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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee
01/09/2015
Mental health of returned Australian Defence Force personnel

SKINNER, Mr Bradley Allan, Executive Officer, Walking Wounded

Committee met at 9:00

CHAIR ( Senator Gallacher ): I declare open this public hearing of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee. This public hearing is relation to the committee's inquiry into mental health of ADF serving personnel. Copies of the committee's terms of reference are available from the secretariat. I welcome everyone here today. This is a public hearing and a Hansard transcript of the proceedings is being made.

Before the committee starts taking evidence I remind all witnesses that in giving evidence to the committee they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of the evidence given to a committee. Such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. It is a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee. I would like to emphasise that while the committee prefers all evidence to be given in public, under the Senate's resolutions witnesses have the right to request to be heard in a private session.

If you would like any of your evidence to be heard in camera please do not hesitate to let the committee know. If a witness objects to answering a question the witness should state the grounds on which the objection is taken and the committee will determine whether it will insist on an answer, having regard to the ground on which it is claimed. If the committee determines to insist on an answer a witness may request that the answer be given in camera. As noted previously, such a request may be made at any other time.

I would like to welcome a representative from Walking Wounded. Would you like to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Mr Skinner : Yes, certainly. This is a brief background of Walking Wounded. It is a fairly new veterans' charity that was incorporated late last year. Presently, it has a grand total of four employees, two full-time and two part-time. Tomorrow we will be starting a soldiers' Kokoda trek for 10 days, taking a mixture of paying clients, former soldiers and family members of Families of the Fallen across Kokoda, and then onto Mount Kilimanjaro, in Africa.

The end of our year will be marked with a Families of the Fallen dinner at the Australian War Memorial, on 10 November, during which the role of honour, which was presented to our founder Brian Freeman, by the Governor-General last year on Remembrance Day, will be presented back to him in front of an audience, importantly, of the families of those 41 soldiers that were killed in Afghanistan. The organisation Walking Wounded has only been going for a reasonably short time and the main aim is to try to reduce the suicide level amongst returned veterans. To do that we try to look at employment, voluntary or paid, and we do all we can in that regard. We also try facilitate the Families of the Fallen organisation, which is, as I said before, those families of the 41 killed in Afghanistan.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I would like to ask you to clarify something you said in your opening statement, Mr Skinner. Did you say paying clients?

Mr Skinner : Paying. Yes. The mixture of having corporate or paying clients along with members of Families of the Fallen and returned soldiers is an immensely powerful experience. Our founder, Brian Freeman, as I said before, has been doing this since 2011 and every year he has taken trips to Kokoda. Every time, it has been a great experience—most particularly for the soldiers—and putting together the soldiers and the families has been, for both sides, very beneficial for their getting past what they have to get past. To do that we do not charge soldiers. We do not charge families to do that. Somebody has to pay the bills, so we also take paying clients and quite often they are very moved. More than half of the people that go across become friends and supporters of ours. Even if we do not receive another cent from them, they are always in touch and always willing to support us to do something else. It is a great, great model to go forward for us.

CHAIR: Can you give us any idea, or the percentage, of people who contribute financially and participate in this? Is it a third or two-thirds?

Mr Skinner : The original model was half and half. When Brain did the first soldiers' Kokoda in 2011, most were soldiers from the 2nd Combat Engineer Regiment. The proposition to the corporates was, 'You pay for two positions and you go on one. Send whoever you want from your company on one and we will send a soldier on one.' So sponsor a soldier across. Basically, that soldier got paired off with that corporate.

Importantly, this is where it came about: Mr Ray Palmer, who is the father of Private Scott Palmer, the commando who was killed on 21 June 2010 in Afghanistan in that helicopter crash with two other commandos, was also on the first Kokoda. Ray was instrumental in us discovering this nexus between the parent and the soldier. Coincidentally, Damien Thomlinson, who was a commando in Afghanistan who lost both of his legs in an IED incident, was on that first one as well. He either crutched his way or he walked on his stumps all the way across Kokoda. When you are thinking you are having a tough day, think about Damien Thomlinson walking Kokoda on a pair of stumps. The sad irony of it is of course that when Damien was first injured one of the first people to his side who rendered him first aid was Scotty Palmer.

