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

DELL, Mr Anthony Ross, Founder, Stand Tall for PTS

[09:52]

CHAIR: Welcome. I invite you to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions.

Mr Dell : I have a vested interest in military and veterans mental health, and I found myself in a unique position to try to do something about it. I served in Vietnam in 1967-68. I played Sheffield Shield cricket from 1970 to 1975, and during that time I played two test matches. In 2007, I was invited into defence cricket as the only Vietnam veteran to have played test cricket. It turns out now that I am the only living person in the world to have fought in the war and played test cricket. In 2008, I went to a veterans drop in centre to inquire about replacement medals. I was told I had PTSD. I was subsequently officially diagnosed and I have a pension and a gold card. This was 40 years after I came home.

In those 40 years, I lost my family, my business, my home and many friends. I owed the ATO and others in excess of $70,000. In 2009, after a speech at a Defence cricket awards dinner, I spoke about cricket, Vietnam, PTSD and what it had done to my life for so long. I received a standing ovation and an embrace from the CDF and the Chief of Army for daring to broach what was then a taboo subject. In 2010, I formed a not-for-profit with Sir Angus Houston as my patron. Our main goals were to create much more of a national awareness for this illness and to try to influence the government to do more. After a very slow start and a lot of closed doors, we have come a long, long way with no financial assistance. I live by myself and I just use my pension money.

In a few days time, we will be staging the most significant event in the history of PTSD in this country—the International Forum for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder here in Brisbane. I have gathered together an array of the most exceptional minds in this country, plus significant others from Canada and the USA. I am also involving DVA, the three deputy chiefs of our armed forces and the Queensland commissioners of our first responder services. This forum has to be entirely inclusive, and I am giving voice to many NGOs and other volunteers too. My aim is to go to the federal government with a report which says: this is where we are in 2015, this is where we want to be in 2016-17 and this is what we would like you to do to get us there.

When I first embarked upon this journey it was all about fellow Vietnam veterans, but then I learned just how large this problem was. We began to embrace all military veterans and then include the police, firefighters and ambulance. We also acknowledge the victims of accidents, crime and natural disasters—but we can only cover so much in two days at the forum.

Stand Tall does not get involved in treatment. While I started this to create awareness, Angus Houston told me that it has to be more about me because of the cricket and the war service. While I was uncomfortable with this at first, I can now see how it has worked—and having Angus as patron does help. Along the way, I have attracted many sporting and media personalities as supporters, plus a long list of in-kind corporate support. I have the support of the Prime Minister, the Chief of Defence, the National President of the RSL, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, the secretary of Defence, Gai Brodtmann and others. We are keen to develop a Friends of PTSD within Parliament House.

Last year, Angus and I talked about the confusion in the marketplace with us, Mates4 Mates, Soldier On, Trojan's Trek and many others. It is too big a problem for just little NGOs to do this by themselves. This became a catalyst for the forum. We must bring them all together. I now have this happy knack of bringing all sorts of people and organisations under the one umbrella. This is what I have done for the forum. At times DVA struggled to get their message across, and when Craig Orme said to me that I could be a voice for DVA because I have credibility and integrity, I was quite flattered. It is not often that a major general says that to a private, but it does seem that as someone who is independent I have gained that ability.

The program for the forum has been specifically designed to bring the PTSD community together, to identify major issues, to recognise the value of all contributions and to collaboratively advance the need for better outcomes in PTSD prevention and treatment. I think two of the most important issues to be addressed after the forum are stigma and transition. I am sure that positive moves with these will make a difference in our suicide numbers. On the first morning of the forum, we are going to ask everyone to wear an orange ribbon to commemorate everyone who has ever taken their own life as a result of PTSD. In my welcome speech, I will call for a brief silence at the end. We will be sending ribbons to a lot of the media, asking them to do likewise. We would like to send a batch to Parliament House. Maybe you can tell me who to send them to and how many. I would like to think that in a little under a fortnight we could well have some credible answers for you.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Thank you, Mr Dell. I was not aware of that—but that is fantastic. Are you going to invite non-service people as well, such as emergency services and—

Mr Dell : Yes. As I said, the local Queensland commissioners, the AFP—all sorts of people are coming, including psychologists. I got a call this morning, because anonymously a Dr Robyn Walker had registered and could not work out why we sent her an invoice. There is a good chance that her replacement will be there also. So part of the forum is that at one stage we will have a panel session with the three deputy chiefs, someone from strategic health command and Craig Orme from DVA. On the other side, we will have commissioners from police, ambulance and the firies. Even RailSafe will be part of that.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You probably heard my question a little bit earlier about beyondblue. Yesterday we were talking about how their model has worked successfully around the country to raise awareness, especially around depression, by having high profile role models out there talking about it in the media and giving presentations. Obviously, given your journey and your patron, Angus Houston, do you feel there is a role for role models such as you to talk to ADF personnel?

