Opinion: The unique nature of our service

Opinion: The families of defence members wear no medals nor uniform — they stand unrecognisable, and unseen in the shadow of their loved one — yet the ripple effects of war, service, and sacrifice impact them as well, writes Renee Wilson, CEO of Australian War Widows NSW.

In Australia, we are incredibly lucky to have a voluntary defence force. To have thousands of people willing to hand their lives over to Australia and enable everyday people, like you and I, to feel protected and safe.

But no veteran exists in a vacuum.

They, just like their civilian counterparts, exist within multiple systems of support that enable their service. They have loved ones who encourage them, look after their children, and worry about them when they go to sleep at night.

As Australians, we must do all we can to protect and promote the wellbeing of the people who underpin the Australian system of Defence. Without them, none of this would be possible.

This year marks 50 years on from when Australia withdrew from Vietnam. While this war bought about lessons and progress to the programs and services on offer to veterans, there has been very limited movement on the support available to their families.

In fact, in Australia, even the data we have on the impacts of war service on veteran families is limited to the Vietnam Veterans study series. As a result of this study, we do know that the mental wellbeing of spouses of war veterans is likely to be poorer, and the presence of PTSD within a relationship will likely have negative consequences on the mental health outcomes of families.

Sadly, we know that as many as 1 in 3 spouses of war veterans could be diagnosed with depression, and 2 in 5 spouses may experience suicidal ideation. Mental health impacts of war affect everyone in a household, with even children of veterans with PTSD and war service likely to experience mental health challenges.

Most of the above data points have been known by the government since 2014, so you would expect that the families of the 26,000+ Australian Defence Force Personnel who served in Afghanistan would have these needs covered. Sadly, that isn’t the case. The families of these veterans are still battling the repercussions of this war service on their own with the only real offer of assistance being counselling. Which, if you can get in, is a band-aid solution and doesn’t treat the systemic problems experienced by these families.

The development of programs and expansion of mental health support access for the families of veterans could not be more critical.

The recent Federal Budget could have helped bridge this gap.

In the Treasurer’s Budget speech, it was pleasing to see further additions to DVA’s Acute Support Package announced to meet the support needs of grandparents who are carers of the children of veterans. While welcomed, I am sure it has left a number of widows who are also carers of the children of veterans, and indeed veteran spouses, wondering why they are not important enough to receive the same support.

You see, the Acute Support Package contains eligibility limits that mean that widows of veterans who didn’t know of their eligibility, who’s loved one “died at the wrong time” or in “the wrong way” are ineligible for support. It means that for those that do know, they have two years only to access support needs. Perhaps most disappointingly, these limits mean that widows of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are not covered.

Why are they not covered? We are told it will cost too much.

It is said we need to limit the costs, there isn’t enough funding, and there are competing priorities. All this is true, however, perhaps we ought to be taking a closer look at what we have been spending our money on and what outcomes it has produced.

The cost argument isn’t all that persuasive when we consider that since 2017 successive governments’ have invested in DVA’s transformation and claims processing improvements to the tune of more than $800 million. This investment hasn’t resulted in a more efficient system, nor has it improved the system. In fact, it has resulted in a Royal Commission which will likely cost more than $200 million by the time it is over.

It is difficult to understand how expenditure that doesn’t address the problems and creates more barriers to support for veterans and their families is okay, but spending on supporting those who bear the burdens of Australia’s Defence and War Service isn’t. Perhaps we need a re-think of priorities or lift standards to reduce waste and funnel money where it is needed.

For what they have done, this is the least we can do.

Renee Wilson is the CEO of Australian War Widows NSW

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