Scott was instrumental in saving Damien's life that day. As you know, a traumatic amputation of both legs is a step away from death. He survived and went on to recover quite well. Then later on, on this first Kokoda, here is Damien walking with the father of the man who saved him. This is immensely powerful stuff, and from there we understood. Ray Palmer has been a friend of ours since then, and is now actually a part-time employee of ours.

CHAIR: Excellent story.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Mr Skinner, could you give the committee an idea of why you established this, and the evolution of your journey here? And perhaps what gaps you felt you needed to fill that were not being addressed?

Mr Skinner : Brian Freeman, the founder—I keep talking about 'the founder'; it is not with a capital letter, he is not our dear leader or anything!—and I go back to Kapooka, in the mid-eighties. We were both corporals down there as recruit instructors. We have remained mates ever since. The last time we saw each other in uniform was in East Timor in 1999. He was working for General Cosgrove and I was working with the Combat Engineer Regiment. Brian and I stayed in touch over all these many years.

In 2009-2010 Brian had the idea. He went on to establish a successful business in adventure holidays. He started off with physical training and went on to adventure holidays for high-end clients. He got the idea after reading some stuff about returned soldiers, that doing something like Kokoda would be good for physical therapy. He went and spoke to Army and Defence about it. Everyone agreed that it was a good idea but nobody was quite willing to sign off on it. At that time I was out of the Army—I served from 1979 to 2006 as an engineer. I retired as a major and I was back in as a 2IC of the 2nd Combat Engineer Regiment. He rang me up and we were just chatting about old times, when he said, 'Do you have any wounded soldiers?' I said, 'Well, how many do you want? I have about 20 of them.' We had suffered quite badly in 2010.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Physical and mental wounds, or mostly physical?

Mr Skinner : Both. In fact at that stage those 20 were mostly physical wounds—guys who had been through IED blasts in Afghanistan. We had suffered two soldiers from our regiment killed: Sapper Darren Smith, a dog handler, and Sapper Jacob Moreland, a combat engineer, in the one incident on 7 June 2010. 6th Battalion, with whom we were partnered in MTF1, went on to suffer four fatal casualties. So it was a pretty kinetic tour for MTF1.

Brian, knowing that I had about 20 soldiers there who I was looking after in my role as welfare officer, described what he wanted to do with Kokoda. I thought it was a great idea. I told my boss; he told the brigade commander, and he thought was a great idea. It took 12 months but those soldiers then went on to do that first soldiers' Kokoda in 2011. On the back of that, Brian was asked to establish a charity or an organisation to continue that work, which he did, which was Mates4Mates.

Brian worked very successfully with Mates4Mates in conjunction with RSL Queensland for many years. But because of commercial considerations through RSL Queensland they split apart. Mates4Mates is now obviously continuing very, very successfully. But Brian wanted to continue the work with former soldiers. He rang me up and said, 'Do you want to work for nothing for terrible hours?' and I said, 'Of course—how can I resist?' He established that basically because he wanted to continue this work because he saw the power of putting together those parents and family members of those soldiers and the unbelievable corporate support we have from around the country.

Walking Wounded started late last year and was incorporated as a charity. At the moment we are in the middle of our tribute to the Anzacs. Brian made an attempt on Everest. I talked about the roll of honour before. Brian took that up to Everest in April-May. He was caught at Camp 2 on Everest on Anzac Day this year, when the earthquake occurred and was lucky to survive. So we did not actually make the top of Everest. He has just completed the Great Australian Traverse, with help from Virgin Australia, where he has run and walked from Bamaga, at the northernmost tip of Australia, to the southernmost tip of Tasmania, including paddling Bass Strait in 60 hours and 16 minutes, believe it or not.

The next step now is that we are going to Kokoda tomorrow, then Kilimanjaro and culminating with our dinner in November with the Governor-General and various guests.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: The committee has heard from a number of witnesses in the last two days of hearings, including Soldier On, yesterday. It seems that in the last two or three years a number of ESO groups have been set up to help veterans and even serving ADF personnel, whereas five years ago this was not the case. From the committee's point of view, we are interested in why these groups have evolved and what gaps you are filling.

