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Wednesday, 28 February 2018
Page: 2400

Dr MIKE KELLY (Eden-Monaro) (16:49): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker Buchholz; it is great to be in this chamber talking on this bill with you present as well, given our recent collaboration in relation to the Breaker Morant story, and I think we reflected at that time about the issue of the mental health concerns that arose in the context of that guerilla war campaign and the effects that it had on those individuals and the outcomes that can be consequential on those mental stresses in those intensely stressful and trying environments. I reflected on that being an experience replicated in a lot of the recent conflicts of the men and women of our ADF in those environments, where there's no front line, no place to rest and no escape from the pressure and the threat, and you can't identify an enemy readily. We've seen that from Vietnam to Somalia to Afghanistan and Iraq. We have a generation of veterans coming through now who have had these experiences and who, thankfully, have not had to go through what our Vietnam veterans went through with the way they were treated by society when they returned, which was incredibly shameful.

I think I've reflected before about the experience of Frankie Hunt in the Bega Valley shire in my electorate. He was the Frankie from the song I Was Only 19 who suffered a terrible mine incident in Vietnam, but when he came back he spent a long period of time through rehabilitative surgery and treatment in Heidelberg hospital in Victoria. He recounts in the book that was written about the story of the song, The Jungle Dark, that one day a group of them were taken out to see a movie in Melbourne. They were all in wheelchairs and unable to walk, and it was during the height of the Vietnam demonstrations. As they got off the bus, a group of demonstrators saw them and one young lady in this group came over, was abusing Frankie and actually squashed a pie in his head. This is a guy in a wheelchair, a veteran of the Vietnam War, who's suffered terribly in the incident and the subsequent treatment, but Frankie's response—I won't use the full response—was, 'You forgot the sauce.' That says a lot about Frankie and his resilience and sense of humour. Hopefully, that illustrates a little the types of mental pressure these veterans were under. Frankie hung in there because of his mental resilience, but so many others were treated by their country at that time as pariahs. The extra pressure that that put on them mentally was enormous, and you can see how that generation of our veterans in particular has suffered probably in greater proportion than other veteran generations.

But I'm now seeing the younger veterans coming through in my region and, I guess, my cohort as well. They don't feel like the RSL is something they can reach out to. They feel a bit alienated from that organisation and I think there's work to be done there. We've had our issues, of course, in New South Wales with the New South Wales RSLs going through a difficult period, but these veterans don't feel that's their place, necessarily, to resolve their issues. So we need to be a lot more creative in how we deal with the initial phases of people struggling with mental health issues from their experiences while they're serving and also in graduating that through and having a continuum of support through their post-service life—and I'll come back to that.

Those pressures include just the pressures from service itself, let alone deployments. Some of the types of situations people get into in the obviously rigorous and dangerous training can be quite traumatic. I recall a grenade range incident while I was up at the 1st Division. A digger had crimped the pins on his grenades in his pouch to try and make it quicker to pull the grenades. A grenade went off in his pouch and set off another three grenades and he was literally blown to pieces, so you had limbs falling in front of his compatriots engaged in that exercise. So training at home also can be quite stressful and traumatic.

The stresses and strains on the families is another issue that I think can't be fully appreciated by the general community. I recall, every time that you would deploy, having to go through this process of doing your hero shot for if you're killed so that that's there for the media, sitting down and doing your will, and discussing the issues with your spouse and your family prior to departure. It's effectively a farewell process that you go through every time you deploy. The families go through that, and then you're not there, and you're not there for extended periods of time. I deployed something like five times. I put my family through that. You'd be away for six months to a year in circumstances like when I was in Somalia, where you couldn't even communicate with them in any way, shape or form. I remember that I managed to get one phone call in via satellite phone during that time we were in Somalia. The 18 minutes of conversation cost me about $300 at the time, which you had to pay for out of your own pocket. It was only later that things like email and Skyping have helped in that respect.

With those families—okay, you're away, you're out of the house and you're not there to help, but they also don't know if you're going to come back at all. That's a unique aspect of the job that you don't find in many others. If they hear something on the news or hear a report, instantly it's the cold sweats, it's the chill up the spine and it's the concern. I remember—fortunately by Iraq we had communications that were better—one situation where I'd come under attack in one particular location and we had 26 casualties. I knew this was going to be on the news, but fortunately I was able to ring my wife and tell her, 'Look, it's all good; no damage done,' et cetera. Whenever they're in that situation, hearing that news—the sheer terror that they go through in those circumstances. Then you come back and you disrupt the life that they've built while you've been away and how they do things. And then they're there to try to pick up your pieces of however you may be feeling or going through your decompression over whatever. There's a lot of pressure on them through all of this.

