This is a story I wrote as a freelancer for Crikey in 2012. It did not run on Crikey so here it is for interested readers:
Since the Australian Defence Force entered the war in Afghanistan in 2002, 39 Defence personnel have died. Defence reports that, up to January 22 this year, 249 have been wounded. The detail of those wounds is not published, nor, if it is known, is the number of Defence personnel who develop mental illness during or as a result of their war service.
Emerging research into the effects of war service on the partners and carers of veterans indicates that Australia’s involvement in war is affecting the health of many more people in addition to those who deploy to war zones. Senator Penny Wright, Greens Spokesperson for Mental Health and Veterans’ Affairs, does not believe that the Government is doing enough to acknowledge and deal with the problem. “We are becoming increasingly aware of the costs of war, not just the physical injuries. We have to put a lot more effort into acknowledging that is a fact of life, and looking at what else we can we do to look after them adequately when they return,” she says.
Senator Wright has spoken extensively with the partners of Vietnam veterans and based on these discussions is concerned about the long-term impacts on the community of the more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She says that the partners of Vietnam veterans have predicted, based on their experiences, that there will be many more mental health difficulties experienced by the partners of modern veterans. “Their partners had one or two tours of duty in Vietnam, now they know there are veterans doing six tours or more. And there is less time between tours,” she says. “I think there have to be some serious questions asked about the fact that we are returning people to the front line so many times.”
Gail MacDonell is a founding member of the Partners of Veterans Association who has been working with the families of veterans since 1997/98, receiving the Order of Australia for her work. She is an experienced researcher, currently completing a PhD, in the area of mental health of veterans and families. One of her goals for the research is to inform strategies to try and limit the effect of war service on families of veterans. Ms MacDonell has consulted widely with the partners of veterans from the war in Afghanistan as well as Vietnam, and a consistent view of the importance of the family has emerged. “The best social support is the intimate other. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs don’t pay for this, but it is the best support.”
This support, though, is not without costs. Partners of veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are at risk of developing mental health conditions themselves. Even those veterans who do not suffer PTSD may have adjustment difficulties that significantly affect family members. These are long-term problems that do not ease with time. “You would think that the older you get the more things stabilise,” Ms MacDonell says. “However, the older you get the worse the mental health issues get.”
Dr Brian O’Toole is the Director of the Australian Vietnam Veterans’ Family Health Study at the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine Brain and Mind Research Institute, and one of the authors of a privately funded 2010 study: The Health of Partners of Australian Vietnam Veterans Three Decades After the War and its Relation to Veteran Military Service, Combat and PTSD. “There is a clear association between veterans and the wives’ mental health,” he says.
The number of veterans and families potentially affected is not limited to those who have been in combat. “It’s not just time in combat, it’s time in the war zone,” says Dr O’Toole. With around 1500 Australian Defence personnel currently serving in Afghanistan, after more than ten years of war there is a large and growing pool of veterans and families potentially affected.
Senator Wright wants to see more work done to protect the service members and their families from the effects of serving in war. “There needs to be a really comprehensive ongoing commitment to research the effects of service on mental health,” she says. “It needs to be properly funded and properly done.”
Government and Department of Defence concern for the mental health of veterans has become more public, with the release of several high profile mental health reviews including the 2009 Dunt Review of ADF mental health care. Defence has initiated measures to engage families, through the creation of consultative organisations such as Defence Families Australia. Julie Blackburn, National Convenor of Defence Families Australia, says that there is work going on within Defence’s Joint Health Command. “They are taking mental health seriously. They certainly are working on things,” she says.
Families and researchers are not sitting back and waiting for the Federal Government to solve this problem. Gail MacDonell is close to realising her goal of establishing a permanent research foundation. The Australian Families of the Military Research Foundation is in the final stages of registration as a not for profit company which will sponsor research to support veterans and their families or carers.
The Department of Defence provided little detail in response to questions about whether Defence recognises psychological injuries to carers and family members of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. “Defence has both preventative and responsive measures to assist the families of ADF members in managing the demands of military life. Defence appreciates that family members may experience difficulties related to loss, grief, adjustment and adaptation. Defence’s preventative programs help Defence families to develop their resilience. Families needing further help are offered assistance including information, advice, assessment and referral to appropriate support services,” is the official comment provided by a Defence spokesperson.
A question regarding the availability of compensation for carers and family members was not answered by the Defence spokesperson. Senator Wright believes that entitlement to care should be more inclusive of partners. Many partners of veterans suffer from loss of income, and a resulting lack of superannuation, as a result of providing long-term care. Senator Wright says that their unpaid work is not adequately recognised for the contribution it makes to the care of veterans. “It’s sensible to look after the partners as well,” says Senator Wright. “Partners do so much. If we look after them, we are supporting the troops.” To Senator Wright, what is currently being done is not enough. “After all the jingoism and patriotism we have to care for the veterans and care for their partners and children.”
The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Warren Snowdon MP, did not respond to a request for an interview in relation to this article.