Mr Skinner : Yes, you are right. A lot of them have sprung up. We are reasonably well established, I guess. We are not enormous. We are certainly not as big as Mates4Mates or Soldier On. But I think there are a lot of people out there, particularly ex-service people, who still want to help their fellow ex-service people. That willingness to render service to the nation does not stop when you take your uniform off. You still want to do the right thing by the country. Certainly that was one of the motivations for us. A lot of the soldiers or ex-soldiers that we have worked with have done some great things in uniform—there is nothing to say that they cannot do that again—but the secret is to get them off the couch, off the PlayStation and back into work. Whether that work is paid or voluntary, it does not matter so much. But they need to be active and they need to get the right treatment. That treatment needs to happen from the time of diagnosis, usually within the uniformed services, through to the time when they are able to lift their heads and say 'All right, I can go on now.' That may encompass trauma. Getting out of the Army, Navy or Air Force is not easy at the best of times. Even if you have had a good career and you have not had too much bad happen to you, it is still not easy to do after a long time. When you have problems as a result of your service, it becomes very, very difficult to do. We want to try and pick up the slack there. We think DVA, in most cases, does a very valuable job. Individual experiences may vary, and I have heard all of the experiences of DVA—from the very, very good to the very, very bad.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Amongst your clients, if you do not mind me calling them that, we have heard evidence around homelessness of veterans and mental health issues related to suicide and substance abuse. Is that the kind of thing you are helping to deal with in your community?

Mr Skinner : Exactly. At the end of the day, when you drill right down to it, suicide is the one thing that we really want to prevent. Everything that we do is geared towards getting people into a state of mind that they will not do it: providing ASIST—applied suicide intervention skills training—employment training, voluntary help. To give you an example, we have a lot of people that come and help us and volunteer. You would not call them volunteers; they are ex-soldiers who just want to help out. One of them came to us in a roundabout sort of way. We met an ex-soldier at football club meeting, trying to organise some employment opportunities. He mentioned that one of his former soldiers was in a quite bad way, and we decided we had to go back. In this case, she rendered almost 20 years of service to the nation—great service—but was now in a bad way. So we reached out to her and asked her if she wanted to help us. That is all she wanted to do. She wanted to find a purpose again in her life. I think that is what we are doing for her. We are along the way.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Do you think you are making a difference?

Mr Skinner : I think we are making a difference in a few individuals' lives, yes, for sure. There is no doubt about that. During this traverse, Brian was covering 65 kilometres a day on average, every day. So it is a marathon and a half, a day. During those walks he would often be joined by family members and by former soldiers, and those long periods on the road walking and talking were immensely valuable. We picked up a soldier in Townsville who was on the verge of homelessness and asked him if he wanted to come and help us out. He is going to Kokoda tomorrow with us, then is going to Kilimanjaro with us. We are not paying him a wage. He is going to come along as a volunteer. But, yes, we have made a difference in his life, certainly.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Through your experiences, the committee noted that in your submission you have suggested the use of trained counsellors and even ex-veterans who can better relate to the problems of other veterans.

Mr Skinner : Yes, absolutely.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I would be interested to hear your views. We have heard evidence that part of the problem with DVA at the moment is that a lot of it has been outsourced or privatised. You get your Medicare number and you can go and see all of these different service providers. Some have suggested that these things should be brought more in-house or there should be more trained professionals who are aligned with the Department of Defence or with DVA. Is that what you are suggesting?

Mr Skinner : Absolutely.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Or would this be a volunteer thing?

Mr Skinner : To that end we have been talking closely with the Australian Counselling Association. They are going to sponsor three of our 'clients', as you say—a couple of ex-soldiers, and in fact a former fiancee of one the soldiers that was killed—to become counsellors over the next 12 to 18 months, and sponsor them through that.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So there are training services available?

Mr Skinner : Yes, absolutely. They are providing that as a donation in kind. When we talk to organisations, we do not put our hand out. We can find money. There is always somebody willing to donate or sponsor or something like that. If we go to an organisation like that, what we are after is a donation in kind. If they can sponsor those three to gain their qualification in counselling, that is great. We do not view that every answer for every person who needs it is a psychiatrist or psychologist. It could be a counsellor. The benefit of having a former counsellor with military experience is that you do not spend the first 20 minutes explaining what a sapper does in the Army.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I noted that in your submission. Actually, we have heard pretty similar evidence from other witnesses, especially yesterday, that they at least need to be able to immediately relate to—

Mr Skinner : Exactly. So when a guy comes in and says, 'I was a grunt in mortars,' you do not explain what a grunt in mortars used to do.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Could you tell us how many veterans are counsellors? This is a concept that has not been raised before.