Mr Dell : I do think so. It is just such a massive problem. That is why I was saying that Angus and I just talked about bringing the likes of Mates4Mates, Soldier On, Wandering Warriors, Wounded Heroes et cetera in under the one umbrella. That is the whole idea of the forum. We have got Sandy McFarlane, David Forbes and Richard Bryant. We have brought in Colonel Rakesh Jetly from the Canadian Armed Forces. He is the major psychiatrist in the Canadian military. He is also on the UN board for military mental health. What we want to do over those two days is try and come up with an answer for all of this. It is so damn big. With little groups here and there, I do not think that we are making a big enough impact.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Your journey has been a long one. We have heard evidence from groups you have just mentioned, such as Soldier On and Homes for Heroes, that seem to be almost spontaneously emerging through veterans networks to take this issue on and help veterans and serving personnel. Do you think that is because there have been gaps in the services dealing with this problem; or is it more that it is an awareness-raising thing first and foremost and then it is a service delivery issue?

Mr Dell : Yes, I listened to the talk that went on before. I think the DVA do a good job. I went to see them very early on in the piece, and they admit that people fall through the cracks. A lot of the media coverage that you see these days are one-offs, and the media like to jump on bad stories and hard luck stories: 'So-and-so is not doing this,' and 'So-and-so is not doing that.' A few months ago I went to Canberra and I sat down with the CDF and he said, 'We are doing a damn good job—but.' One of the reasons why we are backing this forum is that we just want to be able to state our case, and that is why the three deputy chiefs are going to be there. I also spent some time with Craig Orme and Stephanie Hodson at DVA. Again, they admit, 'We're not perfect but we think we're doing a damn good job.'

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Putting DVA aside for the moment, yesterday we heard evidence directly from a couple of ex-diggers who were adamant that they did not want to disclose having issues. When they were being discharged, they did not want to opt for a medical discharge. Even after being discharged, they refused to acknowledge their issues because they were worried about their reputation and the stigma associated with it, and they wanted to maintain employment and that kind of thing. How hard is it going to be to break that stigma?

Mr Dell : I think that is one of the things that will be addressed at the conference. There is a lady who works with the Federal Police in Canberra, Katie Tonacia, and she is probably one of Australia's foremost people on subject of the stigma, and that is one of the big things that we have to address. Just in talking to first-responder commissioners and their psychs, they say, 'It's not such a big problem.' But, if you talk to the firies themselves, they will say, 'We've got a massive problem.' Yesterday I was talking to someone who is an ex-firie from Melbourne and he said, 'It's massive down here and people won't talk about it.'

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So you are suggesting that, in a way, the stigma is fudging the figures. Officially, when we go out and do studies on these things, we get the response that mental ill-health among veterans is no different to that among the general community—probably because a lot of people are not speaking about it or are not acknowledging it.

Mr Dell : That is right. There are figures that talk about mental health and the people who most keep it to themselves are the young males. It is a much bigger problem. You talk about figures, but it is the same as the PTSD figures—they are all sort of fudged because people just do not know and people will not talk it out. The stigma is massive.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Yesterday Senator Lambie went through the amount of military service that our soldiers and defence personnel have seen in recent years, with the number of conflicts. Are you concerned that there is a big pipeline of problems?

Mr Dell : I am sure there is. I came home from Vietnam, I was a nasho, I just went to Enoggera, got my final pay, handed over my hat and whatever, and a week later I was back at my old job—not game to say where I had been et cetera. For 40 years I would hear stories about blokes I was in Vietnam with who topped themselves and were hitting the drink, et cetera, and I just used to say to myself, 'Weak bastards'. Forty years later when I was told I had PTSD my natural reaction was, 'Oh, that's bullshit'. You just will not admit to yourself or anyone else that you have a problem. My family accused me of being antisocial, my marriage busted up—there was a long list of things but you are just in self-denial. I am not the only one.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: We had a presenter yesterday, Professor Frame from the University of New South Wales, who had previously been in the RAN and was then the bishop to the armed services for a number of years. He has a theory that he is researching at the moment that some PTSD is not necessarily psychological, it is moral—he calls it moral injury. That involves the things you have seen and done, whether it is mates being killed or injured—it is a moral problem that needs to be dealt with differently from current psychological services. Do you have any comments on that at all?

