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How Veterans’ Affairs could gain, or break, a fragile trust

How Veterans’ Affairs could gain, or break, a fragile trust

As the department starts to respond to multiple inquiries, veterans and families are calling on it to honour promises and look after ex-services personnel.

The cafe in north Canberra echoes with lunch-hour conversation and veteran Todd Berry sends a text when he arrives outside. “I’m here, mate. Inside or out?”

At a table indoors he sits down, fresh from a fundraiser that raised $1 million nationally for ex-services personnel adjusting to civilian life. Passersby arm-wrestled veterans and donated. It was an easier challenge this time for Mr Berry, who in 2015 ran 100km for the Anzac centenary, raising money for charities supporting veterans. The run was tough, but for him, exercise staves off a worse pain.

After a near-two decade career in the Australian army including deployment to East Timor in 2001, Mr Berry keeps a strong frame. It hides a mental health condition that spiralled when the federal agency that decides on compensation for veterans delayed supporting him.

Years living with diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression have taught him lessons, the chief among them being not to compare himself to the soldier who was yet to become ill all those years ago. “When I’m doing things physically, I’m still quite mentally strong. But little obstacles can tear me to pieces,” he says. “Every day is a bit of a lottery.”

Mr Berry’s re-entry into the civilian world in 2007 was harsh. He had a sense of unfinished business, being medically discharged. The government accepted liability for his mental health condition. When he deteriorated further as he left the army, he leapt into an unknown world, unsure if the federal government would agree to support him for his new level of disability as he raised a family and managed a serious health condition acquired during service.

The financial uncertainty, lasting two months, sent him crashing. He spent several weeks recovering in a mental health facility. The transition from the military would have been hard, he says, even without a health condition. For someone who is medically discharged, it’s more difficult again.

“When you’ve got mental health issues on top of that, it’s quite exponential.”

The death of five fellow soldiers in Malaysia haunted him with nightmares after he had to watch their autopsies and escort their bodies home in 1993. Mr Berry self-medicated with alcohol when he was posted back for two years to the country, where he lived in an apartment overlooking the same morgue and drove every day past the place where they died in a motor vehicle accident.

His recovery remains fragile. In 2009, his mental health took another dive and he attempted suicide. He was in a coma for two days, and later was in an intensive care unit, before spending six weeks in a mental health facility.

Mr Berry, like many veterans, gives good reviews of the support he received from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs after it accepted liability for his worsened condition in 2007, a moment he describes as lifting a weight from his shoulders. Some are wary of criticising the department too harshly as it embarks on multimillion dollar reforms to repair a bureaucracy that has been the subject of multiple government inquiries.

In 14 years, he’s learnt to keep balance with exercise and his guitar. He counts himself lucky to have a supportive wife and is eyeing an ironman race for his next physical challenge. His gratitude towards the department comes with an honest testament to its part in his mental illness 11 years ago.

“For a couple of months there, I was in limbo,” he said. The volume of documents, the long and involved process proving he acquired his conditions during service, the wait; all did harm.

“We need to get back to our men and women being given the benefit of the doubt. There’s a lot of hoops we’ve got to jump through to get our conditions recognised.”

‘The family is holding them to account’

In the lead-up to the commemorations of 100 years since the end of World War I in November 2018, national attention turned to veterans as Prime Minister Scott Morrison proposed a discount card scheme in support of a “culture of respect” for ex-services personnel. A few days later, a plan at Virgin Australia to give them priority boarding and thank them for their service fell flat.

The Invictus Games, applauded for raising awareness about veterans’ health, also brought them into national conversation in October.

It was a hard week for Karen Bird, whose son Jesse died by suicide in 2017 aged 32, weeks after he lost a claim for permanent impairment he had pursued for almost two years. Jesse, who served in Afghanistan, had been a talented swimmer and rugby player, and may have competed at the games.

Mrs Bird has had to reinvent herself as she recovered from her loss. She refuses to draw the curtains on life, and wants to see the Department of Veterans’ Affairs – which supports more than 165,000 veterans and 117,000 of their family members – act on reforms it promised in a review into its treatment of Jesse.

“You need to remember and you need to act on those memories. There’s been that many reviews, that many papers written,” she said.

A Senate inquiry into suicide by ex-services personnel in 2017 urged changes to the department that would expand its work identifying those at risk, and better aligning its mental health care with the Department of Defence. It called for continued funding to clear backlogs for claims, a review of training for staff, and paid health care for ex-services personnel who have just left the military.

Recently, a national audit found that while Veterans’ Affairs was largely processing claims within targets, it was failing to monitor for potential time blow-outs and letting some cases get lost in its system for up to 183 days. The federal ombudsman has criticised the way it explains its decisions to veterans. The government’s economic advisory body said the department should be abolished in interim findings about veterans’ compensation in December, saying the system should operate more like a modern workers’ compensation scheme. Another inquiry by ex-Attorney-General’s Department secretary Robert Cornall was expected to report to the government last month.

Among nearly 400 submissions to both the Productivity Commission inquiry and Mr Cornall’s review, ex-services personnel have opened a window on the damage Veterans’ Affairs caused them.

Veteran Craig Thomas raised slow processing times and said claims were denied despite the evidence.

Lawyers at Maurice Blackburn and Slater and Gordon, dealing directly with veterans, told the Productivity Commission inquiry Veterans’ Affairs should adopt compulsory time limits in deciding cases. Clients had reported claims taking years to process.

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