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

PULLEINE, Mr Thomas James, Private capacity; Western Sydney Manager, Homes for Heroes


CHAIR: I welcome Mr Thomas Pulleine. Do you have any extra information you wish to give us about the capacity in which you appear as a witness?

Mr Pulleine : I do. I am one of the managers for Homes for Heroes. I served in the Army for 17 years before I was discharged on 15 January 2015. During that time I served as an infantry soldier, as a recruit instructor and as a detainee instructor at DFCE. I am here today because I have been through the discharge process. I was medically discharged with PTSD, depression and anxiety, a spiral fracture to my spine and a collapsed disc in my neck. I had over 17 surgeries whilst I was in Defence. My experience leaving Defence was a lot different to other people's. There are reasons behind that, and that is what I want to talk about today.

Mr Pulleine : I was discharged in January this year. I did not go through the DVA process. I did not complete the DVA process before I was discharged. I knew I was being medically discharged. I had every faith in the DVA system and that it was working for me. I had a case manager as I was leaving. I had something like 17 claims. Three are being finalised now. I still have a few to go. The case management that I have had from DVA has been a lot different from what other guys have had. I was diagnosed with PTSD after having numerous operations on my knees, my back and my neck. I lost my gall bladder as well. I have complicated obesity due to my injuries. I have always been 120 kilos but now I am 120 kilos a little bit pudgier.

Why have things been different for me? My partner is a psychologist. When I was diagnosed with PTSD I had her support, which was crucial. I had a DVA case manager and one day he rocked up and told me that he was there to fill out my paperwork and do stuff for me, to help me. He was from Connect, so he was subcontracted to help me through the discharge process. After speaking with this guy for two weeks I could not stand him anymore, so I rang Connect and said I wanted someone else. I got somebody from a new company, and this lady was amazing. This lady helped me through the discharge process to the point where I was happy that I was leaving. I do not want to stay in Defence anymore. I could not be there. It was causing me to grieve more. But I had a two-year process when I was discharging, so I retrained. I did a life-coaching course, in which I went from being an infantry soldier to sitting around 65-year-old ladies learning how to talk to people. I did social services and got a diploma in social services and business management. DVA helped me with that. This job, what we do with the guys at Homes for Heroes, is very taxing on the soul. I have said that I do not think I will be able to stay here for too long in this capacity. They have offered me retraining again.

I think the difference for me is that I have been bold enough, or I have gone and asked, and when I have not been able to talk for myself my partner or the lady I had, who was very thorough as my case manager for DVA, went and did it for me. There was a while when I had Bell's palsy and could not talk at all. I could not write and I could not use the right side of my body, either, because of my spinal injury, and it was my partner at the time who helped.

The thing I see that Defence did well is to put me onto this process. There was a path. Once they said, 'You're going to be medically discharged' there was a flow of information that happened for me to make sure that everything happened right. I was concerned about work. My partner owns a very good business and we did very well out of it, but I did want to do something, because when I was sitting around on the couch doing nothing I ended up abusing my pain meds, other drugs and alcohol, and I did not want to become that person. I retrained in social services to do something in the ESO, ex-service organisation, world and this is where I ended up.

When we look at the people getting out of the Army, we get out and get given a two-day course to get out of the Army. I was recruit instructor for three years, when I broke people down from being a civilian to becoming a soldier—to go from nothing to being able to do everything that we wanted to the minute, to the time, and to dress and get around like a soldier. That was three months, and we get given two days on getting out. The I have stepped out of the Army and into an aged care facility as a manager. I have been spoken to, several times, about my behaviour—how I should act; what I should do. Those two days were nothing. VVCS provided those two days. They fell very short of anything they were meant to be.

The reason I got into this job was that I was at the Defence Force Correctional Establishment, where the Army is changing their thinking on PTSD. Everyone we got through that place had some sort of mental-health issue. That is why they were there. Instead of punishing them, making them polish brass and stuff like that, my partner—who was a military psychologist and still in, at the time—designed a mentoring program for them. It was to take it away from the punishment for the crime to rehabilitation of their mental health or their physical problems, getting them in to see physios and doctors while they were in the correctional establishment, where they are doing nothing else. I have not seen that replicated as well in other places but in that area, the discipline side, the Defence Force was thinking about it.

CHAIR: You mentioned three months training on the way in and two days debriefing on the way out. Do you think it should be a three-month course on the way out?

Mr Pulleine : I certainly do not. No soldier is going to hang around for that. It is simple things like getting a Medicare card. Whilst it might seem simple to people, I had no idea. I was shocked when I went to the Medicare place for the first time. I thought, 'I'm not going to hang around here. I'll just not go to the doctor.' That was not an option. Working out how to do things like that needs to—soldiers become reliant on a regular structure. When we get out, there is a void there. So before we get out, we need to make sure they know how to fill that void, whether it is in work, play or any other area of our lives, including the mental-health aspect.