Mr Skinner : From our perspective, we do not have any. In talking with the ACA, I understand that they have several who have spent careers—in fact, Phil Armstrong, the guy I speak to at ACA, is a former soldier himself, and that is what pushed our association. He is a former infantryman. They have several that they are able to source, and if we really needed to we could source them as well through that association.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Would it be a positive thing for some veterans who may also be suffering from mental health issues, or issues related to their service, to become counsellors to help others?

Mr Skinner : Yes. I was talking about soldiers rendering great service to their nation. One of the guys we work closely with now was a soldier in the 2nd Combat Engineer Regiment. He came back from Afghanistan, and on the surface it was all well and good. He had been through a couple of incidents. He was not physically wounded. He had hurt his shoulder a little bit in an IED blast. He got back and I spoke to him several times in my capacity as XO of 2 CER and I thought, 'This is the sort of young man for whom the Army is designed.' He was a big, tough, rough-talking bloke who you want to be your junior NCOs in the Army. There was no doubt about it. Weeks later he just fell off—he just fell over. Luckily he has a good family background and the unit backed him up. He went through some terrible, terrible times. He got through them—to his great credit he is a very strongminded and strong-willed individual. He has a wonderful family now that looks after him still and he started a new business. One of the things he does more than anything is that he drops in on us every week, and we talk on the phone. We run a crossfit session out at Mitchelton every Thursday. He is out there most Thursdays. But all he wants to do now is help other people. It is the same with everybody that has been through that experience. They have enormous sympathy for anyone that is going through it and all they want to do is help. Whether it is fundraising or ringing them up or the old 'R U OK' phone call—things like that are all they want to do. It is a wonderfully uplifting thing to see.

Senator LAMBIE: Mr Skinner, how many soldiers are you advocating for at this point in time, or have you advocated with Veterans' Affairs in helping to assist them with their forms?

Mr Skinner : None at the moment, Senator. We have not set ourselves up as an advocate's type of assistance. But, we are in the process of taking on an advocate over in Morningside who is going to set up a temporary office in a location at the Rising Sun Centre over in Morningside. We have not set ourselves up as advocates because we believe there are enough out there. If you need to find an advocate you can do that quite easily, but the opportunity came up to have Bob and his little crew who are very, very active in the advocacy stakes set up with us and for us to help them—it is a bit of a mutual thing. We believe that we do not have all of the answers for everything. If we can help other organisations who are trying to help soldiers then we are going to try and help them as well. We have talked with Trojan's Trek, and Veterans' Care with Padre Gary Stone. We are not particularly advertising that we have an advocacy service but once we get Bob and his crew on board we will certainly put the word around that we can do that. But at the moment, no, we do not.

Senator LAMBIE: So you have a referral system—when these people come to see you about their claims you refer them on to somebody?

Mr Skinner : Yes. Absolutely, that is all we do at the moment. Once Bob gets set up we will be up to saying yes, come in and see us at 481 Wynnum Road.

Senator LAMBIE: Do you know what the success rate is for those claims when you send them on?

Mr Skinner : No I could not—

Senator LAMBIE: I note that you have said that you 'all agree that recognition and treatment of mental health problems among service men and women has improved remarkably over the last 30 years'. I am just wondering how you came up with that?

Mr Skinner : It is a result of the experience that Brian and I had. Brian and I joined the Army in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We finished our service, Brian in 1999, and me in 2006 and later again in 2010. From those days to today, the treatment of mental health in Defence—I will not say Defence, I will say Army, because that was my experience—has improved out of sight. It is unbelievable, to the extent where the last time I wore uniform in 2010 if I suspected that a soldier was suffering I would have no hesitation in bringing it up with the CO, with him, with his section commander, with any of them. Nine times out 10 the stigma of people admitting to having a mental problem has all but disappeared.

