Care 'too little, too late': ex soldier

Army private Shaun Jenkins' father has outlined the stresses faced by his son before his death.
Army private Shaun Jenkins' father has outlined the stresses faced by his son before his death.

Australian veterans have been taking their lives every week because of a "buggered up" approach to support by the defence force and government, a former soldier says.

"We are spending all our money on acute care (for veterans) after they have already jumped off the cliff," Padre Gary Stone told a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide on Thursday.

Mr Stone, a former army commander and founder of the Veteran's Care Association, repeatedly broke down during a highly charged testimony, warning the commissioners: "veterans will die this week if we don't act".

"We want to change it from a focus on sickness and what's not working, what's buggered up, to a focus on wellness and how we can get better," he said.

Defence members routinely kept their psychological injuries a secret from their chain of command because "anybody in the military knows if you are not 100 per cent fit they are at risk of getting the boot".

"So many of us have to treat ourselves by ourselves keeping it a secret from the hierarchy because we can't trust them," he said.

"We don't tell people what's wrong with us ... because we are trying to look after our jobs and our security and our families."

Those untreated problems, he said, were only compounded when defence members left the service and had to navigate a model of care which left them over-medicated, "broken" and at serious risk of suicide.

Commissioners also heard from Peter Jenkins whose son, Private Shaun Jenkins, 24, died by suicide on January 31, 2016.

"He was very withdrawn ... he would isolate himself for fairly significant periods of time in his bedroom," Mr Jenkins told the commission on Thursday.

"He was very quiet, very different to what he had been prior to deploying."

Mr Jenkins said his son had been tormented after witnessing the death of a 16-year-old girl in Afghanistan. He was also "very upset" over a military vehicle - Bushmaster - accident which left him unconscious and a number of others injured.

It reached the point where suicide felt like the only option "to stop the pain", the father said.

Mr Stone told the commission that, like many veterans, he had suffered post traumatic stress after his own horrific experiences in combat.

In 1989 he had led a peace keeping force in the Iraq/Iran war.

"It was war beyond belief. It was like World War I, a million troops facing each other and killing each other," he said.

"I got taken captive a couple of times and I had to negotiate my way out of that. "

The experience left him with "hypervigilance, hyper-arousal, hyper-everything", Mr Stone said.

"I don't have post-traumatic stress any more ... but I'm still pretty hyper."

He said one of the fundamental flaws with the support system for veterans was that they had to be deemed totally and permanently impaired by the Department of Veteran Affairs to receive a pension.

That left many veterans feeling they were "permanently broken" with no prospect of recovery.

Seriously ill veterans too often fell through the gap, he said, because the right treatment programs were not available for them.

He said contrary to popular belief the veterans most at risk of suiciding were suffering from "moral injury", not just PTSD, which left them with a sense of "hopelessness, shame, guilt, loss of identity and purpose".

Instead of getting the kind of integrated holistic care needed, veterans were being wrongly medicated, leaving them with symptoms like sexual impotence, chronic sleepiness, anger and grumpiness.

"Moral trauma is not understood by many people," he said.

"It's not in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders) ... if you go to the DVA they say, 'hey, it's not on the list'."

Mr Stone told commissioners the inquiry was "a glimmer of hope" for veterans and their families, but he implored them to pressure the government to start immediate funding for more integrated services.

The commission's public hearing continue on Friday.

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Australian Associated Press