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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee
18/11/2015
Mental health of returned Australian Defence Force personnel

NORMAN, Mr Gary Scott, Private capacity

[10:04]

CHAIR: I think we will follow the same pattern. If you just want to tell us a bit about yourself and your story and then we will go to questions.

Mr Norman : I was an infantry soldier in the 1st Battalion. I was injured at the jungle warfare school. We were lost in the jungle, basically, for seven days. I did not have any treatment for six months. I contracted a disease in my spine, which means I have a permanently damaged degenerative spine with a lot of nerve damage. I was sent to become a clerical and administration person over the three-month living course, and then I was sent to headquarters for special forces in Canberra where I served doing movements and personnel for equipment, both internationally and domestically. I worked with a lot of people, whether it was DFAT, ASIO or overseas dignitaries. The thing was: I could never be promoted.

A letter was sent to the Chief of Army and it was sent back. It was like I was not going to stay in a position that I loved. I loved Defence; I never wanted to leave. But I was not going to stay in a corporal's role forever and a day, so I left the Army on a Friday and I joined Telstra on the Monday. They wanted to medically discharge me while I was still in the battalion. I got a lawyer, and I was given every shit job known to man. I had a young daughter at the time. I was put on night shift in the officers mess as a barman; I was given three months worth of guard duties. The only time I got to see her was when I was doing rehabilitation in the pool.

I fought to stay in. I was finally granted a specific white card while I was in Canberra and, as I said, when I left the Army on the Friday and joined Telstra on the Monday, the person who signed off said, 'One day you'll come to appreciate the card that you were given'—and never have truer words been said. I put a claim into the process, which meant that I was sent to an Army psychiatrist. From 2000 to October 2003, I probably worked through the whole Prozac family, and I was finally given the gold card. By that time, my marriage had disintegrated completely. I had to leave the married home because I was not going to put my wife and my daughter through the torment. I knew my injuries were getting worse, because by that time I was consumed by pain medication. I was taking a lot of OxyContin and Tramadol. I was a dribbling mess and I became an isolated alcoholic in a unit. At the time—this is going back 11 years ago—I would go along to DVA or sub-branch meetings. Most of the guys were 30 or 40 years my senior, and at the end they would have cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. There was nothing for me; there was nothing for a person my age. As I said, it degenerated to where I just went to hospital and got pumped up with as much medication as I could, just to take the pain away. Family was a distant memory.

I went down the housing pathway. I couch-surfed for 2½ years because supposedly I was on the top of the list. I was quite excited when I was called in. But all they called me in for was to say, 'Your pension is now above the monetary threshold, so you're no longer on our books.' Being on the gold card, I can apply for housing assistance, but they take dollar for dollar, so there is no point in me actually asking for any assistance when it comes to housing. It came to the point that last year I went back into hospitals again, basically because I was homeless. I had nowhere to go, so I went to hospital for accommodation. I had long stopped taking pain medication for my injuries, but I never put the drink down and I was a dribbling alcoholic. Upon discharge I was living in the back of my car, at the back of a pub. I cannot recall exactly how I got to know about Homes for Heroes; I just know that there were a couple of phone calls made. I arrived there and within about three or four days I was sent to St John of God. I thought that was a chance to actually turn my life around, so I took that with both hands. Upon my return I started volunteering within the office and that is where I have been ever since.

My daughter is 25 in October and I had the opportunity to reconnect with my daughter. I would not have had that if it was not for Homes for Heroes. I could actually have enough money to organise travel insurance. She is now in Canada for eight months. It gave me back the skills that I thought I had lost. I can reflect back and say that I was working for headquarters special forces, I was held responsible for and looked after government departments, I was a manager within Telstra—corporate, business, residential. That did not mean diddly when I was sitting in a room, because I was just consumed by medications and pain. Now I see an exercise physiologist, I see a physiotherapist, I do courses that can benefit other veterans. The fog has lifted. I can actually contribute back to the guys. I do as much as I can—talking to them, subcoordination, sub-branch within DVA. Most of the guys I met on their first day of arrival here within the program, and to see the changes that the program has brought about is amazing because I remember what they were like—and I remember what I was like.

CHAIR: How long was the period from when you left the Army to when you started this recovery?

