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Military on a mission to reverse suicide rate

As Remembrance Day approaches, Australians are being urged to focus on young veterans at risk of falling victim to trauma, depression and suicide.

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The Defence and Veterans’ Affairs departments and other agencies have begun researching the extent and causes of military suicide.

Support groups are urging those who have served, and are currently serving, to speak up and get help.

 

STORY TRANSCRIPT:

For some veterans, it’s the sound of the rotors.

But what stayed with then 19-year-old infantryman Rob Pickersgill, in post-genocide Rwanda, was the smell.

“We collected casualties. Which we weren’t prepared for, which were in different states. Some had stepped on landmines, some had been shot,” he said.

Over 20 years, Rob Pickersgill was deployed four times — next, to East Timor.

“On arriving in Timor, the first thing I smelt in the airport was that smell of death and that immediately took me back to my memories of Rwanda, that I really hadn’t revisited at all.

The scenes in Rwanda, were horrific.

Private Pickersgill and a mate approached the army psychologist, worried about a colleague.

“We were basically told to rack off,” he said.

“That was a sign to me that you shouldn’t speak about these issues. And that was my point where I suppressed everything,” he said.

Two decades and many conflicts on, hundreds of personnel bear the scars of service.

But some can’t bear them, and end their lives.

Veterans groups, and the Defence Force, want to stop the number rising.

John Bale, of support organisation Soldier On, can’t avoid keeping count .

“I know of seven that have actually… that we know. That’s serving and ex-serving,” he said.

That’s anecdotally this year. But he thinks the real figure is higher.

“It’s really something that’s been pushed under the carpet in Australia and we’re trying to change that because we as a country, and especially as a community, need to understand that this is also our responsibility to make sure that these people are reintegrated. And really it shows that we’re failing to do that,” Mr Bale said.

Official figures show since 2000 some103 serving personnel have taken their own lives.

It’s not always operational stress. About 60 per cent had never deployed. Whatever the cause they want people to speak up and seek help.

“It’s actually I guess more than double the number of those who were killed on active service in Afghanistan,” said Mr Bale.

After discharge, the Defence Department doesn’t keep records.

Along with Veterans’ Affairs and other agencies, Defence has begun a research project to get “a more holistic picture of the information that might be available that would help us get an understanding of the number of deaths that may well be occurring,” says David Morton, Defence’s Director-General of Mental Health and Rehabilitation.

A separate long-term study will survey 25,000 veterans.

There’s general agreement that better information is crucial.

In the lead-up to Remembrance Day, Soldier On is urging Australians to ‘take an extra minute’ to think about young veterans.

To “honour the fallen by supporting the living”, so the toll of war doesn’t continue at home.

Rob Pickersgill never descended that far. But six of his mates did.

After Rwanda, with two months leave and nothing to do, many soldiers just drank.

“We had no psychological support available to us or if we did, we didn’t know it was there. And we had no follow-up on our return,” he said.

The Defence hierarchy accepts that.

Mr Pickering took his trauma to East Timor, then Iraq. And in the de-brief, he lied.

“I didnt talk about how I felt. And I felt horrible inside, because I thought it would be the end of my career,” he said.

Mr Pickersgill says that is still an issue for people in the Defence Force.

But that fear is why outside support exists, and to help transition to civilian life and work.

John Bale says it’s about self-worth.

“Being employed is so much more than simply a job, it’s about having a sense of purpose. And many of them lose that the day they take off their uniform,” he said.

The groups want to set up a central hub to better coordinate their activities.

“Any door you knock on is a good door to knock on,” David Morton said. “And part of our role as an organisation is to make sure that whatever door you knock on is prepared to be responsive.”

Rob Pickersgill buried his feelings for 18 years.

Four years ago, he suffered chest pain and collapsed.

“I felt my chest tighten and couldn’t breathe and I said goodbye. I thought I was dying.”

It took another year to realise it was his mind

With his family’s support he’s found new things to focus on, to help him look forward, and back.

Now he enjoys Harley Davidsons, volunteer work and singing.

The mate he worried about in Rwanda got help years ago.

“It’s the people like me that didn’t’ get help that were the weak ones,” he said.

“Get the help you need and live on.”

 

Readers seeking help and support about any issues raised in this story can contact these organisations:

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636

Soldier On: (04) 7858 9132

Veterans Affairs Counselling Service: 1800 011 046

 

 

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