Soldiering is still a business that attracts hard people. It is a business that requires a robustness of physical and mental outlook not required in any other role. But there is also, now, the understanding, I think, that the way to get treatment for PTSD or other mental health related issues is to go looking for them. From that time in 2010, speaking with the then Chief of Army, Ken Gillespie—he and I were both of about the same vintage; he was a bit older than me; we spoke when we met at funerals twice that year; he was my old commanding officer and in fact promoted me to staff sergeant—we both marvel about the fact that if somebody thinks they are doing it tough they go and seek help. That would not have happened when I was a soldier—no way in the world.

Senator LAMBIE: Do you know by chance how many suicides that we have had in defence over the past two years while they have been in uniform?

Mr Skinner : No, because I have not been in uniform for a little while now.

Senator LAMBIE: Do you think it might be a smart idea if those who have done war service or warlike service automatically receive a gold card?

Mr Skinner : I would like to say yes—I really would. I think the gold card is a great benefit to people, but I also know that there is not a bottomless bucket. I am a great believer that government is not there to cure every ill of society. It is there to lend a hand where it is really needed. I want to extend the help I can to everybody we can, but that would be one of the things where you would have to be really certain. For example, technically speaking, I am a returned soldier. I saw active service in East Timor. I am never going to pretend that the service I saw in East Timor compares with the service that these diggers that I knew in 2CR underwent in Afghanistan. Both are active service and both got the same medal. Allowances were pretty similar. But honestly, when you put your fair dinkum hat on, it does not compare. If that were the case and I could put my hand out for a gold card, my hand would be shaking, as they used to say, because I would know, deep down, that I would not deserve it.

Senator LAMBIE: You do not believe it should be a right of service that, if you serve your country in war or warlike circumstances, you should automatically get a gold card? You do not believe your country should repay you some debt?

CHAIR: Senator Lambie, the witness has answered that question to the best of his ability.

Senator LAMBIE: The transition period from Defence to civilian life—there is nothing in place that I can see or have heard of yet where they have done anything about that. Have you heard about the GI bill they are running in America where they retrain and re-educate?

Mr Skinner : Yes. The GI bill, as I understand it, has been in place since, I think, the end of World War II. The Americans have had a lot of experience with this. You are right: we do not do enough. The soldier recovery centres in the bases now are a positive step forward. The soldier recovery centres now are while people are still in uniform, and that is the secret. Everything needs to be set in place before you pull off the uniform for the last time and put your civvy clothes on. The soldier recovery centres are doing that to some extent. Their work—and I am certainly not an expert in what they do, although we have some close ties here with the Enoggera soldier recovery centre. I can only speak of my own experience in discharging. I know that the assistance available to me then—because I had served, at that stage, over 27 years or something—was actually quite extensive. There should be more in place, certainly, but for the moment it is a lot better—like everything, it is a lot better than it used to be.

Senator LAMBIE: You mention the ADF mental health evaluation screening. What can you tell me about that?

Mr Skinner : The POPS—post-operational psych screening. I underwent that when I came back from East Timor. I am not quite sure how it is administered these days, but it was a very quick and efficient way to get initial indications down and recorded. It was 10 or 15 minutes, or as long as it took, with a psychologist. They asked you a series of questions immediately at the end of that period of active service and then in a follow-up three or six months later—something like that, from memory. I have spoken to a few younger veterans about it since then and a lot of them think, 'If I say anything now, I'm likely to get delayed. I'm going leave. Maybe I will just say nothing. I won't worry about it.' I do not know how often that happens. Most soldiers are pretty honest about what they are feeling and what they are going to go through.

Senator LAMBIE: So they are pretty honest if they know it is going to hold back their promotion?

Mr Skinner : That is the thing. Most soldiers are honest but most soldiers are realists too. Some years ago, when they changed the medical classification system in Army so that you could no longer serve if you had an injury that prevented you from serving overseas, that cut out a whole bunch of people who were very useful in Army. Just because they could not deploy did not mean they could not do good work elsewhere. I served many years ago with a major at Kapooka, and it was not until I saw him running in PT gear that I realised he only had one leg. He lost a leg in Vietnam thanks to a mine but he had served—and this was 20 years after the end of Vietnam—quite happily with a wooden leg. I thought: why not? Why would you want to lose that experience if that person can still provide that service? We are not going to send him overseas to fight again but, gee, there are lots of good jobs he could do in Army otherwise.