When you want to talk about training soldiers, sailors or airmen, I retrained to work in this field but it would have to be a more specifically designed course for servicemen who have issues, like mine, to go into this field—and a care plan. I have a very structured care plan because my partner and I sat down and said, 'If you are going to go into this, this is what we need to maintain our family life as well.'

CHAIR: What would be a reasonable debrief and get-out time rather than just the two days, or do people spend their last six months planning to leave?

Mr Pulleine : I do not think a lot of people spend the last six months planning to leave. They are made to work in their current job up until the point they leave. I was left at home to my own devices, for the last eight months of my job, because I was diagnosed with PTSD and they did not want me back into the position I was at, except for advisory type stuff on how I produced the coaching job. I think we need to extend it to at least two or three weeks, where it is life skilling. Some of that is going to sound sucky to Defence Force members. If somebody said to me when I am about three months from getting out, 'Go and do a life-styling program,' I would probably do everything to avoid it.

On the other side of this, from where I am sitting now and with the job I do with day-to-day veterans I run into, it is needed. It can be things as simple as where to go when you are trouble, VVCS, how to use these other services and how to use DVA properly. DVA is not the enemy, it is places like the RSL sub-branches where their advocates want you to get on TPI or want you to get as much out of it but do not look at the rehabilitation side. These people are the ones causing it. More issues and DVA—because when somebody gets a rejection from Veterans' Affairs, at that point, they feel more hurt than if they were not getting rehab from somewhere.

CHAIR: One of the things I noticed in Al Minhad was that people transitioning to and from Afghanistan would go through a psychiatric assessment on the way out. I heard people saying that they had rehearsed for it, they knew what to say and they were trick cyclists, and away they go. There seems to be a culture of, instead of putting your hand up for help, actually avoiding it.

Mr Pulleine : It was an addiction. We wanted to go back as many times as we could. I was lucky enough to do several tours. When you do go in for your POPS or your RtAPS you know what to say. My partner who is a psychologist—

CHAIR: The psychiatrists would have known that as well.

Mr Pulleine : The psychologists.

CHAIR: The psychologists would have known that you were all well rehearsed in what to say.

Mr Pulleine : Yes. My partner has done thousands of them and she will tell you that we know what to say and how to get around it. I know, myself, after being in Iraq for eight months there were severe issues, and all I could think about was the next tour.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Were you discharged on the basis of PTSD or was it your physical injuries, or both?

Mr Pulleine : I was discharged for all of them—knees, back and mental-health conditions.

Senator STERLE: Did that lead to your mental-health conditions, the issues with your 17 operations and all that; that is what you were saying, isn't it?

Mr Pulleine : I meant 17 physical—cut open—operations, and several tours. It all escalated. I was starting to have nightmares, flashbacks, but the depression was certainly set off by having so many physical operations on my body, yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You mentioned that you were unhappy in that last stage of the Army and you had a chat with your wife about that. What was the issue there? Was it the fact that you did not feel there were any further career prospects for you, or was there another reason for not staying longer in the Army?

Mr Pulleine : No, it was to the point where my body just does not work anymore, and I had to leave. Like Lee Sarich said before, you are an operator. You are running around the bush. I was jumping out of aeroplanes, having the time of my life, to being stuck on my couch taking endone or Panadeine Forte until I could not remember who I was. At that point, I was not living the dream, I was living a nightmare, so I wanted to get out as quickly as possible. I just developed the plan to get out.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Are you involved directly in the Homes for Heroes network, in terms of the informal networks of veterans?

Mr Pulleine : I am an employee, here. I have also worked with other ESOs, unofficially, to help veterans get into the VSA, the Veterans Sporting Association, and other advocacy services, including being a member of my own RSL and an advocate for my own RSL. I have a good insight into what does work and what does not work. The advocacy system is one of the most broken systems there is, around Defence Force personnel, because of what it does to a person when they do not get what they think they are going to get and what an advocate is telling them they are entitled to.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Could you explain the advocate? I am not sure what that means.

Mr Pulleine : DVA is the governing body. The RSL and a bunch of other people—Soldier On might do it; Mates4Mates and the Vietnam Veterans Association—have advocates. These people are trained in a TIP course. I do not know what the acronym stands for. I have gone and done it. I have trained on how the legislation works for CRCA, MRCA and VEA. Then there are the ones who help you out with your paperwork. There are certain companies out there, like DefenceCare, that will give you a kit and you walk away. Myself, dealing with PTSD, I got given a kit by somebody and I walked away with it, and I had no idea what to do. So the first thing I did was throw it in the bin and think, 'Bugger this; I'll just get a job on the outside.' I thought that was never going to happen. It did but, at the time, I could not see that.

