Families’ pleas finally heard over royal commission

 

Afghanistan veteran Bradly Carr suicided on Anzac Day in the most harrowing of statements about the fate of troubled veterans in Australia but the desperate pleas of families and those who have served have been heard.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a royal commission into the hundreds of defence and veteran suicides, in addition to the rolling commission into the horror toll of deaths announced last year.

Mr Morrison said the "great risk" Defence Force personnel take was "not just" when they deploy to war.

"That immediate risk that is there, that is rightfully and well considered when those decisions are sensibly made and wisely made, we hope, by governments at those times," he said.

"But increasingly, we must also understand the long tail of cost. I mean the human cost. And that cost is most significant when we see it in the death by suicide of our veterans."

Private Bradley Carr took his own life in 2019.
Private Bradley Carr took his own life in 2019.

As the two-year anniversary of the death of her 34-year-old former Army private son Bradley approaches, Glenda Weston said it was a "relief" a royal commission would be established.

It pains Ms Weston that her son was born on Remembrance Day and took his life on Anzac Day.

"My son took his life on Anzac Day because he couldn't take another Anzac Day," she said.

"It's been a worry since Brad died about how many would end their lives."

Glenda Weston has welcomed a royal commission into veteran and defence suicides after losing her own son.
Glenda Weston has welcomed a royal commission into veteran and defence suicides after losing her own son.

Ms Weston said since her son's death the veteran community had lost "many more" as they continued the "draining and emotional" fight calling for a royal commission.

"To know it will be called before Brad's anniversary is a blessing," she said.

"Our sons are gone … but this announcement is an important step for veterans who are still alive."

Retired Special Forces commander and veteran advocate Heston Russell says the terms of reference for the Royal Commission must be broad. Picture: Steve Pohlner
Retired Special Forces commander and veteran advocate Heston Russell says the terms of reference for the Royal Commission must be broad. Picture: Steve Pohlner

Retired 2 Commando unit Major and now veteran advocate Heston Russell said the terms of reference for the royal commission must be broad and the commissioner must have the power to expand as required.

"We need to do this once and do it right the first time," he said.

"A big part that has been missing in the process between veterans, families and the government is trust in the process."

Mr Russell said Mr Morrison had done his part by calling for a commission and it was now up to the community to take it further.

"The resolve is there, and now the formality has been achieved," he said.

Mr Russell said it would be an "emotionally high" time for veterans, who would need support in the lead-up to Anzac Day as the announcement could dig up "both good and bad" memories.

Julie-Ann Finney visited the grave of her son Dave at the Golden Grove Cemetery after the Prime Minister announced a Royal Commission into veteran suicides. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Brenton Edwards
Julie-Ann Finney visited the grave of her son Dave at the Golden Grove Cemetery after the Prime Minister announced a Royal Commission into veteran suicides. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Brenton Edwards

Julie-Ann Finney has also cautiously welcomed the royal commission, having previously collected almost 400,000 signatures to support one since her 38-year-old navy poster-boy son David died in February 2019.

She was backed by The Daily Telegraph's Save Our Heroes campaign.

"This is the very beginning of our journey of getting what is necessary," she said.

We have heard this before, but we want to make sure this time we listen to veterans and families not politicians and the Defence Force."

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the Royal Commission on Monday. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Dylan Coker
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the Royal Commission on Monday. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Dylan Coker

Mr Morrison said the royal commission, which he wanted to sit alongside the government's proposed permanent independent commissioner examining veteran suicides, would be comprehensive and have a mandate to look at "systemic issues" and "common themes" among past deaths.

"I think and I hope it will be a healing process," he said.

"I hope it will be a process by which veterans and families can find some comfort, but it obviously can't replace the loss, we understand that.

"I think this will be a process that will assist in the comfort that those families have been seeking."

He said it would also consider the experience of those transitioning from active service, the availability and quality of health and support services.

The Royal Commission will also look at the pre-service and post-service issues for members and veterans, social and family contexts such as family breakdown, as well as housing and employment issues.

 

Coalition backbench MPs and veterans Phillip Thompson and Gavin Pearce both worked to gain support for a royal commission and welcomed the news.

"It's an emotional day," Mr Thompson said.

"We must look at the services required and where failings have happened, because there have been failings.

"We need a royal commission to shine a light into those really dark areas and make recommendations that will save lives."