Senator FAWCETT: Mr Skinner, thanks for the work you are doing and for being here. The opinion you have expressed that most soldiers these days are happy to speak up is a little bit at odds with a lot of the evidence we are hearing about soldiers being very reluctant to admit either to physical injuries—in some cases, back problems—or, particularly, mental health problems. You have made the comment here that, if better record keeping had been done, then it would be easier for DVA to treat claims. But, if soldiers are reluctant to report because of concerns about redeploying or promotion or just the stigma that still does seem to attach, despite good words coming from the CDF and other people down at the working level, can you give us some idea as to how we could improve that record keeping, that disclosure? What sorts of things would encourage soldiers to be more open about reporting?

Mr Skinner : When I talk about them being more open about it, I am comparing my time as a 19-year-old soldier with today. I think soldiers are more attuned to how their mind is working and how their body is working. Probably the greatest problem now is that the medical classification system means that, if you are not ready to deploy, you cannot continue employment in the Army. For a lot of young men and women that means that they are losing the job they have always wanted. That is something that needs to be addressed. When you are in uniform, you need that understanding that the organisation is going to look after you, that it is going to keep you on board and you have got that reassurance. Certainly when I was a digger that was the case—you knew that you would certainly not be losing a job because you had suffered a bad injury that you might not get back from. That is not the case these days, of course.

What can we do to encourage the record keeping? I base my experience of the record keeping probably on a set of old experiences, where, when guys on that MTF tour came back from Afghanistan and I was looking for records of injury, the old AC563 form, it was quite often hard to track down; there was a bit of to and fro between forces in Australia and deployed forces. If somebody said he had been in an IED blast, I have got no doubt that that would have been recorded while they were in Afghanistan, but I could not find it back here in Australia. If somebody came to me who had served in the unit three years ago and said, 'I busted my leg playing rugby in 2006,' there should be a record of it somewhere. If I went back through whatever records I had, almost invariably it was very, very hard to find.

I understand the reporting system now within Defence has changed. It is no longer that way. But it is one of those things where it looks like it should work all the time but it just does not. People start with the best of intentions—they come in and they reorganise and things get lost and files get deleted off computers. All of a sudden you are looking for a record of an injury because it is playing up 10 years later, but, the further down the track you go and the longer you have been separated from Defence, the harder it is to track those things down, particularly if you are not in uniform anymore. That makes it very difficult.

Senator FAWCETT: Some of the evidence we have been hearing, particularly around people discharging, or not being prepared, after deployment, to admit to having problems, is that, if families were involved in either the discharge process or even the post-operational debriefs and were able to provide input as to issues they were seeing, that might be a trigger for more reporting and identification. Do you have a view as to whether, in your experience, either the soldiers would welcome that or the families would be prepared to participate in that?

Mr Skinner : I am sad to say that most soldiers think they can soldier on. They might admit to things, but they always think, 'I'll be fine. I'll get past this. This'll be fine.' But you are right. I would agree with that. The more that the families have got to do with this, I would say the better. I can only think of my own experiences with the soldiers that I have had, and the people who have been most instrumental in their becoming well again have been their wives, their mums and dads, and their brothers and sisters. They are the ones who would ring me up when I was a 2 CER and say, 'Poor old Bill is not going so well, and whatever he says or does on the surface is just not how it is when he is at home.' That is the nature of the beast.

Senator FAWCETT: Regarding the support we provide to the families, if they are such an important part of the recovery—and most of the evidence seems to point pretty clearly to that being the case—with the people that you have worked with and their families, have you had any strong indications that the support is adequate or that the support is lacking? What are the key gaps that we should be looking to fill to suitably inform and support families?

Mr Skinner : From the families that I speak to—and I have met a few now—I think the help is there if they know when and how to look. The key to it though is finding an individual in the right job at the right time. This is the experience that I have talked to soldiers about with DVA as well. One of the guys that we used to work with in DVA had never had a problem. He said that, as long as he had all of his paperwork, the person that he talked to was unfailingly helpful and great to work with every time—and other people have had different experiences.

