LOS­ING BAT­TLE

De­fence he­roes’ tragic toll on home front

Townsville Bulletin - - FRONT PAGE - RACHEL RI­LEY

SERV­ING and for­mer Aus­tralian De­fence Force per­son­nel con­tinue to take their own lives at an alarm­ing rate.

One year ago the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment an­nounced a sui­cide preven­tion ini­tia­tive tar­get­ing ADF mem­bers at 12 sites, in­clud­ing Townsville.

How­ever, since Jan­uary, an un­of­fi­cial reg­is­ter of De­fencere­lated sui­cides has recorded 57 deaths across the coun­try.

By com­par­i­son, the reg­is­ter recorded 76 sui­cides in 2016 and 48 in 2015. Those fig­ures in­di­vid­u­ally are all more than the num­ber of Aus­tralians who were killed in Afghanistan dur­ing 13 years of war.

The Townsville Bul­letin to­day launches a cam­paign to shine a light on gaps in pol­icy and cur­rent care mod­els with the aim of im­prov­ing the lives of our cur­rent and past serv­ing per­son­nel and their fam­i­lies in a bid to stem the tide of poor men­tal health out­comes and sui­cide in our gar­ri­son city.

TO­DAY marks one year and three days since the Prime Min­is­ter an­nounced Townsville as one the first of 12 trial sites for a sui­cide preven­tion ini­tia­tive tar­geted at Aus­tralian De­fence Force mem­bers and veter­ans.

In that time, dur­ing which a high- level round­table to dis­cuss sui­cide preven­tion was also held in Townsville, more than 50 cur­rent or ex- serv­ing per­son­nel have taken their own lives.

The War­riors Re­turn, an un­of­fi­cial de­fence per­son­nel and veter­ans sui­cide reg­is­ter, has recorded 57 De­fence- re­lated sui­cides na­tion­ally since Jan­uary alone, with four of those deaths in Townsville and an­other well- pub­li­cised case of Afghanistan vet­eran and for­mer 1st Bat­tal­ion, Royal Aus­tralian Reg­i­ment sol­dier Jesse Bird.

By com­par­i­son, the reg­is­ter recorded 76 sui­cides in 2016 and 48 in 2015. Those fig­ures in­di­vid­u­ally are all more than the num­ber of Aus­tralians who were killed in Afghanistan dur­ing 13 years of war.

The Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment has been heav­ily crit­i­cised for its fan­fare an­nounce­ments re­gard­ing the sui­cide preven­tion trial sites and the Veter­ans’ Em­ploy­ment Pro­gram over the past 12 months, and the lit­tle im­pact it’s had on halt­ing sui­cide rates and cre­at­ing gen­uine em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties for ex- ADF per­son­nel.

The Townsville Bul­letin to­day launches a cam­paign to shine a light on gaps in pol­icy and cur­rent care mod­els with the aim of im­prov­ing the lives of cur­rent and ex- serv­ing per­son­nel and their fam­i­lies and stem­ming the tide of poor men­tal health out­comes and sui­cide in our gar­ri­son city.

Three- star gen­eral, re­tired Lieu­tenant Gen­eral John Caligari AO, DSC, chair of the Townsville trial dubbed Op­er­a­tion Com­pass, said the city was well ahead of the other 11 sui­cide preven­tion trial sites.

He said the trial’s 10- mem­ber steer­ing com­mit­tee had al­ready met four times and had also formed at 25- per­son ad­vi­sory group made up of mem­bers who “live and breathe” this prob­lem.

“Un­for­tu­nately the num­ber of sui­cides is not go­ing to stem un­til we do some­thing about it but I think we’re on the right track,” he said.

“I don’t ex­pect there to be any heavy lift­ing from Can­berra, all they can do is pro­vide us the money, the $ 3 mil­lion over three years, so to my mind with the sup­port of the Pri­mary Health Net­work, we’ve got ev­ery­thing we need to make this work.”

