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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee
Mental health of returned Australian Defence Force personnel

SHORTRIDGE, Mr Robert John, Private capacity


CHAIR: Welcome. Would you like to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Mr Shortridge : Yes, please. I appreciate that we have a time issue here. I served for 36 years in the Air Force. I have deployed on operations three times. I am a client of DVA and a member of a number of ex-service organisations, and I have been working with the ex-service community for the past decade. One thing I would like the committee to note is the term 'veteran'. There is a dictionary definition, which is that a veteran is a long-term serving member of an organisation. There is also the definition when it comes to DVA—a veteran in accordance with the act—and the two are not the same. A lot of people use them interchangeably and that tends to confuse the issue.

The biggest issue, I believe, is the lack of support that is available to personnel post-ADF. I served some reserve time in Combat Support Group, which is an Air Force organisation at Amberley that does a lot of the deployments. I did a straw poll where I asked nine or 10 people if they understood what VVCS is—the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service—and only one did. That is really scary. I was talking to a guy at a transition seminar at Mates4Mates. He had just left the Army and he said that the only way he found out about VVCS was when his wife went to the Bulimba festival and saw their stall. I just do not understand how that can happen and how Defence can let that happen.

Twenty per cent of people leave the ADF as DVA clients. That is good because it means the dialogue has started with DVA. The problem is the 80 per cent of people that leave the ADF without being DVA clients. Why does that happen? Potentially, it is because of stigma and concern that it might prevent them from rejoining the ADF or the reserves. In my instance, before I left the Air Force I put my hand up and said, 'I've got a problem.' The first thing they did was to downgrade me to what was then med cat 3, which meant I could not join the reserves and I could not rejoin if I wanted to—but I was too old so I could not do that. But, if people perceive that this is going to happen to them, why would they admit to having any problems? They would take administrative discharge.

CHAIR: So the effect of that downgrading would preclude you from re-enlisting or service in the reserves?

Mr Shortridge : Correct.

CHAIR: Is there a savings for the reserves there somewhere?

Mr Shortridge : I do not think so, no. This is where the ex-services organisations come in, because we work in that community. My intent as an individual—and I am also president of the Defence Force Welfare Association here in Queensland—is to try to educate our people as much as we can so that they are aware of the issues and they can guide people if they see them going off the tracks.

The problem with it is also that tracking these people is very difficult. There is absolutely no compulsion for anyone to identify themselves as a veteran. I have noticed concepts in a lot of the submissions of having veterans' cards or annual GP checks, but, if a person does not want to be identified as a veteran, it would be very difficult to find them. There is also a perceived necessity to have operational service to get DVA support, which is not the case. They will certainly look after you for their non-liability health care, and also if there is an injury that you have received in service and can be proved as having had.

The second issue, which I think is probably the crux, is that the ADF does not do a good job of briefing ADF personnel and their families on post-ADF support. This is the common thread of many of the submissions—I would suggest probably 90 per cent of them. I have even heard Rear Admiral Walker on TV when she was asked if they track suicides post-ADF, and her blithe answer was, 'No. That is a DVA problem.'

Senator LAMBIE: It is called passing the buck.

Mr Shortridge : The thing that I have been trying to push is that, when people are in the ADF, they are a captive audience. There is an annual induction that is a requirement because there is an annual requirement for people to be briefed on the likes of EEO, workplace health and safety, fraud and ethics. I know I had to have those briefings before they would sign me off as being operationally ready. I can remember those subjects. I cannot remember what they were about, but I can remember the subjects. If DVA were included in that and the support that was available post-ADF—and I must admit that DVA are not the only people who provide post-ADF support; there is a lot of civilian support out there—hopefully, people might remember it. If it is told to them six, seven, eight or nine times in nine years potentially, if there is an issue they might be able to ask for help before it becomes critical.

The absolute importance of good record keeping—I saw that in some submissions people were saying, 'We went to DVA but we couldn't prove that this thing happened in the past.' Even if people go to civvy doctors, which unfortunately I am hearing tends to happen these days, again good record keeping is needed because, from a DVA perspective, if they are putting in a claim, whether it is a civvy doctor or military doctor does not really matter.

Defence runs transition seminars—too little, too late. They are not mandatory. To show the priority Defence puts on support post ADF, the first day is about how to get a job, how to do job interviews and how to do resumes. The second day is about the DVA-type support stuff that is there.