Mr Norman : It was about five years from when I left the Army that I started the process. I virtually had to appeal everything. In the interim I was being a good little soldier and following every instruction that the psychiatrist or the Army delegated psychiatrist had given me. Some of the medication was horrific. Some of the side effects, especially when it came to sleeping 19 or 20 hours a day. The grief that it put my wife through was horrendous. We only divorced this year and, on the limited conversation I did have with her, she said there was a point in time where she thought she wanted to come back but she said, 'You know what, Gary, you are just too hard, way too hard'. I am just go grateful that I have got Alisha back in my life today and I can be her dad.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Gary, did you expect the transition from the white card to the gold card to happen sooner? Was it something you were fighting for?

Mr Norman : A lot sooner.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: How different would your life have been if you had been issued with that automatically?

Mr Norman : If I had got adequate treatment from the get-go I think I would be in a lot better shape than I am now. I have seen a lot of specialists and basically there is nothing that can be done now except for maintenance. I look after my body as much as I can. I elected not to drink anymore, and that is not easy for me because I have been doing it to cope for such a long time. But I do not.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: How big an impact did your discharge from the Army, the circumstances upon which you were discharged and the way you were treated, have on your psychological situation?

Mr Norman : When I was in the battalion it was massive. My mates knew of the situation because they were lost in the jungle with me. They heard the crack and the snap. But a lot of the hierarchical structure branded you malingerer and so forth. Having a young daughter just born and not seeing her with three months of guard duty back to back and then being put in the officers' mess at night-time, I just never saw my family. I was in when bastardisation basically reigned supreme. There have been changes made since. But it was very difficult.

I was not getting any treatment. I was not sent for X-rays until six months after the incident, and by that time what had happened had happened. All I wanted was for them to accept that the injury was caused through negligence. I just wanted to have treatment from the get-go.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Once it was accepted that you had an injury, did they essentially try to discharge you? Was there pressure there for you to move on?

Mr Norman : No. By that time I was at headquarters special forces, and they were amazing—the best part of my career. They wanted to keep me in. They actually promised that they would keep me within the SF environment for 20 years, but it was my own ego. I did not want to stay in, sitting in a corporal's role for 20 years, having people look down their nose at me and me having to repeat my story over and over again. I gave them the opportunity that, if I could get promoted, I would say; but, if I could not get promoted, I would go. The letter was written to the Chief of Army, came back and then was written up. I remember Lt Colonel Dave Lewis wrote another letter back saying that this was why good people are getting out of this man's army. It was because there was no tolerance. It did not affect what I was doing in the role. It took a long time to train me up into that role with clearances and so forth, and I loved doing what I was doing.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You may have heard earlier evidence about case managers being assigned to veterans with quite severe or acute issues. Would you work with a case worker? Would it have made a difference to you if you had had someone there?

Mr Norman : Absolutely. If I had somebody within DVA at the time, it would have been a lot—I felt I was by myself. I had to do virtually everything by myself. In the end I took on my own claim and submitted all my own claims. It was a nearly-four-year process, but there was nothing.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Was your wife at the time given any background or any help at all with understanding your personal situation?

Mr Norman : No, Linda just saw the aftermath of my deterioration. She saw the effects of the medication that I was given.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So she received no support from DVA either?

Mr Norman : None.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. I also asked about the homeless screening tool. Are you familiar with the US—

Mr Norman : No.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I will give you a couple of the questions. It is on page 15 of the Homes for Heroes outline. The first question is simply:

1. In the past 2 months, have you been living in stable housing that you own, rent, or stay in as part of a household?

q Yes, living in stable housing - Proceed to question 2

q No, not living in stable housing - Proceed to question 3

Question 3 is:

3. Where have you lived for MOST of the past 2 months?

q Apartment/House/Room - no government subsidy

q Apartment/House/Room - with government subsidy

q With Friend/Family

q Motel/Hotel

q Hospital, Rehabilitation Center, Drug Treatment Center

q Homeless Shelter

q Anywhere outside (e.g., street, vehicle, abandoned building)

q Other *__________________________________________

The last question is:

4. Would you like to be referred to talk more about your housing situation?

If you had had a simple screening process like that in place, would it have made a difference?

