Australian soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan are under constant risk of attack from the Taliban.
Australian soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan are under constant risk of attack from the Taliban. Australian Department of Defence

'Soldiers lack our support'

AUSTRALIAN soldiers returning from Afghanistan are being let down by the country they fought for by a government failure to provide enough counselling, the mother of one of the soldiers has said.

The Byron Bay mother, who asked that her name be withheld, acknowledged that counselling services were available, but said it was set up in a way that meant the soldiers most needing help were least likely to seek it.

The woman said her son had recently returned from his fifth tour of duty in a war zone, first in Iraq and then Afghanistan.

Over the years he had seen two close mates – Brett Till and Darren Smith – killed in Afghanistan. He had seen children blown up and, as a bomb disposal expert and dog handler, lived in constant danger of being blown up himself.

He had spent weeks struggling against minus 17 degree temperatures, scouring the country’s perilous mountains for the Taliban.

Despite what he had seen, the soldier had not sought professional help after returning home. At the same time, he had become steadily more remote, speaking less about his experiences and eventually splitting from his wife and their young children.

“I think they get into the habit of clustering with their mates and I’m sure they hash and re-hash what they’ve seen and done. But I think that’s causing a problem because they’re not learning how to purge those memories and having the tools to cope with them,” the soldier’s mother said.

Northern NSW RSL vice-president Bob Crosthwaite defended the counselling services on offer to returned soldiers, saying Defence had pumped tens of millions of dollars into services aimed at helping returned soldiers come to terms with their experiences.

However, he added that under the Privacy Act, soldiers could not be compelled to undergo counselling.

That, the Byron Bay mother said, was the nub of the problem.

“They are less likely to say ‘I have a problem’ to their commanding officer because that’s a sign of cowardice,” she said.

The mother also said she feared people developing psychiatric issues from fighting in Afghanistan would be unable to recognise their problems or the need for help.

The mother said she wrote to then Minister for Defence, Science and Personnel Warren Snowdon and then Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon in 1988 asking them to introduce mandatory counselling for returned soldiers.

“May I suggest at the end of a tour of duty, these young men and women receive a complete debriefing by qualified professional persons, followed by regular monthly professional counselling one-on-one for a six-month period as a part of the accepted system,” she said in a 1988 letter to Mr Snowdon, seen by The Northern Star.

The mother said the six counselling sessions would reveal any deeper problems that were taking root and help resolve them before they damaged the soldiers’ lives.

Responding to the letter, Mr Snowdon’s chief of staff, Kim Isaacs, said Defence offered a broad range of psychiatric support services for soldiers before, during and after deployment to a war zone.

However, the mother described the letter as ‘spin’, saying the services often failed to connect with the returned soldiers.

A Defence spokesman said the department was already working to improve the mental health support it offered to returned soldiers after a review early last year.

That review had delivered 52 recommendations, which the department was still implementing. Among the steps being taken, Defence was boosting its mental health workforce by 50 per cent over the next three years, improving training for Defence health professionals,increasing ‘mental health research and surveillance’ and enhancing the department’s existing preventative strategies.

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