Lip-service is paid to families. I know, in my own personal experience, Defence had very little to do with my family over the 36 years. The only time they did was when I came back from Timor and I did my clearances and I went to the Defence Community Organisation. They said, 'We'll go and visit your wife.' I said no. They said, 'No, no; we'll go and visit her.' I said, 'No; I don't think that's a good idea.' They said, 'Why not?' I said, 'She's been here for three months and no-one's bothered to see her. It's only because I cleared in that you think it's a good idea to see her, and she's not going to appreciate it.'

Someone made an interesting comment at a DVA forum I was at not so long ago. They said, 'Why doesn't DVA do transition?' Everyone said, 'Oh, yeah.' But then when you come to think about it: Defence have people for six, eight, 10, 12 years; potentially, DVA have them for the rest of their lives. That would make a whole lot of sense because it would give DVA the opportunity to get things right the first time; however, for that to work the resources, the personnel and the funds must be transferred and, unfortunately, if I was DVA I would not rely on Defence to do the right thing when it comes to that.

The other thing I perceive is that everyone at the higher level of Defence seems to think things are happening well, but there is a permafrost layer around about the lieutenant-colonel, major area, where below that nothing has changed. I will give you an example of that. In 2013 through the Air Force Commanders Net it was suggested that commanders include an on-base advisory service, which is a DVA capability, in their annual induction. Of two units that I had actual contact with in Amberley, one of them did not even know that came out and one of them—I do not know whether they new about it—it certainly was not included in the induction that I attended when I was doing my Reserve work. Commanders probably thought this was happening because they suggested that it happen but, in fact, at the coalface it probably did not.

The other thing that I think is absolutely critical and I do not understand why it does not happen is that no-one should be discharged from Defence without having all their DVA and ComSuper issues resolved. I saw on the computer this morning that there was a complaint about a guy who was discharged, he returned to Perth and basically he was left to look after himself. Who is he going to for help? He might know that there are ex-service organisations out there to help him, but there should be a seamless transition of care—it just does not appear to happen.

I know DVA come under a lot of criticism, but some of the issues—if you look at the background and look at a lot of the things you see on TV and read in the press—are associated with the acts they work under, they cannot go against the act. Some of them are as a result of people waiting until they get in crisis and they ask for help, bearing in mind that once you leave the ADF no-one is going to come looking for you to help you, you are going to have to ask for it. That is why we in the ex-service organisations are sitting out there looking for these people that are having problems and then trying to guide them in the appropriate direction. DVA is a big organisation, they have their requirements. I have personal knowledge of a guy, and they needed a report from his doctor, his doctor happened to be operating on people six days a week and he only had one day a week off. He could not afford to sit down for half a day to do a DVA report. Looking at it, there are ways we have of fixing that.

The other thing is families are important. Personally, I think, Defence in many aspects gives lip service to families. The other question one has to ask is if a person does have a severe problem mental health or otherwise and it effects the family, do they have to look after themselves, particularly when it comes to their own care? That is a summary of my submission.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Shortridge. As you were speaking I was thinking about the comment that when you enlist or when you are recruited, you go through a lengthy series of steps in training, yet when you delist, so to speak, you can get out in a couple of weeks.

Mr Shortridge : If not quicker, yes.

CHAIR: There is no 'This is your intention, we are now going to reprogram you and check you out to see if you are suitable to go back into civilian life'—there is none of that at all.

Mr Shortridge : No, but you also have to remember, too, it is a really bad time to be telling people about stuff that they might need in the future. If people choose to get out of Defence they are generally worried about removals, they are worried about their lives, their new job, their wife's new job and their children's schooling. If someone says, listen there is a whole lot of support out there, it is just going to go over their head.

Senator LAMBIE: It is even worse if they have actually already got PTSD when they are leaving, because it is not soaking in or it is going in one ear and out the other.

Mr Shortridge : Correct.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: When I asked DVA at the last Senate estimates about some of these issues, they gave the impression that some people discharging from Defence do not want anything to do with Defence or DVA anymore. There are issues there where they just want to get away from it and start a new life, get a new job and move on. It is not their fault because they do not know these people are out there until they might surface. We did hear some evidence yesterday from one veteran in particular who sounded similar to that. He did not want compensation, he did not want treatment and he did not even want to acknowledge that he had a problem—he just wanted to start a new life. It eventually caught up with him, and it nearly killed him by the time he dealt with it. This early identification, early intervention and trying to change that stigma and that culture in Defence—the warrior culture that you do not want to admit weakness—sounds like something that is going to be very difficult to do and is going to take a long time. I suppose I am making a statement there. If you want to add anything to that, you are welcome.

