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

von BERG, Mr Michael Gunther Baron, Chairman and National President, The Royal Australian Regiment Association

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: We welcome Mr Michael von Berg from The Royal Australian Regiment Association. Would you like to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions on your submission?

Mr von Berg : I am assuming that everybody has had the chance to read the submission. The only thing I would like to say is that I have had a pretty close association over the years with the area of military mental health. I am a member of the Ex-Service Organisation Round Table at DVA level. I am also on the Prime Minister's advisory council for military mental health, and the issues that I have raised are issues that have been identified over a period of time that may assist with the condition.

CHAIR: You have called for the introduction of a national veteran identity card. What would be the positive result if that were to come to fruition?

Mr von Berg : At the moment we have a fairly major issue. Once the individual is in the ADF the whereabouts et cetera of those individuals is absolutely on the money, because they are under the care of the ADF. Once an individual has lodged a claim with DVA, DVA does an outstanding job in basically processing individuals' claims and servicing the entitlements. Where we have a problem is that there is a gap—we call it a gap but it is more like a chasm—between transition and discharge from the Armed Forces to making a claim from DVA. There are a stack of people who are discharged from the ADF. Like all of us, they think they are bulletproof and they are okay, but then maybe in five years, seven years or 15 years they hit the wall or there is an issue. Quite often those issues are rather serious. They may be matters of homelessness, incarceration or self-harm. The sad thing about it is that we do not know who or where they are.

At the PMAC level, just recently the chair of the PMAC requested that the secretary of DVA write to the respective ministers in each state and territory to seek assistance with who as a veteran is incarcerated. I suggest that the response from the states and territories has been less than lukewarm. If an individual is incarcerated, we do not know why that individual is there. There is a good chance that the person has been incarcerated because of some illegal activity or a crime of some description which may or may not be attributed to PTSD. If that individual is incarcerated with PTSD and is unable to seek help or counselling, the condition is not going to get better. Basically, he or she will become a recidivist and end up back in prison. But that is just one example.

The other example is homelessness. Many of these services that are provided by the nation are actually provided by the states, and it is very difficult with homelessness in particular to know how many there really are. There was an article in The Daily Telegraphlast week that I was privy to. It talked about 3,000 homeless. We do not know whether it is 3,000, 300 or 30. In my analysis, one veteran homeless is one too many, but, if you are going to have sensationalism in the media, we need to get a handle on it. Because we do not have a database of people who are in prison, a database of people who are homeless or a database of people who have self-harmed or suicided—and in some cases suicide is not reported, because of the wishes of the next of kin—it makes it very difficult for anyone who is in this space to get a baseline of the seriousness or otherwise of the issue.

I am a simple person, so I look for simple solutions. I do not see a problem if when an individual is discharged from the ADF they take the green card off him—that is the security pass to get on bases et cetera—and issue the individual with, if you like, a white card which is purely a card that recognises that you are a veteran. It may have your old regimental number, rank and service that you are in and on the other side maybe a nice gesture from the Commonwealth, thanking them for their service. When that person is perhaps homeless, the state body, charity or ESA that takes that person in should have something on the admission papers that indicates that the individual is a veteran.

It is the same in the prison system. The prison system has come back to us and said it is too hard, too expensive, an invasion of privacy et cetera, and I think that is nonsense. What is hard about putting a box on a paper that asks quite clearly: 'Are you a veteran? Yes or no?' That at least indicates to us who is either homeless or in the prison system. It also means that they the individual can either opt in or opt out as to whether they need help. Other countries have this card. In the United States, for instance, some of the states actually have it on their driver's licence, which is another way of recording it.

To me it seems like a very simple solution to at least assist in some way with knowing who is homeless or incarcerated or has attempted self-harm, so we can have better data and better information on which to act. At the moment, we are flying blind.

CHAIR: Thank you for that very comprehensive answer. Has your association or corporation raised it at the most senior levels? What has been the response?

Mr von Berg : We have raised it. One of the issues which is a problem at the moment—and I am not telling tales out of school, because DVA could identify it as a problem—is that within Defence we have very capable computer networks and software, and so we should have in the defence of the nation. In DVA, I think we have a computer system which is basically kept together by patches by the IT staff. It is a very old system that is unable to speak to the defence network. Defence and DVA have come a lot closer together in the last five years, I would say. They used to be silos and there was a bit of a stand-off because of all sorts of issues in terms of privacy et cetera. But, having identified that these two major organisations would be better speaking more regularly in the interests of the veterans, they have got much closer together. They have signed an MOU, which is fantastic. The Ex-Service Organisation Round Table is briefed every year by Defence as to issues, which is very informative, but if the computer systems cannot talk there is no way of knowing who is in that gap, who is in that chasm or who has fallen through. A national identity card is a positive step forward, but the answer I get all of the time is that it is too hard and in some instances it is not necessary. I just find that unacceptable; hence, the submission, Mr Chair.

