Defence urged to take back its broken soldiers

ROBERT MACKLIN concludes his two-part expose of how the Defence Forces shun the traumatised, broken soldiers from the front line of the war on Islamist fundamentalism.

​IN the first article we revealed a scandal that has developed in the Defence Department and the ADF: the refusal of both to embrace the growing problem of mental injury in our elite Special Forces.

The result: veterans suffering PTSD now make up one in 10 of homeless people in our major cities. Others are wandering aimlessly and sleeping in their cars.

Stuart Bonner

Former SAS operative, Stuart “Nev” Bonner… “Reintegrate the injured personnel back into Defence.”

​According to former SAS operative, Stuart “Nev” Bonner, who now spends most of his time assisting fellow PTSD sufferers, both Defence organisations are seriously at fault.

“The only way to get past these discriminatory thought processes,” he says, “is to re-educate the military and if possible reintegrate the injured personnel back into Defence.

“That way, colleagues and commanders can appreciate the valuable contributions an injured service person can continue to make to the Defence Force.

“Physically injured soldiers can extend their service after rehabilitation in logistic, administration and other positions that allow for their disability.

“Soldiers who display mental trauma are nowhere near so fortunate. ADF policy dictates that they will be sidelined from normal duties for initial diagnosis and treatment; they are then fast-tracked out of the services with scant regard to their post service treatment. Nor are they advised of their rights to the support available.”

​The situation is compounded by the fact that PTSD sufferers are not able to make sound decisions because of their illness, Bonner says.

“This lack of judgement can be exploited by the military hierarchy to ensure discharge happens as soon as possible, so their position can be quickly filled by a fully fit and deployable replacement.”

​However, when they are discharged PTSD sufferers are unable to reintegrate into civilian life and too often drift aimlessly until they become deeply depressed and suicidal. This is where the ADF needs to take responsibility, to seek them out for treatment and reunion with their families.

Only a military taskforce would have the ability to undertake this operation.

Bonner says: “The idea of a taskforce to investigate these and other ideas to look after our servicemen and servicewomen will strengthen our Defence Forces.”

He rejects the notion from opponents that this would produce an Army of “weaklings and malingerers”.

“On the contrary, seeing the care and equal opportunity that injured people are given will ensure volunteer rates into our Defence Force for the future,” he says.

“And it will make ours a better Defence Force.”

However, the pressures against such moves often come from the soldiers within the SAS and the Commandos, including those with PTSD.

When discharged they often move to the private safety and security industry, joining the many domestic contractors.

Others seek foreign government service in the Middle East as mercenaries. Both are highly lucrative and, in their view, preferable to seeking treatment for their mental injuries.

“The industry and defence forces throughout the world are highly interdependent, relying on each other as a source of available people for work placement,” Bonner says.

“It’s often the case that highly trained Special Forces soldiers will work in the private sector with an option to re-enter the defence system. This is often offered to them by their hierarchy during their discharge.

“Towing the party line of Defence regarding mental illness is essential to this service fall-back option.”

Clearly, a major overhaul of military attitudes is required. It is not a new problem; all wars produce similar reactions – be they “shell shock” in World War I, “combat fatigue” in World War II or “Gulf syndrome” in the 1990s. And the ADF’s response has been half-hearted and ineffective in every case.

But the elevation of retired Gen David Morrison as 2016 Australian of the Year reminds us that major change is possible. Morrison revolutionised the Army’s attitude to sexism. His successor, Gen Angus Campbell, could do exactly the same for the broken men and women who have served our nation in the front lines of the war on Islamist fundamentalism. But only time will tell if he accepts the challenge.

Robert Macklin is the author of “Redback One, the True Story of an Australian SAS Hero” (Hachette Australia, rrp $35). robert@robertmacklin.com

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