One of the things we do, here, at Homes for Heroes is more or less screen the advocates we use, to make sure that the guys we have—who have so many issues, already—have a solid advocate who will help them, not cause more grief.

CHAIR: Do the advocates get paid by DVA?

Mr Sarich : There is legislation that advocates cannot be paid.

Mr Pulleine : Yes. Advocates are volunteers. They cannot be paid. So you have a bunch of people out there—I know, myself, when I am rounding up volunteers to do something—and we have all been there—it is like herding cats. Mine is three years in the making.

CHAIR: The advocate could be the husband, wife, mother, father or brother.

Mr Pulleine : Yes. The advocate does not need any training either. Some people do their own advocacy.

CHAIR: There is a formal thing that the veteran signs to get someone to advocate for them.

Mr Pulleine : Yes, there is, so they can be a contact person for their case. There is that.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: As you are veterans from recent conflicts and training, is the RSL adapting to support your needs, as a veterans' community? We have heard mixed evidence on this.

I do not want to be too controversial here.

Mr Pulleine : I would point to RSL LifeCare.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: RSL LifeCare are funding Homes for Heroes, which is great. RSL have told the committee it is a potential model and they might put a lot more resources into it to roll it out, which would be great to see.

Mr Pulleine : I understand that. My thoughts on the RSL—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I know RSLs are very different from state to state and group to group. In my RSL in Launceston we have the advocates, who I happen to know, but I also know that a lot of the younger veterans do not go there. It is a real issue for them. They might come on Anzac Day for a few drinks but they just do not tend to have that contact with the contemporary or younger veterans, whatever you want to call them.

Mr Pulleine : I am a member of my local RSL because it is the biggest of all of the ESOs. In an idyllic world we would have one ESO that advocates for soldiers and deals with everything. Sorry, in an ideal world, soldiers would just get what they are due when they are due it. As for a community based organisation that advocates for soldiers, I will share a personal experience, not an opinion. I think that might be the best way. I went to an RSL recently and there was a member who was about to become homeless. His wife had had enough; she had been beaten up the night before. There were obviously legal ways we had to deal with it as well because of the interaction. The welfare officer from the RSL said, 'I am sick of these young blokes wanting everything and not willing to do anything.' At that point I had to remind him that I am a participant of my RSL and my partner is a committee member, but I am not allowed to sell badges in Legacy Week or on poppy day because I am not one of the 'in crew' yet, because I am a young vet. Similar experiences will be easy to find.

Mr Norman : And guys talk, too. They will know who the good advocates are. My advocate lost his marbles after 2½ years, which is why I took it on myself.

Mr Sarich : Just to that question on RSLs, they are grossly inadequate, I think, in the services that they are providing and the way that they are working with the younger veterans. I think there is a huge gap. I say that because it needs to be addressed. We can be polite but it just needs to be addressed. One of the big problems that I have encountered and that I have seen a lot of other people encounter is that it seems that a lot of the guys in the RSLs at the moment are from the Vietnam era. They are pissed off because they got treated atrociously—and they did. That is a fact; we accept that. I think generally it appears that we are getting treated much better, and they are angry about that and they do not want to help us. That is a difficulty. It is reasonable, I think, and it is understandable. However, it is just creating difficulties for our generation of younger veterans that need not be there.

Mr Pulleine : The RSL has also had problems with information about its organisation. A lot of young veterans will see the RSL clubs as the RSL, whereas they are two different entities. The RSL's sub-branches may be inside the clubs, but they are not actually a part of each other. They see poker machines and money. The RSL for some reason does not run an information campaign. They just sit back and go, 'Well, that guy is just a whinger. He's not being proactive at all.'

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I think someone pointed out to the committee that the RSL has $165 million or something sitting in the bank, but I think that was relating to the pubs and clubs side of the business. I suppose it begs the question that there is a lot of money sitting there and a lot of veterans' issues could be funded.

Mr Pulleine : I think the RSL's money is public knowledge, if you want to check that out at some point.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Thomas, you mentioned that with Connect you did not like your first case manager. You do not have to give any details. One of the recommendations the committee might look at is more case managers. We have heard of some situations today where they could have been really useful. Was there just a personal issue with that particular person?

Mr Pulleine : I think your case manager is much like your psychologist or your psychiatrist: they are going to get in-depth knowledge about who you are, what you have done and where you have been. I am a big fan of encouraging guys to shop for their psychologists. Get one that suits, one that you can work with; otherwise, you are not going to do a thing. Get somebody who is going to help you. It should only be helping you in the direction of your admin for your life. It should be somebody that you communicate well with. I got a guy who was an ex-psychologist—for some reason he was not a psychologist anymore. He was very judgemental about me not having been injured in combat. The first time he said it, his words were: 'You were not injured in combat—why do I have you?'. I thought, 'Okay, I will not come again then.' Any rapport was broken.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: From your work with the Homes for Heroes network, do you have any insights you could give the committee on the extent of homelessness and suicide? Part of the Homes for Heroes submission was trying to estimate the number of homeless vets we have. That is obviously quite important from the committee's point of view—resources and how big the issue is.