I've seen incidents in the past, too, in dealing with family members, because every generation of my family has served in the military. I remember, in particular, my father's father, my grandfather on my father's side, who served in the Middle East and in Java during the Second World War and was a prisoner of the Japanese on the Burma-Thailand Railway. I still have his loincloth from that experience to remind me: 'Don't complain. Harden up, princess.' He came back, obviously, with a lot of mental burdens. That generation who'd been prisoners were told to suck it up—to not impose your problems on anyone else or the family. They were internalising all of this, these horrendous experiences which we can't imagine that they endured.

In a terribly heartbreaking story, I had one constituent who was with her husband for 40 years, enduring these nightmares—you know, alcohol; times he'd wake up in the night and she would have his hands around her throat, choking her, thinking she was Japanese; and all that sort of stuff. It got to the point where she could no longer endure that. People were telling her that she had to leave the household because her life was at risk, and so she did. Within a short period of time, her husband passed away and she wasn't entitled to any of the war widows veterans support, because she had left him to basically save her own life. We were trying to work with Senator Sherry at the time to see if we could get some sort of ex gratia support for her. Unfortunately, she went into hospital to have a hip replacement, contracted septicaemia and died before we could sort that out.

These stories are amplified across the nation with the thousands of veterans that we have to look after, so I'm really pleased that we've worked together across the chamber and across the houses to sort out a lot of these issues. There will be more to do. We have to make sure that the processes are human in this. That's the biggest single thing I get from veterans, that the entry point of getting into the support of the DVA is a traumatic experience in itself because it's complicated and there's a lot of paperwork, and a lot of them can't cope with that. It's an adversarial type of situation where you feel like you're being questioned and you have to prove yourself.

We've heard, of course, reference to the tragic Jesse Bird story, which led to his suicide. That brings us to this really dark issue of suicide at the moment. The numbers that we've experienced are absolutely staggering. I come back to this issue of needing to build on this now. I'm pleased that we've set up the Parliamentary Friends of Suicide Prevention group with my friend the member for Berowra. We're working through the different types of dynamics—youth suicide, Indigenous and LGBTQI pressures that we're aware of—but we also want to focus on this veterans' issue as well and help them find mechanisms to manage their stress and to reach out to help when they need it.

If we look at some creative solutions, one solution that appeared to me was from a friend who was a fellow Iraq veteran who was having issues. He wanted to be on the land in the bush to deal with that, and it worked for him. He was leasing some farm area near Braidwood in the electorate and he invited out there other friends who were going through similar problems. By the time he was done with this, they'd built a residence out there where people could go to chill out. He had animal husbandry, farm mechanics, river restoration—all this stuff going on on this property that was really helping these people.

But I think we need to address people in the immediate circumstances. If you get in early with a lot of this stuff, you can choke off any festering or growth of the problem in later times. So we need to look at those creative solutions for how we help people decompress and how we make people more resilient as well.

I recently met with a veteran who went through a lot of this and produced a book. The guy's name was Todd Berry, and with Rob Ginnivan he wrote a book called Everything's OK. That's a really good start point for people looking for strategies. I must say that, in developing my own strategies, I felt that exercise was a great way to handle stress. Not looking in the rear-view mirror also helped me a lot.

This was brought home to me the other day when I had someone come to interview me from DVA doing a publication about Somalia. We're coming up to the 25th anniversary of that deployment. We had a very long interview, and I went back over that time. It reminded me of why I don't do that, because that night I actually did have an episode, and my poor wife sitting there nearly got punched while I was in the middle of a nightmare.

This is great work that guys like Todd and others are doing to reach out, admit their issues in situations and say: 'You're not alone. Let's talk together. Let's develop strategies. Here are the things that work for me. Here are things that seem to have worked for a lot of people.' I hope we can build a cohesive, continuing regime around managing veterans, because I think that was at the heart of what we were looking at with this reform of merging personnel with veterans in portfolio so that the data on each individual and each veteran can be maintained through. We basically should admit that we put these people through service and we basically own them for the rest of their time. That means not just dealing with clinical problems; one of the points that causes clinical issues is not having that transition period of leaving Defence and going into civilian life dealt with properly, and I'm glad to see we're developing a lot of strategies about helping them land in good civilian employment. That will address a lot of the transition issues that they need to cope with.

So I commend where we've gone with this legislation. As I said, there's more to be done, and I look forward to working together with my colleagues on finding solutions to these. Hopefully, through our committee, the parliamentary group on the prevention of suicide with my friend the member for Berowra will provide an opportunity for people who have these ideas to come forward and engage with both sides of politics and portfolio representatives. I know Greg Hunt, the Minister for Health, has been very supportive. Julie Collins, as well, has been to all of our activities. I look forward to that continuing and for us to be a conduit for solutions to all these problems to be brought forward to the policymakers.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.

Ordered that this bill be reported to the House without amendment.