Photo courtesy K Bloomfield
July 2018. The motley troop of Australian Spirit artists and veterans reconvened at the Gosford RSL to forge ahead with plans for the November 10 family fun day event.
My, how Leasha Craig’s dream had grown. Loads of free entertainment, from jousting and snake wrangling to re-enactments and tank rides. Almost every Central Coast veteran and front line service organisation in one place. Unheard of!
And all funds raised would be donated to Integra Service Dogs Australia to provide trained ‘canine guardians’ to recovering local veterans.
For a moment, my former ‘idiot box’ life kicked in. I felt as though I was in an episode of ‘Thunderbirds Are Go’ – the 1960’s classic TV series that followed the missions of an International Rescue Team.
Not that the Australian Spirit committee was a bunch of puppets – but it was beginning to feel like a rescue team for spiraling veterans and first responders.
How rewarding to be involved in such a worthy cause with great people who cared.
Australian Spirit Employment Initiative
The Australian Spirit event also triggered an unwitting parallel project – the Australian Spirit Employment Initiative (ASEI). Designed to connect prospective Central Coast employers, training organisations and funding bodies with veterans in transition from military to civilian life. No mean feat.
News travels fast on the coast. The ASEI concept found its way to ex Australian Defence Force (ADF) serviceman, Peter Talbot and linked him to Australian Spirit founder Leasha Craig. A formidable duo. The self-employed Instructor/Consultant with Remote and Local First Aid provides specialised employment assistance for both serving members considering leaving the defence force or have had that decision made for them through a medical discharge.
Leasha invited Peter to our July meeting as guest speaker. Newcastle-based ex ADF serviceman Shane Armstrong also graced us with his presence after being lassoed in as a potential event speaker.
Both Peter and Shane shared concerns about medically discharged ADF members whose transitional journeys were at higher risk of spiraling into uncharted minefields. Without the right support, dealing with mental and/or physical injuries incurred during service and the potential limitations placed on their finely-honed skill sets can be a challenging, lonely and sometimes fatal road.
Yes, the Federal Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) has a range of employment, training and health schemes in place. But from what I have been learning, they are often convoluted processes requiring transitioning veterans to jump through many unnecessary, often frustrating hoops. Some determinations have dragged on for up to 200 weeks, while veteran gold cards have been issued to dead veterans the day after their preventable deaths by suicide.
Then there’s the duplicated processes and all too common problem of government agencies not communicating with each other. Inadequately trained and/or under resourced, stressed out public servants who fail to understand the often challenging circumstances of the human beings behind the names on the forms they shuffle around on a daily basis. (I’ve been there. Seen it happen in a police agency.) So the list goes on. Little wonder that of the 5000 people who leave the ADF every year, only one in ten seek help from the DVA.
Things have allegedly been improving over the past 18 months since the DVA was taken to court. If that’s what it takes. Here’s to better days ahead and way more respect for our transitioning veterans.
Peter’s engaging presentation hit the ground running. 80 Australian veterans died by suicide in the past 12 months. Alarming news. Why had so many flown under the radar and crashed, I quietly pondered. He also spoke about the uniform that hangs in his cupboard. The uniform that will never be worn again because of his medical discharge from the ADF.
On the flip side, Peter also dared us to dream and take the Australian Spirit Employment Initiative all the way to Federal Parliament. (Mission since accomplished by Leasha and Peter.)
The Central Coast has one of the largest veteran populations in NSW and deserve first class assistance in return for their selfless service to the country. So why not create a new, streamlined working model?
Here’s to a new, ambitious ‘dream-in-progress.’
August 2018. Time to prepare a media-kit for the Australian Spirit event. Being an ex-media ‘casualty’ largely due to undiagnosed post traumatic dtress (in retrospect), it had been a long time between comprehensive media releases. But I gave it my best shot.
Having scant knowledge about the defence force, yet highly aware that ‘family fun days’ are not considered newsworthy (even though Australian Spirit represented an uniquely honourable cause), I suggested that Peter Talbot write a few paragraphs about the core challenges facing our transitioning military folk. The written word tends to pack a far more powerful punch when it comes from the heart of someone who has been there.
Oath to Serve
You are welcome to read Peter’s compelling contribution in its entirety here. For the moment, I would like to share some thoughts about the oath which is undertaken by incoming ADF recruits.
In Peter’s words:
‘Upon enlistment into the Australian Defence Force our men and women undertake an oath to serve the Commonwealth of Australia to preserve and defend our nation’s freedom. The oath is best summed up by Brigadier “wary” George Mansford who said:
“The oath to serve your country does not entitle you to the luxuries enjoyed by society. On the contrary it implies hardship, loyalty and devotion to duty regardless of rank”.
This is what our men and women who serve, live their lives by. This oath does not end upon discharging from the ADF, particularly for those who have sustained injuries through their service and are medically discharged.’
I questioned why the oath doesn’t end upon discharge, particularly for the medically discharged men and women. Peter explained that the uniform that hangs in his cupboard was worn by the man he respects more than anyone else.
“I am so proud of that bloke who loved his family and freedom enough to take the oath to serve,” said Peter. “I am still that same man and my oath will never end. Wary George summed up what that oath means to me and I am one of many who believe that and take honor and pride in fulfilling my oath for those who follow my generation in standing on the altar of freedom.
