By MAI GUTMAN
In February Julie-Ann Finney’s son David added a sad number to a growing statistic that has forced the Federal Government to consider a Royal Commission into war veteran suicide.
Ms Finney said, after returning from active duty, David battled post-traumatic stress (PTS). She said he was hospitalised in 2018 and discharged without anyone checking up on his well-being – effectively abandoned by the Australian Defence Force (ADF).
“Nobody ever called to see if he was okay,” she said.
“What Australian employer can have so many debts to the past and present serving members and get away with that?”
After her son died, Ms Finney said neither the Navy nor the government contacted her unless she reached out to them first.
So far this year seven young Australian veterans have died by suicide.
Ms Finney said a common stigma surrounding suicide was that those who took their lives were “weak”.
“These are our bravest who are unable to cope with their demons,” she said.
“They have been to Afghanistan or Vietnam and they have faced bombs and chemicals, watched their mates die, they have fished dead bodies out of the sea.
“They did not join the forces to die, they joined to serve this country and they deserve our gratitude.
“My son was not weak, he was very vocal about his PTS and he wanted to live, he absolutely wanted to live, but the support for him just wasn’t there.”
Ms Finney was among six mothers of army veterans who died by suicide to meet with Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week.
She has collected more than 250,000 signatures on a petition calling for a royal commission into military suicides.
Mr Morrison told Sky News last night a royal commission could be on the government’s agenda.
“I haven’t ruled it out, it’s something that I’m actively considering,” he said.
A former officer in the Australian Army who wants to remain anonymous echoed the lack of support provided to service members with mental illness.
The retired officer said it is because of the many people taking advantage of the minimal health care benefits and amenities available from the Department of Veteran Affairs (DVA).
“People pull the health card as an easy get out of jail free card,” the ex-officer said.
“It’s a tough position the ADF and DVA are in because how do you know who’s real and who’s not?”
The influx of claims creates a need to reassess every case individually, increasing the paperwork and reducing the time efficiency, often to the point where it is too late.
Ms Finney said the claims process at the DVA is failing the people who need it most.
“The claims process is so difficult and so complex and so long-term that by that time they’re not coping and we’re ending up with all these suicides,” she said.
The retired officer said military service members may feel deterred to claim mental health benefits as it could compromise their chances of getting promoted or of continuing their service.
“You might get some random psychologist who decides that you’re a risk and that you can’t go back in [the army],” he said.
“This could be a reason to avoid seeking help.”
Ex-serviceman Jeb Summers is another Australian veteran who has had a long battle with mental health after his service.
Mr Summers agreed that seeking a diagnosis or claiming health benefits for mental illness had the potential to end a military career.
“I started all my paperwork but it got too hard so I stopped and went back to work and years later I got really bad again and everything fell apart,” he said.
Mr Summers said the wait times at the PTS intake wards was a “massive problem”, since it can take between 10 to 12 weeks to hear back.
“With these people, by the time they realise there’s a problem, they only wait until the last minute to do something about it,” Mr Summers said.
“That’s where we are getting hit with more suicides,” he said.
Mr Summers is now the president of the online forum ‘Save Our Services’, and works closely with the Open Arms Veterans and Families counselling services to provide assistance to ex-service people who are struggling with mental health injuries.
“There are still a lot of people out there who haven’t been diagnosed who are trying to push through it, but they’re the ones who are at risk the most,” he said.
“They haven’t been trained to know that they’re no longer in the army, they no longer have to be tough and they need to recognise the symptoms and seek help.”
A 2018 report on Australian suicide rates found ex-servicemen are suiciding at double the rate of other Australian men, with 33 ex-servicemen out of 100,000 people dying by suicide.
Ms Finney said it was urgent the federal government launched a royal commission into veteran suicides.
“I’m not saying we can prevent every suicide but we can certainly bring it down from one a week,” she said.
“Nobody takes suicide seriously and when it’s done, people just want to move on and forget about it.
“This mother is not going to be happy with anything but getting her son back and that’s not going to happen so I’m going to fight for every other veteran.”
Ms Finney said she will host and attend nation-wide rallies during November to call for a Royal Commission.
“I stood up at [David’s] funeral and I told his friends that I would not let his story end,” she said.
“I did not choose to be the face of this and I wish I wasn’t the face of this but my son was such a brave man and if they could lose him, they could lose anyone.”