Ex-soldiers ‘overwhelmed’ by compo process

Sam McKeith |

Some Australian Defence Force veterans are being “overwhelmed” by a complex compensation claims process that could be contributing to high suicide rates among ex-soldiers, a royal commission has been told.

The commission in Sydney is probing the long-running issue of defence and veteran suicide, with the inquiry on Wednesday hearing from Department of Veterans’ Affairs bureaucrats about a “complicated process” for ex-ADF members seeking compensation payouts.

Counsel assisting the royal commission, Peter Singleton, put to DVA official Kate Pope that complexities in the department’s claims process meant “some veterans feel overwhelmed by the task of seeking their entitlements”.

“Yes, I think it’s broadly true that DVA would have the view that, for some people, it is an overwhelming process,” Ms Pope said.

The claims process, for some veterans, became a source of stress, depression, deteriorating mental health and even suicidality, the inquiry was told.

“Does DVA accept that in some cases these issues can extend so far as to be contributing factors to suicidality,” Mr Singleton asked Ms Pope.

“It’s not unreasonable to think that an overwhelming process that affects someone in that way could be a contributing factor,” she replied.

The inquiry has previously heard of an “unacceptably high” claims backlog at DVA, with the average processing time blowing out to around 200 days.

The backlog has been “steeply increasing” and total claims are at a higher number now than they were in August 2021, it has previously heard.

Earlier, Colleen Pillen, the mother of veteran Michael Powers, who took his own life in October 2017, testified that the ADF “wiped their hands” of her son after he was discharged following bullying and victimisation inside the military.

Her son was “failed” by four psychiatrists, including one at a “DVA-based practice” from whom he sought help after receiving an administrative discharge from the army earlier the same year, she said.

Less than a week before he ended his life, the inquiry was told Mr Powers saw a psychiatrist in Richmond, in Sydney’s west, but returned home “astounded by how he was treated by this doctor”.

“He felt she looked at him with contempt, that he was just trying to work a claim, and she was quite dismissive of him,” Ms Pillen said.

Days after the session in Richmond, Ms Pillen tried to contact her son but found that his mobile phone had “gone flat”.

“I found Michael passed away, he’d taken his life finally.”

She said Mr Powers’ mental health declined after he was “victimised and bullied” following a shift to a different group inside the ADF.

After suffering bouts of “intrusive thoughts”, he spent about eight weeks in hospital, before being administratively discharged from the military in April 2017, a decision that haunted the soldier.

The inquiry was told the administrative nature of the discharge – versus a medical one – made it more difficult for him to access support via the military.

On leaving the army, he became violent, started drinking heavily, began smoking, got into fights, lost weight, and couldn’t sleep.

“There was no ongoing support for him, as soon as he was discharged they wiped their hands of him,” Ms Pillen said.

A two-week block of hearings in Sydney has so far heard from high-ranking ADF members who have conceded that more must be done to support people transitioning from military service to civilian life.

There have been accounts of bullying, poor treatment of women, a lack of support for veterans and recruits being forced into hazing rituals.

In February, Department of Veterans’ Affairs officials were grilled about a growing backlog in compensation claims, and gay ADF veterans gave harrowing testimony about unfair treatment in the defence force due to their sexuality.

The hearing continues on Thursday.

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