‘Pit of despair’: 9 Aussies dead in 3 weeks
WARNING: Distressing content
"I frequently hold a gun in my hand and tell myself to just finish it."
That's what a former Australian soldier told me during a conversation in 2018.
He, like so many others, were fighting a silent fight against an enemy within. He is a survivor, but other ADF servicemen and women have lost their lives to PTSD in a staggering increase in the suicide rate.
Over the past three weeks, nine serving and veteran Defence Force members have taken their own lives.
Eight men and one woman aged from 20-50 - heroes who served their country and made the greatest sacrifice and whose families won't have them around for Christmas.
Their names are added to a suicide death toll among veterans that is 32.5 per cent higher this year than it was last year, according to News Corp's Let's Talk campaign.
Among them is 32-year-old Private Shane Holt, who leaves behind his partner and three-year-old son, and Leading Aircraftsman Robert Phillips, 33, who has two young children.
The veteran community is shocked by a crisis that will further harm the ADF and follows immediately after a damning war crimes report that found evidence Australian Special Forces soldiers were involved in the murders of 39 people in Afghanistan.
A former special forces soldier who suffers PTSD told news.com.au he is saddened but not shocked by the news.
The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says found himself "in a deep pit that I couldn't see a way out of after transitioning to civilian life".
"The unit offers structure and demands the soldier consistently demonstrate they have the strength, endurance and mental fortitude," he said.
"It condemns laziness and selfishness. It fosters a team environment that exists nowhere else in the world. The uniform and hat badge are worn with pride, it distinguishes the soldier as different and arguably more resilient than others, especially civilians.
"The unit train together, eat together, deploy on exercises and operations together. The soldiers know each other's deepest secrets. They draw strength from the pack and bond over shared suffering of adverse environments and conditions. They rob each other mercilessly, but will immediately close ranks and protect their own savagely from any outsider.
"And then the soldier leaves the unit, for whatever reason they decide to become a civilian. This transition can be extremely hard, especially on the soldiers who joined at a young age.
"Immediately they lose the structure of the average day, they have to physically train alone instead of with a competitive team. Sometimes this lack of competition and company means the soldier stops physically trying all together, losing shape, getting fat and slow.
"Civilians don't get their humour or their work ethic, they haven't suffered or hurt or starved or nearly dropped from exhaustion. They don't understand the soldier."
He said there were times so dark, when he was alienated by his family, that a phone call "just wouldn't suffice".
"I couldn't see a way out, none of my former comrades were there to help me. It wasn't the done thing to admit weakness and so I stayed in the pit of despair. I didn't kill myself, but the prospect was there as a viable solution to my problems which seemed insurmountable.
"I know a lot of guys that did kill themselves, and I don't judge them, I understand the deep pit of despair and feeling of abandonment."
Professor Alexander McFarlane from the University of Adelaide is an international expert on the military and veterans' mental health and had been a senior investigator in studies of the health of ADF personnel.
He says the recent report into war crimes in Afghanistan would have been an incredibly challenging reality for former or current soldiers to be confronted with.
"It's the sort of issue that will be very difficult for many members to live with because they've served with honour and given their service in a dedicated manner and, in some ways, their sense of purpose is pulled from under them when they find the reputation of the Defence Force has been undermined by the actions of a few," he told news.com.au.
"It is an issue that puts the mental health of many at greater risk.
"One part of that concern is the risk of suicide. The meaning and sense of worth is incredibly important for people who put themselves in harm's way. Having meaning and purpose keeps people with thoughts of suicide alive.
"People don't go on deployment and immediately become unwell. Psychological distress increases over time. One of the great concerns about this report is it confronts ADF personnel with something that will cause them considerable distress because they served in an honourable way. To find out that all the community building work in Afghanistan was being undone by a small group is knowledge that will potentially magnify their distress."
He urged anybody experiencing suicidal thoughts to seek appropriate care immediately.
"It's absolutely critical that if any personnel who do feel affected by this seek the appropriate care."
Work Prof McFarlane and his team carried out for the University's Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies has been disbanded because DVA and the ADF ceased funding of the study of long term effects of deployment by independent research teams.
The work tracked the ongoing wellbeing of Defence Force personnel for a decade but was not followed up after 2015.
It meant there was no real systemic monitoring of serving personnel for the past five years - a period where suicides among veterans are on the rise.
In 2018, the Department of Veterans Affairs released the Mental Health Prevalence Report which showed 5492 transitioned ADF members "saw atrocities or carnage such as mutilated bodies or mass killings" and 22 per cent were estimated to have lifetime trauma as a result.
DVA did set up a new hotline in September after it was revealed that between 2015 and 2017 the suicide rate for ex-serving men was 18 per cent higher than the rest of the Australian male population.
For ex-serving women over the same period it was 115 per cent higher than the rest of the Australian female population.
News.com.au has approached the Department of Veterans Affairs for comment on the recent spike in suicides.
Shane Holt, who his family referred to as a "brave soldier" and a "kind and caring father", served with the 8/9 Royal Australian Regiment.
Robert John Phillips, who was remembered as a "cherished father, brother, uncle, comrade and friend, enlisted in to the Royal Australian Air Force to become an Airfield Defence Guard.
Suicide call back service: 1300 659 467
Originally published as 'Pit of despair': 9 Aussies dead in 3 weeks