Mr Shortridge : I would like to say that people should be briefed annually on DVA services. They talked about mental health week. They introduced a mental health week; I attended that. There was a whole morning of briefing on mental health issues but not one mention of anything post-ADF, until yours truly got up and said, 'You people out there become a support mechanism for the people who are your friends when you leave.' Hopefully, if these people are briefed on a regular basis, when it does happen and before it gets to an emergency—whether it be five, 10 or 15 years downstream—they might remember this and know to go to an ex-service organisation, whichever one they are comfortable with, and there are many of them out there, and ask for help. Again, you have to ask once you are out. It is not going to come to you.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: It is interesting. I asked this question of someone yesterday. A lot of the evidence we have received around PTSD and other types of mental illnesses is very Army-centric. Is it as big an issue in the Air Force and the Navy or are they perhaps not as focused on it as the Army are?

Mr Shortridge : I really cannot say. I cannot provide any definitive answer on that, other than to say that where those other people are deployed to is probably not quite as dangerous—where Air Force and Navy are deployed to is not quite as dangerous. But I still think there is a stigma associated with it. One of the other things that I found personally is that every one of the deployments I went on was as an individual, not as a unit. Therefore, when I came back no-one really knew what I had done, although they knew where I was. When it came to checking up on me, it did not happen.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You didn't have a support network?

Mr Shortridge : No.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: One thing that was suggested to us yesterday by beyondblue was the importance of having role models. Essentially, they use well-respected celebrities to talk about mental illness and to try to raise awareness of it and remove the stigma. Do you think there is a role for military role models who may, for example, talk to existing service personnel about issues associated with mental health?

Mr Shortridge : For existing service personnel, yes. I imagine that that would be part of the induction process which people would get on an annual basis. Once people leave, it makes life much more difficult. Then again, on the other hand, a lot of the ex-service organisations have been there and done that; they understand it and they can talk to these people in a language that they understand.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Would you recommend the same thing for counselling services: that counsellors are ex-service people or at least have sufficient training so that they can understand the military life?

Mr Shortridge : I think it would be difficult to find ex-service personnel, but certainly they need to be trained in the military life, because it is different. You cannot say that the military is the same as normal Australian society, for the simple reason that—if you look at the selection process, it takes two, three or four days of continuous selection process before people can join the military. If you go for a job outside, it can be, 'Good, we'll have you tomorrow.' There is a lot of psychological, medical and other testing. So, comparing the military with other normal Australian society is a bit difficult, I think. Often they will take people who are more far more resilient but, on the other hand, sometimes when those people crash, they crash in a big way.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You are a sufferer of PTSD yourself. In relation to treatment, do you believe there really are very black and white evidence based treatments that work? You obviously do not have to share with the committee what your treatment is, but do you think there are adequate treatments in place, including alternative therapies?

Mr Shortridge : I think PTSD in many respects is not 'one size fits all'.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: It is lots of different things.

Mr Shortridge : For me personally, the people treating me know that I do not want to go on drugs.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: We had some pretty scathing evidence earlier today about the overuse of drugs in the treatment of PTSD.

Mr Shortridge : I think people need to be informed customers. The people treating me know my attitude. We try to work around the issues and I am sort of okay.

Senator LAMBIE: I want to ask about the delays. I know people are saying their claims are taking nine months or 12 months or so and then a majority of them are getting rejected, so the delay becomes longer because they then have to fight, get medical reports and so on—and these people are in financial difficulty because they have not been able to work. Some of these specialist reports are costing up to $4,000. Can you shed some light on those issues?

Mr Shortridge : I do not know specifically, but what I do know is that if you use a good advocate from the ESOs, often they will be able to tick the appropriate boxes and say the appropriate words and then it tends not to be such a problem. Looking at many of the submissions, the inference you can draw is that many of those people did it themselves. That is likely to cause problems because they are not going to use the right terminology, the right words. Other than that, I cannot make any comment. I think there are going to be times when it takes a while—and as a taxpayer I expect DVA to do the appropriate checks. Whether they are overdoing it, I do not know. But I think you have to use the experts to help you get the claims through.

Senator LAMBIE: Should not the claim process be easier so these members can do it themselves? Now they have no choice but to go to an ESO. As good as most of those ESOs are, they are underfunded and undereducated and they do not understand the law. There are four different acts here—MCRS, VEA, ComSuper and MRCA/SRCA, so it is very difficult. Not even Veterans' Affairs people, as you would know, understand those acts. That is why we have the complications we have now.

Mr Shortridge : If it could be made simple, that would be fine. But, right now, if someone is going to go and put in a claim on DVA, it is not simple and you have to make sure you get the appropriate assistance to put it in. Do they take some time? Yes, but I am not in a position to comment on that because I am not an advocate and I am not a pensions officer.