CHAIR: Thank you. You also go on to mention the decision to remove medical officers from regular Army infantry battalions and the impact this has had on early detection and treatment of the mental health of members. How do you come to that information and what is your position there?

Mr von Berg : I am a member of the Royal Australian Regiment Association Council, which is the regular commanding officers and RSMs. I also have the opportunity to speak to all of the battalions on reconnaissance matters and I have been doing that for eight years, so you get an opportunity to sit down with the boys and have a chat or a coffee or a beer or whatever. It is just obvious to our association that removing RMOs from infantry battalions is a huge mistake. We talk about early intervention. In the old days if a soldier had anxiety or some sort of depression, which may be PTSD, the first person you could go and see would be the RMO. Most RMOs in my experience have been really decent chaps; they have been fantastic. You could have a quiet chat and the RMO, who may not be a psychiatrist or a psychologist—and quite frankly you do not have to be in early intervention; it is just a matter of having a chat—was the first person you could go to at any time. Now, with the new medical system in the armed forces at the moment, if a soldier from 7th Battalion here in Adelaide, for instance, wished to seek some psychiatrist or psychologist assessment or assistance it would take between six and eight weeks. Six or eight weeks is too long. Obviously it depends very much on the acuteness or whether there is a risk of self-harm, when the individual would get in a hell of a lot quicker. But in general terms to not have an RMO in the infantry battalion for mental health I think is a huge mistake. I suppose the reasons given at the time seemed understandable, but in today's environment and at the pace at which our infantry battalions are working I think not to have that organic support within an infantry battalion is a huge error.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I was very interested in asking a question about the medical officers, but I think you have just addressed it there, Mr von Berg. We have heard evidence about moral injury as a theory that the government is doing some research on both in the US and here in Australia. The committee heard evidence from Professor Frame, who is a chaplain. Given your experience, do you have any thoughts on moral injury?

Mr von Berg : Absolutely. There is no question about it. I am not a psychiatrist or a psychologist. I speak purely as a layperson, but I speak as a person who has gone through the hard yards myself. There is from time to time some real moral damage. You have to try and live with that. Now we are also conducting, in the Australian Army in particular, resilience training before you go so that you are more aware of what to expect and how to manage it—and peer-to-peer support et cetera. There are issues. Irrespective of what we have seen in Paris recently, in our society we do not have a kill mentality. We join the armed forces and we are trained to kill. That is our job. Particularly in an infantry battalion or special forces, you seek out and destroy the enemy. That is what you are trained to do. Some people seem to be able to manage that far better than others. I think the ones who struggle with it later in life are the ones whose moral capital has been damaged.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: It is certainly something that the government is putting some more funding into and researching. I was very interested in the comments in your submission around further education for soon-to-be veterans as part of a transitional discharge. Can you give us some ideas on models the committee might look at?

Mr von Berg : The model I always refer to, because I know a fair bit about it, is the American GI bill. The reason I say that is that part of the problem for veterans post discharge is reassimilating with society at large. In particular if they are an infantry soldier, although their leadership qualities and their character and being a solid citizen is first class, their skill levels are limited. In particular if an individual has some PTSD the last job that he or she wishes to go into is in the security industry, which they seem to gravitate to from time to time. So having a proper education system in place for veterans—either for a trade, and we have a desperate shortage of tradesmen in this country, or tertiary education of some description. There is a victim mentality of people who have PTSD. It is, 'Poor me, poor me, poor me—pour me another drink.' They do too much navel gazing and not enough looking towards the future. Having an ability to study focuses them on something exterior, away from their own problems. It also, I think, gives them an opportunity to look to the future meaningfully and it takes their mind off other issues. I cannot really articulate what model it should be. The education that some people in the armed forces are doing at the moment on an ad hoc basis is, in my view, potentially just a waste of time. But something meaningful and something that is going to be of benefit to the individual and also, more importantly, to the nation—and I come back to tradesmen—is a positive step to assist them, particularly if they are struggling with mental health issues.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: The committee heard evidence today of an Afghanistan vet who was offered a job driving a backhoe and was quite offended by that. I did not get a chance to ask him whether he would have preferred to have done some kind of continuing education. Our next witness has some examples in his submissions about this specific issue. My understanding is that there is higher education available for some categories of defence personnel on discharge but not others. Is that your understanding?

