It’s been a big couple of weeks for veterans’ affairs in Australia.
Last week, the Australian Veterans’ Recognition Bill passed both houses of Parliament, with bipartisan support, officially recognising the unique nature of military service and enshrining in law a new covenant, a perpetual promise, between Australia and its armed forces’ veterans.
And this week, we mark Veterans’ Health Week, with this year’s focus on the unique mental health challenges that can arise from military service.
Both events are important and highlight our positive progress, though the battle is far from won and casualties are still being taken.
The Australian Veterans’ Recognition Bill ensures that we guard against the kind of traumatic post-Vietnam schism that tore at the seams of the social contract in our country. In this grim chapter of our history, Australian veterans of the Vietnam War were often vilified, despite many being compelled by the government of the day into national service as conscripts.
Ultimate responsibility for participation in any war always lies with the executive. However, what Government asks of these Australians is still often misunderstood by many in our society.
We ask that defence personnel give up enormous amounts of personal autonomy and freedoms that other Australians enjoy and expect as basic rights. We ask that they comply at all times with the orders of their chain of command on how to dress, what to do and where to live in Australia or overseas, often regardless of their preferences and usually at great cost to their personal and family lives.
We ask and expect that defence members, if called to do so by the Government, take up arms to protect Australia’s homeland security and strategic interests and that they do so professionally and ethically, showing resolve, restraint and compassion.
And when their service is done, we ask that they then reintegrate seamlessly into mainstream society despite their experiences and often with a lack of vital psychosocial supports. This is a big ask.
So, despite the key limitation that it did not extend to serving ADF members or other Australians such as the AFP peacekeepers, the veterans’ recognition bill is an important step forward for our nation.
Some may see the procurement of new lapel pins and veterans cards as tokenism, but the declaration of a covenant isn’t mere virtue signalling. It’s about ensuring we can all recognise veterans among us, so we can acknowledge the link between our fellow Australians and the freedoms we all enjoy and so that we can all, in ways great and small, help ease the transition of veterans and their families back into the open arms of a grateful nation.
But more needs to be done. Despite being a garrison town, for instance, Darwin still lacks a dedicated service centre to support current and ex-serving defence personnel, first responders and their families. When we have the crisis situation of veterans not knowing how to access the services they need, this is not good enough and the federal government should accelerate its work to deliver the promised veterans’ wellbeing centres in Darwin and elsewhere.
For our serving men and women, when the time comes, a great place to start your successful transition is to find a family clinic near where you live and introduce yourself to the doctors and nurses. Don’t wait until you are struggling to start building a relationship with your local clinic and health team. Getting to know your local doctor and completing a post-ADF health assessment after discharge will make it much easier to learn how to engage health resources for you and your family. And it doesn’t matter where you get help, making the decision to get help is the most important first step.
The message to our veterans and their families is that you are not alone. We recognise that military service exposes Australians to great risks and statistically higher chances of developing mental health issues. When a veteran reaches out for support through the system, they deserve the benefit of the doubt, because that is what the promise of a covenant demands.
This piece was published by the Australian Defence Magazine on Friday 1 November 2019.