Mr Dell : I have had discussions on that subject with particular people, and more often than not they are of a religious nature. I can see that there is a problem there.

Senator LAMBIE: Is Veterans' Affairs setting up an entourage for your forum, and will be the veterans' affairs minister be there?

Mr Dell : He is apparently going to be overseas.

Senator LAMBIE: Are they sending people up to represent Veterans' Affairs?

Mr Dell : Yes, Stephanie Hodson is coming and Craig Orme. Craig is going to be one of the speakers on one of the panels. There are people from the local DVA office that are registering and coming along as well.

Senator LAMBIE: It took you over 40 years to realise you had PTSD—

Mr Dell : Not to realise but to be told I had it.

Senator LAMBIE: To be told, and whether or not you accept that, I am very aware of what it is like with you men. It is very difficult. That is one of the first things you need to recognise, that you do have a problem. Are there a lot of your mates from Vietnam in those same circumstances?

Mr Dell : Yes, that was the main reason I started off Stand Tall for PTS. They had that homecoming thing for us in 1987 and a bloke that I was fairly close to went down—I did not—and the day after he got back he went up to Mount Coot-tha and blew his brains out. Just recently, with the Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation at Greenslopes, which you may or may not know about, they have just completed some research where they have taken 150 Vietnam veterans who have been diagnosed with PTSD and 150 Vietnam veterans who have not been diagnosed, who have not got it. We have just gone through the most intensive psychological and physical tests you could ever imagine. Part of that research will be presented at the forum on Friday week—on 11 and 12 September.

Senator LAMBIE: It will be very interesting to see what comes out of that research. Do you believe, had you guys from Vietnam had early intervention and treatment and had been given the tools or coping mechanisms, that your lives might have been a lot better?

Mr Dell : I am sure they would be. The very fact that no-one wanted to talk about it—my family did not want to talk to me about it. I came home and hung around home for about a week and then went up to Enoggera to be discharged. I went back to work. I played cricket, Sheffield Shield and test cricket, right up until 1975. There is a whole heap of blokes that I played cricket with and against who had no idea that I had been in Vietnam. You just did not talk about it.

Senator LAMBIE: Do you think giving a gold card to the men who have done war service would help the process? They could see the psychologist or psychiatrist of their choice without questions being asked and without going through a bureaucratic system.

Mr Dell : It is an interesting one. You might get yourself into a bit of trouble promoting that. If that is going to be the reason for guys going to find out about it, it is possibly a good idea. Maybe it should have some time limit on it after they are discharged—how long they should get it. If they are diagnosed, then it becomes a more permanent thing. It is possibly a good idea.

Senator XENOPHON: Mr Dell, thank you very much for the work you do. Do you think there is a particular benefit in the men's shed movement? I am talking about the work that Barry Heffernan is doing in South Australia. There is a drop-in centre for ex-vets—he is a Vietnam Vet himself—where people give support to each other and feel less vulnerable, tell their stories and have a place where they feel safe. If they need help, it could be used as a pathway to getting more professional help.

Mr Dell : Personally, I think men's sheds are one of the best ideas ever. I think you should go to Bunnings and get them to sponsor them all over the country.

Senator XENOPHON: I would rather go to an independent hardware store, but I get your point.

Mr Dell : It is brilliant and it is all part of the transition. One thing that needs to come out of this forum is the very fact that we do not have any particular form of transition here in Australia. There is a group in Brisbane called White Cloud and Ben Roberts-Smith is their patron. I went to a launch with them and QUT recently. Ben is pushing for early intervention. The biggest problem for military and for first responders is that all of a sudden, one day, you are in uniform and the next day you are not. Not only have you lost the uniform, you have lost all the backup that you had with your mates—you ate together, you trained together and they were always there for you. Then all of a sudden, that is all gone. What Ben and White Cloud are setting up with QUT's exercise physiologists are centres where guys can go immediately to be with like-minded peers, to exercise and talk. Ben is a great believer in the early intervention.

Senator XENOPHON: I just have one other question. I know it is not really so much in your bailiwick in terms of the work that you have done, but what do you do to those who suffer from PTSD in the ordinary course of their service—just in terms of what they had to experience and see in serving their country and the support they need after that? How do you distinguish that or how would you deal with those service men and women who were actually victims of abuse within Defence by other Defence personnel? Do you see any people like that? In other words, we are talking about sexual assault; we are talking about bastardisation—stuff that should not happen in the first place; nothing to do with the ordinary course of serving your country. Do you put those people in a different category? How do you think we could best assist them?