Senator FAWCETT: You mentioned your wife not being contacted until you came back from your deployment. Based on your own history and your knowledge of how your own family works, how would you like Defence to reach out to families? What do you think would be effective?

Mr Shortridge : That is an interesting question because I think it depends on the spouse. The Defence Community Organisation at times has a morning tea or an afternoon tea. If all the spouses are out working, they are not going to get anyone. My wife is not part of the military. She is very definite about that. She would prefer to do her own thing. I think, when it comes to induction and transition, families should be encouraged to go—they are, but not many do. Again, though, it was my occupation and my job and she had her own thing. The short answer is: it depends on the wife.

Senator FAWCETT: We had evidence yesterday from one partner who received through the mail information about PTSD et cetera and went, 'Don't need that', and put it in the bin. Now she says, 'I wish I had read it and gone to the seminars and realised what help was out there.' It just strikes me that we have a challenge to find a way we can reach all the different types of people—those who live and breathe Defence, those who do not want any part of it and have their own lives to get on with. How do we reach those people effectively?

Mr Shortridge : You are right. It is a challenge. Maybe there should be some encouragement to do some of the induction processes after hours to get wives involved, but again if there are young children around that makes life a little bit difficult, unless you make it child friendly. Encouraging the members themselves to communicate the sort of information they have to their wives is something you could do—we have VVCS stickers on our fridge. That may be a help. It is going to be a challenge. I do not think there is any easy fix.

Senator FAWCETT: Again, this is very personal, relating to your personal situation. If there had been a social worker at Amberley who had rung the partner or spouse or family of every deployed member at least once during the deployment and said, 'How are you going? Be aware there is this information' and so on, would that have been received well or would that have been seen as an intrusion?

Mr Shortridge : I think yes. But then again, if a unit goes away, the unit tends to look after its own. They have got people back here. They know that there are members out there, so they will give them a ring and ask how things are going. But, as I said, there are a lot of people who deploy as individuals, and they are the people who tend to be forgotten and left behind.

Senator FAWCETT: Interestingly, though, that should actually make the burden of the task of contacting those individual families far less, because there would be fewer to contact, if there were somebody who took responsibility for that.

Mr Shortridge : Yes. They would have to know about it too. I deployed to Timor from Headquarters Air Command at Glenbrook. My wife did the removal. I must admit, it got so bad that they had to assign a person to her to help her get through the hoops of doing the removal, and the removal was up here to Brisbane. So not only did my posting location moved but also our residential location moved and my wife did it all, so I have to congratulate her on that—maintaining her sanity.

CHAIR: Mr Shortridge, you have spent 36 years in your chosen profession. It seems to me that people spend—a career might be 36 or 40 years these days but most people would go into a transition to retirement planning phase either financially or through a transition to another job. You are saying that that is completely absent in your experience in the RAAF? When you had 36 years with the service and you were about to go somewhere else, they just sort of said, 'No worries—a week's notice and away you go'?

Mr Shortridge : Well, you have the transition seminars. But, again, the information they impart and the way they impart it is, I think, too little too late for people like me. I knew I had to go because of age, but for people earlier—I know people who have said, 'I'm going; that's it', and generally transition seminars are only held three times a year.

CHAIR: And I suppose the problem for Defence is that, like you, people are ready to move on and the transition seminar may be seen as just slowing them down.

Mr Shortridge : Yes.

CHAIR: And it is after they leave that they experience the difficulties.

Mr Shortridge : Correct. And that is 80 per cent of them.

CHAIR: This hearing is really interesting—it is more than interesting. We have taken extremely profound and moving evidence here today. I certainly thank everybody—including you, Mr Shortridge—for their submissions.

Mr Shortridge : Just in summary, from my perspective and my focus, I think that the ADF needs to develop a program to make sure that there are ongoing briefings on an annual basis of the support available post ADF, and that the ADF must not discharge anyone until all their DVA ComSuper issues are sorted out. The reason I say ComSuper is that ComSuper have a compensation issue if there is a medical discharge. I think DVA would be made much more efficient if they had supporting IT systems. Right now they are trying to work a distributed system where paper files have to go places.

Senator LAMBIE: They have just spent $30 million on updating their system, so if it is not correct by now we have got some major issues.

Mr Shortridge : I think you might find that maybe it is not. Those are the two major issues: that the ADF develop an annual briefing program and that they do not discharge people without having all of the DVA/ComSuper sorted out.

CHAIR: That is the message we have got well and truly. I thank those people who have sat here all day and contributed by being part of the audience in this inquiry. It has been an extremely, in some cases, moving day of evidence. We look forward to another couple of hearings in our deliberations. Thank you all for attending.

Committee adjourned at 15 : 43