Monday, 24 June 2013
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Joint Committee; Report
On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I present the report of the inquiry into the care of ADF personnel wounded and injured on operations. I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.
That the Senate take note of the report.
On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I present the report entitled Care of ADF personnel wounded and injured on operations.
For the last 15 years, Australia's defence forces have been almost continuously involved in major operations in the Middle East, East Timor and the Solomon Islands. They have also been involved in a great number of other operations in the Asia-Pacific and further afield. Unfortunately, not all those that have deployed on operations have returned, and some that have returned have done so with wounds and scars, not all of which are necessarily visible. Some wounds and scars are hidden deep within their bodies and minds. The committee welcomed the opportunity presented by this inquiry to consider the treatment in theatre of personnel wounded and injured, as well as their repatriation to Australia, ongoing care, rehabilitation and return to work or, if necessary, transition out of the Defence Force.
We were honoured to have the opportunity to talk to wounded and injured servicemen, hear their stories and listen to their concerns. Their stories were profound and in some cases disturbing—it was incomprehensible how someone's body could sustain such injuries. We spoke to various agencies, both government and non-government, that support veterans and have identified opportunities to improve services provided to veterans. We looked at some of the perceived or actual barriers preventing veterans' full access to support services. We delved deeply into the concerns related to post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues facing veterans. We received some very compelling evidence from a number of witnesses. We also explored the importance of the involvement of the families of our wounded and injured in their healing, and we considered the support available to the families themselves. With the recent increased awareness of the effects of depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse and indeed PTSD amongst our veterans, and concerns about suicide rates of current and former service men and women, the inquiry was particularly timely.
Australia's national identity in large part is formed around the courage and sacrifice of our uniformed services, from the beaches of Gallipoli to the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan. The modern veteran has, in common with the shell-shocked or maimed digger of World War I, or the Vietnam veteran, the right to the best support and services that Australia can provide. The committee considers that, for the most part, the care provided to Australians wounded and injured is world class. This is certainly true of the first aid received in the immediate aftermath of a battlefield incident. The Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs have honoured their responsibilities to support the recovery and rehabilitation of these individuals and their families and, through various programs, continue to improve veteran support processes and coordination. Unfortunately, for various reasons, some veterans still appear to fall through the cracks. This has to end.
We have developed a series of recommendations to ensure a more comprehensive rehabilitation process for the physically wounded; that all forms of mental health issues in our service, ex-service and veteran communities are fully understood and supported; and that communication and coordination between all agencies involved in the support of our veterans, government and non-government, are optimised. The Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs particularly must continue to improve communication and coordination. Far too many veterans miss out on support to which they are entitled. The compensation and entitlement process itself must be simplified; barriers to accessing existing services for female veterans must be removed; veteran identification and tracking within the health system must be improved; access to health care should be fully uncontested; and research into the needs of the veteran community should be a priority, particularly with regard to mental health issues and suicide.
Since 1999, over 45,000 Australians have seen operational service overseas, and the support provided to this new cohort of veterans must learn from the lessons of the past and continue to be improved into the future. The committee wants to highlight that 20 per cent of the veterans of recent conflicts may get PTSD at some point in their lives and that as many as 50 per cent of service men or women can expect to have some form of mental health disorder at some point in their life—not necessarily a wave of sadness but certainly something we as a nation must prepare for.
In the course of the inquiry, the committee had the opportunity to travel to a number of cities and meet individuals and organisations that support Australian veterans. The committee thanks them and everyone else involved for their contributions. Importantly, the committee was honoured to meet representatives of those who have put themselves in harm's way in the defence of our nation's values and are carrying scares as a result. The committee salutes each and every one and thanks them for their candour.
The committee considers that the implementation and recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade's report, Care of ADF personnel Wounded and Injured on Operations, will improve on the support systems that our wounded and injured veterans deserve. Finally, I note the 253 soldiers and sailors injured in Afghanistan and remember the 40 who have not returned. Lest we forget.
I also rise to take note of the Defence subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade inquiry into care for wounded soldiers. I wish to thank the Department of Defence but particularly the servicemen and women who, in some cases, allowed us into a fairly intimate part of their lives and talk with them about the treatment they received. I wish to note the significant investment in advances the Defence department, particularly Army, has made in the area of caring for wounded soldiers.
The 3 Brigade commanders, particularly, sponsored and personally intervened and made resources available for the operation of the soldier-recovery centres. It is an initiative that has clearly paid off for the servicemen, women and families who have been affected, and I commend them for that. South Australia's 7RAR has serving men and women and RAAF Base Edinburgh has its RAAF servicemen and women. I encourage Defence not to forget to support the networks that are there in South Australia and the good work that is done for veterans. It should provide the same kind of support it does for soldier-recovery centres in the other 3 Brigade Headquarters areas in South Australia.
The issues of post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety and, in some cases, alcohol abuse that has accompanied the wounds of some of these soldiers have received a significant increase in attention, which is very pleasing to see. These sometimes take a period of time to surface. In the culture we have—and we saw this from a number of young servicemen who said that they wanted to continue to serve with their mates—soldiers suppress pain from physical injuries and pain and relational issues that come from mental-health injuries so that they can go on further rotations. Some of these issues will take time to come out. So my plea for the community and particularly for the Defence department, as we move beyond the period of conflict, is for the focus to continue and develop so that families and those who have served have the opportunity to put their hands up and receive the same kind of focused help that we are getting for those servicemen and woman right now, during the conflict.
The last point I make is for DVA. I recognise that they have made a number of steps forward, particularly to work with Defence, in the smoother and more effective transition for servicemen and women who have to leave the service because of injury, but we are still seeing a number of people who have left the service without identifying that they have a medical problem—and that surfaces some years down the track. Many of them are still going through a harrowing experience. I have had correspondence from a number of them. One man and his wife were quite open about the fact that this has put an incredible stress on their marriage and family. And DVA, at the end of a two-year process, has finally said, 'Yes, you were right. You are entitled to everything you have asked for.' That should not be
Someone who has served their country and been wounded as a consequence, whether in terms of mental health or physical wounds, should get support far more quickly. If we are still putting servicemen and their families through a two-year process that is causing them unnecessary angst, then that is still not good enough. We need to continue to work to improve that system of assessing and recognising claims. We had some interesting suggestions. Susan Neuhaus, a surgeon in South Australia who has a long service history herself, came up with some quite different suggestions around a continuum of Commonwealth care and the ability for somebody to receive care through DVA if they are a veteran, regardless of the status of their claim.
I would commend the departments, both DVA and Defence, to look carefully at the recommendations and put the resources into the modelling that was requested in terms of the true cost of that to the Commonwealth. Veterans need to be able to put their hand up and say, 'I need care' and then receive care on a continuous basis, with a focus on the best interests of themselves and their families. If we get that outcome from this report, it will have been a few months very well spent. I commend the report to the House and I seek leave continue my remarks.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.