I think families could probably do with more help and I would like to see them involved more while that person is still in uniform. The secret to this is getting those treatment regimes in place prior to any discharge. Once the discharge happens, the whole world changes for that person. They are no longer part of the organisation, and the responsibility for care shifts from Defence to DVA. As anybody will tell you, any welfare organisation in a unit or a base or a ship will involve the families from the very first time that you are starting a deployment through until the end of that deployment and further on. Getting to know those wives, mums and dads, and brothers and sisters is key in a unit to ensuring that those phone calls do happen. When you hand your card out, you should know that you are going to get a phone call from mum or dad, or the wife or husband to say, 'So and so is just not right.' How do you do that? It is leadership.

CHAIR: I have had some dealings with Trojan's Trek, and Moose Dunlop is very adamant on that: we need to have that link into the family, because they are the ones that see things that are awry first up, quite often before the soldier does—

Mr Skinner : No doubt about it.

CHAIR: Do you have any suggestions on how that can be achieved? We have the Privacy Act, and there does not appear to be any success in that area at the moment. Do you have any thoughts on how that can be achieved?

Mr Skinner : I wish I did. I think it is down to personal relationships. In my time as XO, I started the job as 2IC of the regiment because the regiment was going to Afghanistan. At the bottom of a long list of responsibilities was unit welfare officer. I had been in the Army for 20-something years. It never occurred to me that by the end of the year that unit welfare officer would be all that I was doing, basically. It meant that I had very close and regular contact with all of the families of the soldiers that were deployed. We had soldiers not just in Afghanistan; we also had soldiers that year in East Timor and also on exercise. That year we had two soldiers who were very badly injured in a vehicle accident up near Rockhampton, when a truck ploughed into them. It was the whole gamut of welfare experiences. I am still in contact with a lot of those families, certainly with the families of the soldiers that I dealt with in those days. I do not know the answer. I wish I did. It is having the right people in the right jobs at the right time.

CHAIR: But you do have a suggestion about the service people trained as counsellors being available, which might be a bridge, if you like?

Mr Skinner : Yes, I think so. I think the concept of self-help and self-diagnosis amongst soldiers is not a bad one. It is not just the families; quite often it is the mates because these guys and girls look after each other. A lot of the time they have been to war. I take the example of one of our guys who was a sapper when he got out, which is a private in Engineers, but he has been the go-to guy for all of the people that he knew in his section and outside when they have suffered difficulties in civilian life. He has become a de facto section commander to these guys just by virtue of the fact that that is the sort of individual he is—he is the sort of guy who wants to help all the time. Mates and families are the first to notice—all of us live internal lives but the external stuff is going to be noticed by those who are closest to us.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Mr Skinner, when we were discussing depression and mental illness and suicide with beyondblue yesterday, they said that their model of community watch for suicide might be something that veterans' groups could incorporate—but it sounds like you have people who already, through counselling, phone people and keep an eye on them. I was wondering if you could comment on that. Also, their model of having a role model who can go and talk to people, for example men who suffer from depression be it in a farming community or wherever, and maybe that could be applied to the military. Do you think it is realistic that someone very well-known and very well respected could go and talk to diggers before they get out about issues that they may or may not encounter? Do you think that is a realistic thing for us to suggest?

Mr Skinner : I honestly do. I use the example of John Cantwell and his book—it had an enormous influence I think. I read the book and was blown away that here is this senior guy admitting to all of this. I had some experience of General Cantwell—I met him down at Kapooka many years ago. I went back to Kapooka several times and ended up as a company commander there and I asked him to come down to do some officer training. The most wonderful chap that he is, he came down from Canberra at his own expense and talked to us, but that was about his experiences in the First Gulf War. I know that he was very highly regarded. Men and women of that stature need to be enlisted to speak not just to soldiers but to ex-soldiers as well. I think that General Cantwell does that very well. The idea of the overwatch is a good one, and in fact there are several groups—on Facebook they are referred to as 'overwatch groups' to take the old Army phrase—where it is a loose affiliation of like-minded individuals, mostly corps based, armoured corps or infantry or whatever, that keep an eye on each other. We do it to an informal degree in Walking Wounded because it is mates of ours and people who we have worked with who know somebody else and we ring them—it is reasonably informal, it is reasonably ad hoc—but that self-help network is the key to it. There is work to be done still.