Mr Dell : I do not think they are in a separate category, and you should not have asked me that one.

Senator XENOPHON: I am sorry.

Mr Dell : No; that is all right. There are different parameters that we use with Stand Tall 4 PTS. It is also victims of crime, accidents and natural disasters—fire, flood et cetera. To me, what you are talking about probably comes under victims of crime, because, when it is all said and done, it is crime. I just think that that sort of thing happens in society all over the country and I do not necessarily think that it is because the people are in uniform that they do those things. Probably if they had not been in uniform they would still be offenders.

Senator FAWCETT: Mr Dell, thank you. In your submission you talk about your website and raising awareness of PTS, and you talk particularly about helping family members and friends to recognise the symptoms and seek help. We have heard from a number of people who have submitted to this inquiry that reaching families, getting information to them, has proven problematic. Can you comment to the committee about how you have approached that? From the feedback you are getting from the participants in your forum, are there any particular methods that have proven successful?

Mr Dell : It will all come out in the forum, because we have Legacy as one of the presenters and they are going to be talking about those specifics. In putting the program together with the CEO of the Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation and Dr Andrew Khoo, we just see that as a very important part of what we want to talk about over those two days and how it can be fleshed out. One of the things that I would imagine that we are going to go to the government with is that we just need a national audit of everything that is available in this country for anyone with these problems.

Senator FAWCETT: Part of the issue I guess we are grappling with is that we had evidence yesterday, for example, from one family member who admitted that, during the time when their partner was in uniform, information came—flyers and things—but it was like, 'It doesn't affect me,' so they didn't read it and didn't access it. But they now look back and go, 'Jeez, I wish I'd gone to those seminars; I wish I'd engaged with that.' Do you have any sense from the people you have worked with as to how we can raise the level of awareness to the extent where everyone who has a partner in the ambulance service, the police service and the Defence Force wants to get this information?

Mr Dell : In that case, again, you have probably got to work through the wife or partner, and they have to be fully schooled and look at their situation in their particular family and be made aware of all the problems and the tell-tale signs. But, as to getting the blokes or the women themselves to do something about it, I just think it is all tied up with that stigma: 'Hey—nothing wrong with me.'

Senator FAWCETT: You mentioned the talk you gave at one stage where you got the standing ovation. Have you done talks like that have been recorded that could be accessed and used for self-help by serving men and women or presented to units or subunits as part of professional development?

Mr Dell : No. The only recording of me talking about this is with radio and television interviews. I have still got the notes and I could possibly record them, but one of the things that we are looking at with the forum is a thing called Theater of War, where in America this particular person has put together a two- or 2½-hour show based on the plays of Sophocles, where they talk about Ajax, who was known as 'The Shield' because no-one ever got past him. He was a great Greek general and an absolute national hero, but he suffered from PTSD and he ended up topping himself. Basically in this show they gather together—and they have been going to Army camps all over America and Europe—and they do readings from the plays. The blokes come in—and they are told that they have to be they there, and they are very reticent about being there—and then all of a sudden the actors start reading from the play and the blokes say, 'Jesus, this is 2½ thousand years old but they've got the same problems as we have these days.' It is proving very, very successful. There will be a half-hour presentation at the forum just on Theater of War, and we will finish off with two or three minutes of reactions from American military about how much it meant to them. It starts to create awareness and talking. After I gave that speech in Canberra at the awards night, a number of people came up to me, including the captain nurse who was in charge of the New Zealand Army team. She just shook me by the hand and said, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you. Half of my blokes have said they want to come and talk to me afterwards.' I just think it is sort of cutting through the ice.

Back then in 2009 I realised about coming out and talking about it. Looking back at my life for the last 40 years and realising just what an impact it had had on my life—because you start to talk to psychiatrists and you think back about events that have happened: why did I get fired from that job? I didn't understand why. I was the director of the place. I had been there 15 years, and the boss just basically said, 'See you later.' We both cried, but I never, ever knew exactly why. I tried to get out of national service because I wanted to play cricket. At that stage, in 1965, I had designs to play Sheffield Shield and even play for Australia, and I tried desperately to get out of national service because I thought, 'Two years out of my life; I'm buggered.' But, nine years later, after a stint in Vietnam, and playing a couple of test matches, I just said to Sam Loxton, who was the national selector at the time, 'I don't want to play anymore,' and I had no idea why. I don't know where I was going with that.

CHAIR: Thanks very much for your evidence and the work that you do. I note that you had better figures than Dennis Lillee in that first test. So at least we will leave on a willing note.

Mr Dell : Just ask Ian Chappell!