Mr Norman : Would it have made a difference! I lived in hope that there would be a house. I was told fairly regularly, 'You're at the top of the list,' so for 2½ years I couch surfed or, if I was not couch surfing, I would go into a psychiatric facility just so I could get three decent meals a day. I would ring DVA and, because I was under the age of 55, they would say there is no housing. I knew that the last week prior to the three weeks was about where I was going to go to next.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Do you think, at a minimum, it should have been a requirement for any of those clinics or places where you were seeking treatment to have given you that test before they showed you the door?

Mr Norman : Yes, and I met a lot of people like me. I was not unique, in that I was doing what I was doing. There were a lot of guys. One was still waiting. I was lucky that I had a Gold Card that would actually pay for the treatment, and I was also lucky that I had also gone through all those medications and I made a decision back in 2007 not to take them anymore.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: When you were receiving that treatment and you were using your Gold Card, did the people that you were working with—be they psychiatrists or psychologists or social workers—not know you were sleeping rough? Did they not ask you about this issue or did they not discuss it?

Mr Norman : They knew, but what could they do? There were so-called set criteria that they had to meet. But it was whether you met that person. Sometimes I met them may be a day or two days before discharge, but that was just the formality of actually meeting them. I knew that I was going to somebody's couch, but I lived in hope that there would be a property.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Thank you for sharing your story with us today.

Mr Norman : No worries. Thank you.

Senator STERLE: Mr Norman, this is to you and also to Mr Sarich and any other vets here. In the case of most employers, when you walk into an employment situation there are processes and procedures and people say, 'This is how it all goes, and if something goes wrong this is what you need to do.' I know this sounds simplistic, but is that the case with Defence? Do Defence actually say, 'As soon as you come in here, if something goes wrong, if physically or mentally there is an issue, you do have backup, you do have support, you do have help; contact this person'?

Mr Norman : I cannot speak for Lee. I did not have it in my time.

Senator STERLE: Mr Sarich, did you have that experience when you signed up?

Mr Sarich : What was the question again, please?

Senator STERLE: Was it put to you by Defence: if something goes wrong, whether it be mentally, physically or whatever, there are support programs and there are issues we can help you out with and these are the people you need to talk to? In other words: if you have a problem, we are not going to leave stranded; go here.

Mr Sarich : I believed that it was the case, yes, that that information was provided in a general way.

Senator STERLE: What I am trying to get to, Chair—and I am sorry, I have just come onto the inquiry today, and I wish I had been on the earlier ones—is that I have got this impression that everything is roses and everything is Mickey Mouse and we will take all this opportunity to train you to be on top of your game, but when something goes wrong it is not our problem, move on, there is nothing to see. Am I making sense to say that you would hope that when you sign up you would know definitely that you have this support if things did not go to the script?

Mr Norman : I did not.

Senator STERLE: No, you did not, Mr Norman, and, of course, I understand you signed up—

Mr Sarich : I think the answer to that question is yes, because the answer to that question has to be yes. It is Defence policy because it is a policy for all employers in Australia, basically, and Defence knows that. So when everyone marches in as a recruit there is whatever presentation it is—an hour or 10 minutes or whatever it is. Yes, we have told all our recruits that if everything goes tits up then go and see these people. You have got free medical; you have got this and that and that. So, yes, the box is ticked, absolutely. That question is answered, because it has to be answered. Then, when things do go tits up and guys actually try to access those services, my experience has been that we have found some of the inadequacies in the services that are provided. Of course the boxes are ticked. Is there a person to go and see? Yes, absolutely. Does the member have the access? Yes, of course they do. But when the member gets there, is it effective? Well, actually, maybe not.

Senator STERLE: I was trying to join the dots, and now I can see.

CHAIR: One of the things we know from the DVA is that they have actual assessments that their next customers are about seven years after discharge, and one of the real problems is that by the time they get that customer it is a very expensive solution, whereas if they were on the job from day one it would probably be a much more effective solution and a much more efficient solution.

Mr Sarich : And the people they are working with would, I believe, be much more receptive to treatment and able to achieve better outcomes that are possibly not achievable after such a long time.

CHAIR: Exactly. You stabilise, you are off the grog, but you have missed a whole lot of life in the meantime.