Mr Caligari said this fight for him was very per­sonal and he be­lieved the gar­ri­son city needed to be the cru­cible for stop­ping De­fence- re­lated sui­cides in Aus­tralia.

“It’s im­por­tant for me to get this right be­cause out of a 36year mil­i­tary ca­reer I com­manded sol­diers in Townsville for a third of that time,” he said. “Many of the peo­ple who are killing them­selves are close friends of mine and … I have been to too many fu­ner­als and see sol­diers that I have taken on com­bat op­er­a­tions tak­ing their lives.

“I’m now a Townsville res­i­dent and we are look­ing for a solution and we’re go­ing to make a De­fence solution out of this. We won’t come up with a solution that is so be­spoke it will only work in Townsville. The prin­ci­ple of our so­lu­tions will be so that we can roll out across Aus­tralia.”

Mr Caligari said it was hoped the steer­ing com­mit­tee would have it’s com­mu­nity ac­tion plan fi­nalised by Veter­ans’ Health Week in Oc­to­ber.

A report re­leased in June by the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Health and Wel­fare found that be­tween 2001 and 2015, there were 325 cer­ti­fied suic cide deaths among peo­ple with at least one day of ADF ser­vice since 2001.

Of these deaths 51 per cent ( 166) were of peo­ple no longer s serv­ing at the time of their death, 28 per cent ( 90) were of peo­ple serv­ing full time and 21 per cent ( 69) were of peo­ple serv­ing in the ac­tive and inac- tive re­serves. Men made up the vast ma­jor­ity of these sui­cide deaths ( 93 per cent or 303 deaths) and 84 per cent of the ADF pop­u­la­tions ex­am­ined.

Women made up the re­main­ing 7 per cent ( 22 deaths).

The sui­cide rates of exserv­ing men were more than twice as high as for those serv­ing full time or in the re­serve and were also slightly higher than for their coun­ter­parts in the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion af­ter ad­just­ing for age.

Ex- serv­ing men aged 18- 24 were at par­tic­u­lar risk – two times more likely to die from sui­cide than Aus­tralian men of the same age. Fur­ther de­tailed re­sults are an­tic­i­pated to be pub­lished in a com­pre­hen­sive tech­ni­cal report later this year.

Her­bert MP Cathy O’Toole, who es­tab­lished the city’s first De­fence Ref­er­ence Group, said she be­lieved Townsville was now lead­ing the coun­try in im­prov­ing men­tal health out­comes and re­duc­ing the rate of sui­cide.

She said the sui­cide preven­tion trial site con­tin­ued to of­fer a bea­con of hope.

“For the peo­ple we have al­ready lost, ac­tion hasn’t come quickly enough and one loss of life has such an enor­mous rip­ple ef­fect across our com­mu­nity,” Ms O’Toole ( left) said.

“I think ev­ery death is a tragedy with­out any doubt be­cause these men and women have given their lives so self­lessly to se­cure our free­dom.

“Men­tal health and sui­cide preven­tion is a very com­plex space, but I know the lead­ers in this com­mu­nity have had the fore­sight to see there are sig­nif­i­cant is­sues that we can do some­thing about.”

There is no quick fix to such a com­plex prob­lem. But the fact is the ex­ist­ing pro­grams and lev­els of sup­port are hav­ing lit­tle im­pact. EDITORIAL: PAGE 16 I HAVE BEEN TO TOO MANY FU­NER­ALS AND SEE SOL­DIERS THAT I HAVE TAKEN ON COM­BAT OP­ER­A­TIONS TAK­ING THEIR LIVES RE­TIRED LIEU­TENANT GEN­ERAL JOHN CALIGARI

Pic­tures: ZAK SIM­MONDS, WES­LEY MONTS

OUT OF CON­TROL: Townsville fa­ther of four and for­mer sol­dier Adam “Chook” Fowles has spo­ken out to high­light the need for sup­port for cur­rent and ex- Aus­tralian De­fence Force mem­bers suf­fer­ing from PTSD; ( above) re­tired Lieu­tenant Gen­eral John Caligari.

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