I did an applied suicide intervention skills course at Kapooka many years ago—thinking it was going to be two days of my life that I would never get back. But I actually found it was a very valuable two days. It demystified suicide and it talked about the actual things you should do when you are confronted with the prospect of somebody doing it. It is reasonably confronting, as suicide invariably is—whether it is successful or not. It is one of those things where it is good to know exactly what you should be doing rather than going, 'I am not quite sure about this.'

Senator LAMBIE: Do you think it would be in Defence's best interest to let in the groups—such as the Vietnam Veterans' Association, the federation, the peacekeepers and the peacemakers—to give these guys a reality check of what it is going to be like on the outside and to explain to them what they are going to come up against whether it be through Veterans' Affairs or whether it is going to be through their transition in Defence. At the moment Defence is not allowing those groups to go in there to speak and be realistic with those men and women in uniform and make them aware of what is to going to happen the day that they leave, the day that they walk out the front gate.

Mr Skinner : I could not agree more.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Are you aware that it is the case that Defence does not allow these kinds of—

Mr Skinner : I know that Defence policy is what it is. I also know that there are plenty of unit commanders out there who run their own units. If they decide that Joe Bloggs from such and such an organisation is going to come to the unit boozer on Thursday sports parade and have five minutes to talk about his organisation and what they can offer, that is what unit commanders will do. Defence policy is what Defence policy is, but I think Defence commanders have also got a lot of latitude in who they can and cannot invite into their unit at certain times. I know that it was certainly the case when I was in uniform that our unit would often get speakers in from organisations that we thought would be helpful for soldiers in whatever sense—whether that was the RSL or Legacy, the established organisations, or the charities and things like that. We had no hesitation getting the right people in to talk to soldiers.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I have a last quick question on suicide statistics. Do you agree that DVA should be the organisation that keeps a formal record of veteran suicides?

Mr Skinner : Yes, I do.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Have you any proposals for the committee on how they might work with groups such as yours and others?

Mr Skinner : No; unless DVA can come up with—and the reason I say 'DVA' is that, if it is not going to be DVA, then who else?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Who else, yes.

Mr Skinner : They would seem to be the natural one.

Senator LAMBIE: There would be a lack of trust there though, wouldn't there, Mr Skinner—

Mr Skinner : I think there would.

Senator LAMBIE: To inform DVA, it would have to be an independent body.

Mr Skinner : Yes, it would be. Maybe there is an independent branch off Defence that does it—I do not know. DVA, on the surface of it, seems to be the one to do it. There is work to be done on that. Perhaps it is just a simple reporting regime. The problem with suicide is that it is not a simple matter. It is always complex. It is always one of those things where, despite what may have occurred on the surface, when you dig deep that may not be truth of it. When Admiral Walker said that she was not sure that PTSD was the cause of all these suicides—who knows? Maybe she was right; maybe she was not. The problem with suicide is that nobody ever bloody knows. The time for questions is finished when you are confronted with a dead body. You cannot ask them why. You cannot ask them how. You cannot ask what the reason is. And that is the great tragedy of it—what could we have done?

CHAIR: Mr Skinner, on that point, I ran a small organisation where I had an attempted suicide and my reaction to that was to immediately institute some counselling on a rostered basis per month, because I did not know how people were feeling, obviously, and I could not do anything about that attempt. Is there any evidence in the service that you have been in—the Army—that there is a proactive risk-taking approach to potential self-harm? Is there access to counselling on a regular basis that is openly promoted and availed of?

Mr Skinner : I think there is. When I say I did that ASIST course, that was down in Kapooka in 2003-04, something like that, so that was over 10 years ago. The CO then, it must be said, was a particularly proactive CO and made sure that we did that and that everybody knew. It is down to leadership—you are right. If you see something and decide that you need to take steps to try to prevent this in the future, that is what is going to happen with a good leader. A good leader is going to do that.

I am talking about being back in uniform now—the availability of help is there if soldiers know where to look and know who to ask. I do not think it is difficult to source that when you are in uniform, but if you are in the grips of depression or PTSD or mental illness of any kind, the thought that, 'I need to get help' does not happen. You are so mired in that well of depression that the thought that you might need help just does not occur to you. You think, 'I'll be fine; I'll get through this—it is just a bad day.'

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your evidence and the work that you and your organisation do.

Mr Skinner : Thank you.