Herbert MP Phil Thompson has a large number of veterans in his Townsville electorate. Picture: Alix Sweeney
Herbert MP Phil Thompson has a large number of veterans in his Townsville electorate. Picture: Alix Sweeney

Mr Pearce also warned the process was far from finished.

"It's going to be incredibly difficult for some of the families reliving the circumstances of their loved ones' deaths, and that's going to require a whole new level of support," he said.

Mr Pearce, who suffers from PTSD after his own decorated 20-year military service, said he wanted to see a family-centric approach to veteran support, as well as a "science-based" approach to recruitment.

"I'd like to get to the stage where there's some kind of screening process to assess susceptibility to the rigours of service life," he said.

Braddon MP Gavin Pearce has been a vocal supporter of a Royal Commission into veteran suicides.
Braddon MP Gavin Pearce has been a vocal supporter of a Royal Commission into veteran suicides.

Veterans Affairs Minister Darren Chester said the royal commission was an opportunity to "reset the agenda" and unite the veterans community in what had been a very "difficult, sensitive and incredibly complex issue".

"This announcement of a royal commission is another step in our ongoing efforts to build confidence, to build trust but, perhaps most importantly, to restore hope for those who've suffered or are still suffering today," he said.

"We do understand that some people in our veteran community and their families will not heal until we have this royal commission."

 

Mr Chester had been a leading figure in the government opposing a royal commission in 2019 but he has changed his view.

The NSW government welcomed the establishment of a royal commission.

Veterans' Minister Geoff Lee was the first state minister to call for a royal commission at The Daily Telegraph's Save Our Heroes Summit at NSW Parliament House in November 2019.

"The NSW government was the first state to call for a royal commission, recognising that one death is one death too many," Mr Lee said yesterday.

All states must agree to co-operate with the inquiry but Mr Morrison said he expected all states to comply.

South Australian Premier Steven Marshall welcomed the development.

 

'INQUIRY WILL BRING RELIEF'

 

Former commando Damien Thomlinson, who lost both his legs in a Taliban bomb blast, knows the pain of switching from a highly structured military career to civilian­ life.

So when the father-of-two heard Prime Minister Scott Morrison announce a royal commission into the shocking veteran suicides on Monday, he breathed a sigh of relief.

The 39-year-old has felt the pain of veteran suicides­ personally - with two friends from his commando unit taking their lives.

 

Former commando Damien Thomlinson lost both his legs in a Taliban bomb while on duty in Afghanistan. Picture: Toby Zerna
Former commando Damien Thomlinson lost both his legs in a Taliban bomb while on duty in Afghanistan. Picture: Toby Zerna

 

"From personal experience, I know what it is like to have a guy on my phone texting me one week and be dead a week later," he said.

"It's a relief to see that leadership are giving the issue of veteran suicide the attention that it deserves.

"The announcement is extremely important to the mental wellbeing of veterans as an indication that veteran lives are important and care is being taken to provide support."

He hopes the commission will help veterans before it's too late.

"This Commission needs to assist veterans before they get to a low point and identify if there is a pattern leading people down that dark path, that it can steer them clear of that so it never gets to that stage," he said.

"The real battle was past my initial recovery stage and grasping what would happen to me and once I started to feel normal.

"It was easier when everyone was treating you when you were physically struggling but it became harder when I was mentally struggling."

 

Damien Thomlinson in Afghanistan before losing his legs.
Damien Thomlinson in Afghanistan before losing his legs.

 

The Afghanistan veteran lost his legs when a Taliban-planted device exploded while he was on night patrol in 2009. Medics said it was a miracle he wasn't killed and there were times they didn't think he would survive.

Mr Thomlinson has no memory of the moment his vehicle ran over an improvised explosive device and he suffered horrific injuries. Both his legs had to be amputated, while both hands and wrists were broken.

Since learning to walk on prosthetic legs, Mr Thomlinson has trekked the Kokoda Track, competes in para-snowboarding and also played wheelchair rugby and basketball in the Invictus Games.

 

Mr Thomlinson is also a motivational speaker, author and Australian Survivor competitor.

And while he has found a way to regain his emotional and physical strength through sport and a love of golf more than a decade after his traumatic incident, he hopes the commission will shine a light on veteran suicides and what more is needed to be done to prevent them.

"I think it is crucial the terms of reference are broad as there is no defined path to any form of resolution as individual cases are so different," he said.

"I would like to see the government ensure previous changes are implemented and explore every avenue available past and present to assist us as a community to attack this problem."

 

 

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Originally published as Families' pleas finally heard over royal commission