Our job now is to ensure when their time comes to hang up their uniform, they can slip on their new work clothes and enjoy every luxury in our beautiful country with their families. That’s what fulfilling my oath brings to me and my family.”
Perhaps it’s time for Australian politicians to undertake an oath to those who serve our country. Particularly the men and women they send to war or inherently dangerous ‘peace-keeping’ missions. An oath to ensure that injured veterans receive unfettered support and access to effective health and employment pathways during their recovery and transition phases. If anyone deserves entitlement to ‘society’s luxuries’, ’tis these courageous warrior souls and the grieving families of ADF warriors so tragically lost to suicide.
Which brings me to the most troubling aspect of Peter’s contribution:
‘In the calendar year of 2017, 80 ex Australian Defence Force members took their own lives, unable to find the freedom and peace so expensively earned by their service.’
What Happened to the Lucky Country?
Good Medicine on location
I must confess that after Peter’s presentation at the July meeting, it felt like the 80 veterans who died by suicide, followed me home.
I also found myself catapulted back to late 2014, Adelaide, South Australia. Immersed in a short film scriptwriting course, I planned to write a comedy for my script assignment. As fate would have it, a random news report about ‘unprecedented numbers of men dying by suicide’ changed my fledgling cinematic aspirations.
Bamboozled by this terrible news, I questioned what was driving so many men to an untimely grave by their own hand. One suicide affects so many people – partners, kids, parents, family, friends – an avalanche of collective grief. Further research revealed the shocking fact that almost seven Australians were taking their lives every day. What the hell? Last time I looked, Australia was the lucky country.
‘Little Bird’ by Artist
Unable to fathom why so many people felt trapped in dark, desperate, fatalistic tunnels, I wrote, produced and directed Good Medicine, a short film about a suicidal man in search of solace and healing. Inspired by an indigenous medicine woman called Little Bird.
Four years later, the toll has risen. Almost eight Australians die by suicide every day. Lifeline persistently headlined this horror story as a ‘national emergency’ and eventually received additional funding.
However, apart from a few token trials of a successful European suicide prevention model, the government continues to throw money at a mental health system which continues to fail us.
High Price To Pay
November 1, I published a blog asking why 80 veterans had taken their own lives. Later that week I learned that the toll was 85. This number was confirmed by the straight-shooting NSW RSL President James Brown on Channel 10’s The Project. He also advocated funding for suicide prevention training in all RSL organisations. Good call.
By November 10, at the Australian Spirit event, Peter Talbot mentioned the suicide toll had risen to 87. I certainly didn’t recall hearing this on the 6 o’clock news and wasn’t likely to. Having spent seven years in the public service, I knew all about sanitised information processes. Suicide stories ain’t pretty and don’t reflect well on governments.
Senate Inquiry Constant Battle: Suicide By Veterans
I consequently Googled ADF suicide and learned that in September 2016, the Federal Senate referred the veteran suicide ‘matter’ to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee. A subsequent 207 page report entitled: The Constant Battle: Suicide By Veterans was tabled on 15 August 2017. (Read the full report here)
I also perused an insightful ABC news story about a government report released in April 2018 about how the ADF impacts the lives of military personnel. It reveals that the vast majority of former veterans (84 per cent) are ‘either working, studying or engaging in some other meaningful activity’ (whatever that means).
But what about the remaining 16% of veterans who are not working, studying or engaging in some other meaningful activity? The ones that didn’t have the resilience to soldier on through no fault of their own? The report also stated that nearly half (46 per cent) of service men and women who left the defence force experienced a mental disorder within five years. Read the full ABC News article here.
The ADF top brass certainly has work to do.
Mental Health is Key to Recovery
As Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex so rightly said during his inspiring visit to the Australian where the indomitable Invictus Spirit was well and truly lit:
“When you understand your vulnerability, you can become strong. Mental Health is the real key to recovery.”
Prince Harry with an Integra Services dog. Courtesy ISDA
While I have yet to research the types of therapies on offer from government mental health services, the last time I looked it was still largely driven by long term use of psychotropic drugs combined with talk therapy. Sadly, this often leads to living life with a mental disability instead of recovering and embracing life again.
An increasing number of psychotropic and opioid drug addiction stories are crossing my path. If you or someone you love is struggling with the effects of long-term medication, you may find solace and strength from:
I have also been informed that the Australian government is working hard to outlaw natural, holistic therapies. If this rings true, our lucky country will continue to regress. We need a progressive mental health system that enables us to make fully informed choices about our pathways to wellness.
That way, those of us who are happy to take medication can continue to do so while those of us who believe there are safer and healthier avenues to pursue, will be pointed in the right direction to do so.
In closing, the 2018 veteran suicide toll has allegedly reduced significantly. 18 deaths. Preventable deaths. In my book, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel when you know where to look.
Australian Spirit’s Happy News
On happier note, the Australian Spirit project and book sales have raised approximately $9000 (exact amount TBA) to donate to Integra Service Dogs Australia. This money will cover the training costs of two dogs for Central Coast veterans.
Copies of the Australian Spirit commemorative book are available to purchase from australian-spirit.com, with all proceeds to Integra Service Dogs.
Huge congratulations to Leasha Craig and all involved. It has been a privilege to have been part of this journey.
With compliments, Linda Summer, Scribe @ Lost For Words