The Weekend Australian
War widow urges vets to ask for help
Gwen Cherne, the governmentappointed advocate for thousands of defence force families, has issued a plea to struggling military veterans to put their hand up instead of waiting for others to notice they need help.
Ms Cherne, a 43-year-old military widow who is Australia’s first Commissioner for Family Veteran Advocacy, says there is also a lot of work that Defence and the Department of Veterans Affairs can do in “showing veterans the value of engaging in actual clinical support”.
“I love RUOK day but the onus is on me to ask you if you are OK. Instead, we need to talk about self-responsibility — a person saying ‘I need support and I’ll take responsibility to go out and get it’,” she says.
Ms Cherne says she holds firm to a decision to speak publicly about her personal battle to convince her husband Peter Cafe, an elite soldier who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, to seek expert help for depression.
He committed suicide in 2017 after suffering a stroke in Iraq and being medically evacuated home.
“There were no physical deficits but he struggled with his poor brain function,” she said. “There was fear of being medically discharged and what he would do if he was not a soldier.
“Pete knew how to get help,” she said. “On my shelf I have a lot of his books on depression, anxiety, living with the black dog. He knew all those things but he was unwilling to put his hand up.”
She says her husband’s military unit didn’t contact her or directly invite her to attend his appointments “from the moment Pete touched down from Iraq until he died”.
Ms Cherne says her husband’s death, which left her to raise their two young children alone, spurred her on to support the “massive efforts within Defence, DVA and ex-service organisations to break down that deep shame that comes with having mental health issues”.
“But we are not doing enough in the prevention space,” she says.
Former Special Forces Commando Heston Russell, who founded the Voice of a Veteran support group, served in the elite 2nd Commando Unit with Ms Cherne’s late husband. He says he agrees that ex-veterans will remain at higher risk of suicide unless proactive action is taken to contact struggling individuals.
“Gwen’s appointment is a proactive step,” he says. “Her story is powerful and she’s a fantastic speaker. But we need a national media campaign to help reach the three out of four veterans who don’t engage with DVA after they have left the defence force.
“I know three people, including Peter, who suicided while in service, but there’s another 11 soldiers I personally served with who committed suicide after service.”
He says the latest figures about veteran suicide indicate a highly vulnerable group are low- to midranking men and women who are medically discharged. Family referrals suggest that 25 former servicemen and women ended their lives in the short period between November 12, when Scott Morrison said “brutal truths” were contained in the Afghanistan war crimes report, and February 3.
Tasmanian senator and veterans mental health advocate Jacqui Lambie has described military suicide as “one of Australia’s most pressing problems.”
Mr Russell says support services have increased for exiting servicemen and women, including the DVA-run Open Arms counselling service. “But I met someone recently who said Open Arms has an 11-week wait to see a psychologist.”
Ms Cherne says that all currently serving and former veterans, their family members and friends can contact Open Arms at any time if they are concerned about a veteran’s wellbeing.
“I would like to assure anyone in the veteran community that Open Arms is available 24/7 if you need support. Please reach out to them on 1800 011 046.”