The head of the royal commission into defence and veteran suicide has complained of “far too much talk and not enough action” on military personnel taking their own lives.
In a blistering speech on Wednesday, commissioner Nick Kaldas accused government departments of “stonewalling” the royal commission’s work, even though the “senseless loss of life” was a national crisis.
Kaldas said the Australian defence force and the defence department were moving at “a snail’s pace” in investigating and reporting on suicides, and questioned “whether they’re just going through the motions”.
He also warned of “deep-rooted cultural and systemwide issues within the Department of Veterans’ Affairs” that has left veterans “re-traumatised” and “driven to the brink”.
“The numbers are heartbreaking,” Kaldas said in a speech to the National Press Club in Canberra.
“There were at least 1,600 deaths by suicide between 1997 and 2020 of veterans who served on or after 1 January 1985. That’s more than 20 times the number killed in active duty over roughly the same period.”
Kaldas said rarely a week went by without the royal commission being alerted to the untimely death of another serving or former member. “It is unquestionably a national crisis,” he said.
“When it comes to protecting the mental health and wellbeing of servicemen and women, the evidence this royal commission has uncovered to date suggests there’s been far too much talk and not enough action.”
Kaldas said the chief of the ADF, Gen Angus Campbell, had appointed a brigadier (or one-star officer) to head up a new mental health and wellbeing branch within Defence.
But he said this initiative commenced two years after the establishment of the royal commission, and it would not be fully resourced and functioning until at least January 2025 – which he described as “extraordinary”.
“I note that Defence was able to stand up, without delay, a very well-resourced taskforce – led by a two-star officer – to ‘assist’ this royal commission,” Kaldas said.
“Yet Defence’s approach to investigating and reporting on suicides has progressed at a snail’s pace; and we are yet to find sufficient evidence of urgency in responding to these complex issues holistically – even with this royal commission on foot!”
Kaldas said the royal commission had heard about attempts by the Navy Clearance Divers Trust to offer data, expertise and advice on issues of mental health, safety and wellbeing.
“In evidence, the trust told this royal commission that despite three suicides within their ranks over a two-year period, there was no response from Navy,” he said.
“We also heard about a key initiative shown to significantly reduce injury rates among military personnel and improve the reporting of injuries having its funding withdrawn.
“All of this raises serious questions as to whether Defence is committed to making change in the best interests of its members – or whether they’re just going through the motions.”
Kaldas said the commission had also “heard contemporary lived-experience accounts of abuse, assault, bastardisation, bullying, harassment, discrimination, misogyny – and physical and sexual violence within the ADF”.
“We’ve been told of perpetrators being protected by a code of silence and opaque military justice process,” he said.
Kaldas said the defence abuse response taskforce, which ran from November 2012 to June 2016, “shone a bright light in dark places within the ADF” and “should have been a wake-up call” but “that did not happen”.
“We’ve also heard how those who serve in the military can experience what’s known as moral injury – after witnessing something that goes against their moral or ethical values or when they feel betrayed by those whom they’ve served,” he said.
“Witness ‘BR2’, who appeared at our Brisbane hearing, spoke of recovering the bodies of asylum seekers as part of his role in the navy – and the guilt he felt after those they managed to rescue ended up in offshore detention.”
Kaldas said seeking help early and engaging in effective treatments was important, but “unfortunately putting your hand up for help in the ADF is all too often seen as a weakness in a male-dominated culture that reveres strength”.
He acknowledged some progress in clearing backlogs at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, but said the royal commission was “very much aware there is still a lot of work for DVA to do to improve its ICT and data systems, its customer service – and that adversarial culture, which has left many veterans re-traumatised when forced to justify their claims for compensation”.