A climate for action — bringing families into the conversation

Headshot of Gwene Cherne, Veteran Family Advocate

Commissioner Gwene Cherne
Veteran Family Advocate

1 April 2021




My first several months as Veteran Family Advocate has been focused on building relationships, networks and a broader understanding of the needs and concerns of veteran families so that we can set the conversation and agenda for improved support now and into the future.

My Veteran Family Advocate role is a part of the Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission (which are like boards of directors for DVA).

I want you to know I am not doing this on my own. I am working closely with the other Commissioners to gain a better understanding of how the wide range of experiences and perspectives impact the factors of wellbeing for current-serving personnel, veterans and families. We all bring our own lived experience to our roles and engagements. Our purpose is to provide DVA with strategic advice and direction on how to engage and support veterans and families in the ways that they need, when they need it.

As the Veteran Family Advocate is a newly minted position, it presents a unique opportunity to set the agenda on how to integrate a commitment to veteran families into the core business of DVA. I have been working closely with areas in DVA to design the inaugural Family Strategy. The Strategy will set out DVA’s commitment to recognising the contribution of families and provide a framework for DVA’s role in supporting them. I look forward to launching this strategy in the near future, and overseeing the implementation of initiatives and directions it contains.

I have been in contact with hundreds of veterans and families since I started in August. I have also been to more than 100 meetings and roundtables with Government entities, the Minister, DVA, the Australian Defence Force (ADF), Open Arms — Veterans & Families Counselling, the National Mental Health Commission, ex-service organisations (ESOs), and others advocating for veteran families.

I have been actively giving a voice to the concerns of veteran families as a member of the Prime Ministerial Advisory Council on Veterans’ Mental Health, DVA’s Female Veterans and Veterans Families Forum, the Council for Women and Families United by Defence Service, the Open Arms’ National Advisory Committee, and the Expert Advisory Group — Independent Review of Past Defence and Veteran Suicides. These forums provide valuable insights into the experiences of veteran families and how DVA can support them in ways that matter. Each year, the Federal Budget also provides an opportunity to feed these insights into proposals DVA presents to Government for funding decisions.

An area of great worry for many veterans and families has been the Inspector-General of the ADF Afghanistan (IGADF) Inquiry Report — regardless of whether they are directly or indirectly affected by the inquiry. In October last year, I spent time in Perth with the Defence Engagement Commissioner, Defence, DVA and the ESO community to help ensure appropriate support structures are in place for all of those impacted by this inquiry. Everyone affected is part of a family, and they may need support over the long-term to deal with the ongoing pressures and outcomes of the inquiry.

If you know me, you know I am passionate about continuing to break the stigma about mental health and suicide. We have better awareness now than even four years ago, but we still have work to do on a wellbeing approach to addressing mental health issues. Now, burn-out, COVID-19, isolation, long periods of lockdown, being separated from family, the IGADF Inquiry, among other factors have added layers to an already complex picture of mental health risk. Frank conversations must continue about our internal struggles and the ways that families need support to enable their own recovery alongside our veterans. While improving clinical care is incredibly important, there are 24 hours in a day — I believe there is a great benefit in also focusing on the 23 hours we are not in a clinician’s office and how those around us can help us reduce risk of suicide, and live healthier more fulfilling lives.

This leads me to my continued commitment to empower families in the treatment and management of mental health and suicide risks. I have been consulting with Dr Bernadette Boss (the interim National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention) and Christine Morgan (the Prime Minister’s National Suicide Prevention Adviser), connecting them with the experiences and feedback from my many engagements with veterans and families to support and inform their recommendations and actions. It is clear that we all want the same thing when it comes to suicide prevention, and that is to do everything we can to reduce the rate of suicide in the Defence and veteran community. It is imperative that we do not lose sight of that goal.

For some a memorial that acknowledges the impact of suffering and the impact of loss and grief is an important restorative justice approach for community healing for serving personnel, veterans and families. As the Veteran Family Advocate, I have continued my work with a committee of other families and veterans, Defence, DVA and Australian War Memorial representatives to realise the Sufferings of War and Service Memorial to be built as a part of the Memorial Sculpture Garden in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. The installation will provide veterans, families and the Australian community with a place to grieve, reflect, remember, heal, honour and acknowledge the long-term costs of war and service — wounds both seen and unseen — and a place to start important discussions about topics that have to date been taboo.

I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to speak with me, especially for your honesty and willingness to open up about what are often very personal matters.

I am here to listen to you.

I have my own experiences and opinions, and I want to hear yours. I want to work with you to make sure that our current and future generations of veterans have the best possible support structures available to them and their families. I look forward to speaking with as many of you as possible in the coming months and years. Together we will be heard, we will make a difference and we will look towards a brighter future for our veterans and our families.

For more on Commissioner Cherne, visit the profile in the last edition of Vetaffairs.