Mr Pulleine : The homelessness and suicide issues should be separated, I think. Mental health disorders are out there. I had a personal experience last Saturday with my brother-in-law. He committed suicide, and we had had no knowledge that he was even close to it. While mental health disorders do impact the guys who are homeless, there are just as many guys committing suicide who are not homeless and who are living what you would call 'family lives'. I got into the homelessness side of things because—I live in Concord—I ran into a mate whilst I was at a park watching a soccer match. He came up and said hello to me. Initially I had no idea who he was, but then I realised I had done a tour with him in 1999—and now he wanted to live under a bridge and take heroin every day. That was my first insight into it.

I was very dubious, before I got this job, about the homelessness 'crisis', as it was being publicised. I came into it with open eyes because I had not seen that it was out there. Living in Parramatta, I had gone to the Parramatta mission way before I started this job and I had a look for the homelessness rate. It was not a statistic they were keeping at the time, and I have asked to participate with them in doing so. Like us, they are overworked, and we have not got back to each other. Since I have been in this job, though, and watched the waiting times for people to get in—whether it is living hard or a housing option—I have realised the problem is way bigger than I initially thought.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That is on a broadened definition of homelessness?

Mr Pulleine : Yes, and respite is important as well. I think we need to look at respite just as much as the homelessness situation—respite for the families. The respite care that VVCS offers leaves not much time for the families to heal, away from the person who is having a crisis. We need to give them more space and time. We try to combat that with other things at the moment, with stuff the RSL clubs offer: holidays and stuff like that.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: We have had discussions with DVA about—it sounds clinical—setting up a register and trying to keep proper statistics on the suicide issue. It is obviously hotly contested, but we have heard evidence from Soldier On and other groups about how the problem is of much larger extent than is accepted. I know, Mr Sarich, that you mentioned that at one stage you considered it. Did you have your own informal networks? Did you have anything like a suicide watch set-up among your own networks, with people talking to you regularly and keeping an eye on you?

Mr Sarich : No.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: But within Homes for Heroes now, you basically have that kind of thing?

Mr Sarich : Do you mean: do we look out for each other?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I know you look out for each other, but—

Mr Sarich : Are you asking if we have a register or something?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I guess I am talking about a network. We see it with beyondblue, for example. With rural communities, there is a high suicide rate among farmers. They informally set up their own networks where people can—

Mr Sarich : There is an informal network and suicide register.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: It was set up by a farmer? I do not have his name.

Mr Pulleine : We get a lot of people coming to us to do surveys, and he put one out recently. My partner is on ethics committees, and some of the questions were so inappropriate it is not funny. I have had a suicide in my family this week and that would have treated more bad thoughts for me, and he is putting that out there without any help. If something like this is done it needs to be done properly, maybe at the government level as opposed to an ESO running something like this, where there is no after care for people who have to be involved in stuff like that.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Thank you. That was actually going to be my next question. Do you think that is something that DVA should take on as a priority or would you rather have someone else do it apart from DVA?

Mr Pulleine : I do not mind if DVA does it. I believe that DVA's core job is to look after those guys and prevent that. Invest the money where it is going to stop suicide.

Mr Sarich : I think it likely that that money will not be invested if there is no evidence that there is a big problem. Someone needs to be doing it.

Mr Pulleine : Maybe someone other than DVA could be held accountable for it.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: It is certainly something the committee is going to have a look at.

CHAIR: Is anybody outside DVA keeping stats on the number of people discharged from the service each year and the number of people who find themselves presenting with problems?

Mr Pulleine : No, not that I know of. If there is, it would be informal.

CHAIR: You would think that an organisation like DVA, who get actuaries to tell them when people are going to present with an injury, which they say is about seven years after discharge, would have that information to hand, but they do not appear to be too forthcoming with it. Thank you very much for having the courage to come forward and tell your stories and give us some very good evidence here today. We wish you all the best in your future endeavours.

Mr Pulleine : I have a case study that Adrian Talbot would like given to you. I would prefer not to read it out.

CHAIR: Can you formally table that. We will take it as formal evidence. Is it for publication?

Mr Pulleine : It is just what Adrian Talbot had to say today and a case study of one the guy's testimonies. He does not want to read it out.

CHAIR: Thank you. We will receive that as a submission. Thank you very much for contribution.

Proceedings suspended from 10:52 to 11.41