Mr von Berg : That is the basis of our submission. We think it should be for all. We think it should be inclusive, not exclusive.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Are you involved with the RSL in any capacity?

Mr von Berg : No, I am not. When I say I am not, I sit at the table with the RSL on certain matters here in South Australia on the Veterans Advisory Council, which is chaired by Sir Eric Neal. They have a seat at the table and we cross-exchange ideas et cetera. I am a member of the RSL through our RAR association. I am purely a member, not in any major capacity.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: RSL LifeCare has funded Homes for Heroes and they provide a lot of other good services, like advocacy. It just seems that $2 million is quite a small amount of money to an organisation like the RSL. I understand the structure of the RSL is quite complex.

Mr von Berg : It is. It is based on federalism, once again.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That is correct.

Mr von Berg : It has a constitution which you could run a legal semitrailer through in terms of governance. I do not mean anything improper. I think the constitution was from 1922 or something. I do not know whether it has changed. Certainly, RSL LifeCare in New South Wales has done an outstanding job—simply outstanding.

In fact, another project I am involved in at the moment is the homeless project. We are working on that with DVA. We do not have a solution, but we think we might have been able to introduce another element into it which will help enormously, through the support of RSL Queensland, which is going to fund a chief executive officer and an assistant so that we are able to set up a national database and a national coordination for the homeless. At this stage, officially, Social Services in Canberra advises that there are 1,500 veterans who are classified as homeless. In their classification, 'homeless' is someone who does not have a permanent home. Those 1,500 are ones that DVA knows about because they are DVA clients. Hence, Social Services know that they are in fact veterans who are homeless. But if you look at the other number, 3,000, which was in The Daily Telegraph last week, potentially there are another 1,500. But we are not sure. We really need some better sort of mechanism, funded by RSL Queensland if necessary, because DVA has no responsibility in their legislation for the homeless per se. But we could have this unit in Queensland that is able to coordinate the homelessness issue on a national basis.

The important thing with homelessness is not just finding a bed. Finding a bed is easy. I have spare beds in my house I could offer to people if necessary. The real issue is what has caused the problem. To be able to resolve that problem the only thing you can do is appoint a case officer. I am pleased now that DVA have actually got some case officers who are able to take these sensitive issues up on a one-on-one basis.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: We have heard that they are increasing the numbers of case officers. They have told us that. Do you support the Homes for Heroes model? Do you think the government should be increasing funding or should actually fund an expansion of this kind of model?

Mr von Berg : I think the Homes for Heroes model has been simply outstanding. I know the people involved and they do a terrific job. The evidence is there. DVA always talk about 'evidence based' things, and the evidence is there. I think it is a fantastic model. If money were available from the federal government I would totally support it.

Senator STERLE: I thought I would accuse Senator Whish-Wilson of reading my homework because that is the question I had written down. I will just go a little bit further. You said you are on the Prime Minister's advisory board.

Mr von Berg : The Prime Minister's Advisory Council on Veterans' Mental Health.

Senator STERLE: I share your frustration that you cannot even get a box on a licence, let alone a national card. Have you had conversations in your role on the advisory council with the PM directly on housing?

Mr von Berg : I am sorry, Senator, I missed that.

Senator STERLE: Have you had the ability to have the conversation on the importance of providing housing for vets and the ancillary services with the PM directly?

Mr von Berg : Not with the PM directly, but we have had extensive conversations about it through the chair. Also, pre portfolio allocations, Senator Ronaldson would come in and spend half an hour with us every time we met. We only meet twice a year, which is insufficient in my view. We do have telephone hook-ups, but it is not the same as actually sitting across the table from someone. But we have had a lot of discussions on it. We have had lots of briefings on it as well, and we certainly are aware and conscious of the issue. But I get back to this database. We just do not know how many there are or where they are, because many of them fall through the cracks because of a lack of a clear ID.

Senator STERLE: Just to be absolutely balanced—this is not a new issue. Prior governments have not done anything. Let us be straight up front: they have done nothing. They may say a lot of things leading up to elections when they are campaigning. Is the PM's advisory council just in this term of government or is it the same make-up that has been rolling through—mind you, we have had many governments in the last five years.

