressed and well groomed. The assessment was difficult because of his reluctance to speak spontaneously and disclose personal information ...

My assessment was that this difficulty in rapport was not because he was being difficult and deliberately withholding information. Rather, it was because of  understandable frustration at having to repeat this process again, on a background of ongoing depressive and anxiety symptoms, many of which are still troubling him at this stage.

In summary—


presents as a—

young man—

in a supportive relationship with a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depressive symptoms, Panic Disorder and stomach pain of unknown aetiology ...

In terms of his fitness for work, at present he is unfit for full-time work or part-time work of any nature. This is because, in addition to significant biological symptoms of depression and anxiety, he continues to have suicidal ideation which is chronic and sustained. It is unlikely that he will return to full-time work or part-time work until these symptoms have ameliorated.

The prescribed impairment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an appropriate description of his retiring impairment. In addition to this however, the presence of depressive symptoms, Panic Disorder and chronic suicidal ideation are also significant impairments.

The consulting psychiatrist went on to say this:

My current opinion is that—


is unable to perform any of these roles given his current mood and mental state. This is because his depressive and anxiety symptoms are still severe. In addition, his chronic suicidal ideation would render the completion of tasks under these roles unlikely. Furthermore, if he attempts to fulfil these roles the potential stress associated with this attempt may exacerbate his existing depressive symptoms and put him at higher risk of suicide.

Any veteran who has gone through the system, through the mill, and has had to jump through hoops and over obstacles will relate intimately to what I have just read into the Hansard because they know as veterans; they have had to do it themselves and they have had to confront these issues.

I spoke about how the vast majority of these experiences are ‘trigger dependent’. I know things about post-traumatic stress disorder and I am no expert. I worked in the Vietnam veterans counselling service when we set it up in Perth. I have spoken to many veterans over many years. I am no expert on post-traumatic stress disorder but I know that a veteran can be perfectly fine for a period of time, then something will happen, a trigger will be pulled somewhere, and the veteran will fall into the worst patterns of post-traumatic stress disorder.

When veterans are forced to deal with multiagencies it is no wonder that their situation, their symptoms and their general health can deteriorate. It certainly happened in this case and, unfortunately, the suicide of this young man was not in isolation. One veterans organisation tells me that in the last 12 or 18 months or so there have been five suicides that it is aware of. All were people who were dealing with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. For younger veterans, their dealings with the department are not made easier by having to deal with multiagencies. It is something that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the government and the minister must deal with. They must look at the situation which confronts the digger after they have been to war, been deployed and come home and after they have to deal with these issues.

This young man that I have spoken about was not put in the T&PI. They did not recognise the extent of his post-traumatic stress disorder. They put him in what is known as a T&TI, temporarily and totally incapacitated, which meant that the onus would have been on him to continue to fight the department, continue to go through assessment and continue to make himself available for those assessments. And who knows what triggered his suicide?

It is a tragic reminder of the impact of war, of deployment on young men and women. It is also true to say—in my view anyway—that it is not just deployment to a war zone that can cause post-traumatic stress disorder. When we send young men and women overseas on peacekeeping or peacemaking deployments we also run the risk of them contracting or coming back with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is real. In many ways as a veteran, I have been fortunate. I sit in a wheelchair. People can see my injuries. They are very obvious. I have never had to fight to have them recognised. I have had to fight with the department on a number of occasions, however, over other issues. But someone who comes home from a deployment who has post-traumatic stress disorder has a wound which is not as readily identifiable as mine or those of others in similar circumstances. Because of that, there is a tendency by some people in the department and in government to disbelieve the individual making the claim. I have no doubt that from time to time there are those who will try to use the system to their own advantage, but we cannot and should not penalise genuine individuals like this young man who I have spoken about today. We must give them the benefit of the doubt.

We must understand that post-traumatic stress disorder, having been better identified in recent decades, is a real problem for young soldiers, young men and women. We have to do better as a nation and as a government, and our departments who we charge with dealing with these veterans have to do better in the way they are handling these young men and women who present. I think much of that responsibility comes back to us in parliament. I am not convinced that the military compensation laws that went through this place a couple of years ago—and I said this at the time—act in the best interests of young men and women seeking compensation. We certainly have to look at the problem of multiagencies, and we have to stop making young men and women, like this young fellow who tragically committed suicide, jump through the hoops and have to front for continual and constant assessment. We have to do better than that. If we do not, we are going to experience, tragically, suicide within our veteran community.

Having said that, there is one matter I very quickly want to turn to. I want to compliment the minister on the support that he gave to the Operation Aussies Home blokes in Vietnam, Jim Bourke and his team, who have been fighting tenaciously for a long period of time to identify, and have fully accounted for, the six MIAs in Vietnam. I had the opportunity to go to the handover the other day of the remains of the two young 1RAR soldiers. It was very sombre, sad and humbling to be there for that handover. I congratulate Jim Bourke, his team and the government team that were sent up there, and I congratulate the minister on the support he gave them. They have all done very, very well. My thoughts particularly on that occasion went out to the family. It must be important for them to have the closure that they now have because of the work of Jim Bourke and his team.