Mr von Berg : Yes, it is hard to keep up.

Senator STERLE: It is embarrassing.

Mr von Berg : The PMAC was initially instigated by the previous Labor government and it has continued on under the Liberal government. But I think it is more focused now. It was a bit broad initially. It is the old story: when the terms of reference are too broad, invariably you achieve nothing. With the PMAC now, it is very much military mental health. That is the top thing we are looking at. There are three areas we are trying to address very strongly. The first is a communication strategy. In other words, if you have a problem it is okay to put your hand up. The second is to ensure that we are able to encourage people to employ veterans, because they do have very good skills in a host of areas. The other one is to get a better handle on early intervention, because early intervention is the key in terms of PTSD and health problems in general.

Senator STERLE: Did you say it is Queensland RSL that is doing the database?

Mr von Berg : Yes. Queensland RSL has a bit money, as you know. Their board has very kindly put up some money to employ somebody. One of my directors, who is a retired brigadier, Pat McIntosh, is actually the chair of RSL Care in Queensland. He was the facilitator to get this over the line.

Senator STERLE: Has there been any support from the Commonwealth?

Mr von Berg : In terms of DVA, purely the appointment of the case officer—which we think is absolutely essential. It is absolutely essential because if an individual has a problem and we do not address what caused that problem the individual is not going to get better. With a dedicated case officer, we think that those issues will be far better addressed.

Senator SESELJA: Going back to your submission, can you put on the record some thoughts about the transition services that need to be in place to ensure that ex-servicemen and ex-servicewomen are supported? We have heard evidence that people are presenting with an injury or an illness and are being quickly moved out of the service into the DVA area and, as you have identified, there is a huge chasm there. They are not prepared for what they need to do. Do you have a view on what could be improved there?

Mr von Berg : Certainly. It is something that we are looking at in Townsville as we speak. The transition out of the armed forces view is, in my view, inadequate. I do not know why. I have no idea as to the reasons why. Whether it is the tempo at which the ADF is working, or—I have no idea. All I know is that I speak to so many soldiers and they all complain that the transition has not gone as smoothly as they would like. So I think there should be a review of the issue. The other thing is that the best people to assist quite often are the ESOs—the ex-service organisations like the RSL—in terms of advocates et cetera. But the real issue at the moment is that we are starting to lack capable advocates at our level. They are old. They have gone fishing or playing golf or something. They are no longer there. Quite often, too, you will find that a young veteran is at times reluctant to speak to an older veteran because it is a different war, a different era and a different set of circumstances and potentially the old bloke may not understand. That is not a fact but it is perhaps a perception. So we really need young veterans to step up into that advocacy role. Once we have those people in place geographically—to cater for, say, Townsville or here, Edinburgh—those young people transitioning out will immediately have access to an ex-service organisation with young advocates who speak their language. They can be of enormous benefit. We are doing it now as we speak, and with a lot of satisfaction, but I think we could do a hell of a lot better.

CHAIR: Do you have a view on the work that is done by Moose Dunlop and Trojan's Trek and of how useful that is?

Mr von Berg : How long have I got?

CHAIR: It is very important to ask questions and get evidence on the transcript, so you have a few minutes.

Mr von Berg : I think Moose and Dogs Kearney do an outstanding job with Trojan's Trek. I am very conversant with it. Again we come back to the evidence base issue. We have the evidence that we are probably 99 per cent successful in working with our young veterans. The issue is that the sample is probably too small in terms of technicalities. But Trojan's Trek really works. It changes behaviour. PTSD can become a long-term issue if you let it go too long. But if you get it early enough and you are able to sit in an isolated environment up in the Flinders Ranges somewhere over a fire and cup of coffee—no booze, no drugs, all that sort of stuff—you can really get it into people's heads that they are okay: they are not a victim; they are a warrior. More importantly, in each program that goes through there are people who did not know each other before the five or six days but then once they are together they are as tight as a drum. You develop very strong peer-to-peer support. All the psychiatrists and psychologists will tell you that in terms of PTSD peer-to-peer and family support is absolutely crucial. Trojan's Trek manages to do that because we involve the families in the briefings before we go on Trojan's Trek and when we come back, and we also follow up three and six months later to see how the individual is travelling. Trojan's Trek is just a marvellous program—and not because it is South Australian. It is something that I have been on and it is just a wonderful program.

CHAIR: Thank you for your very passionate evidence. Keep up the good work.

Mr von Berg : Thank you and thanks to the committee for your help in an area that I think is of vital importance.