A year in review — Commissioner Gwen Cherne, Veteran Family Advocate

Headshot of Gwene Cherne, Veteran Family Advocate

Commissioner Gwene Cherne
Veteran Family Advocate

It has been almost a year since I became the first Veteran Family Advocate. Even with all the COVID-19 restrictions, I have managed to travel to all states and territories except Victoria. I have had more than 7,600 interactions with veterans and their families and the organisations that support them. So there is a lot to follow up!

Something that may seem obvious, but is key to successfully supporting veterans and families, is that we must take a systems approach to supporting veterans. The research shows that including families leads to better outcomes for the veteran, and that we should see veterans as part of a family, not as a singular entity. Families come in all shapes and sizes, so programs and services should be inclusive of what I call the veteran’s interdependent relationships, be those with parents, children, step-parents, aunties, uncles, siblings, etc. Families should not be an afterthought. Part of my role is ensuring families are provided with services and supports in their own right.

What the 2021–22 Budget means for veteran families

As you may be aware, the Government announced its 2021–22 Budget on 11 May, with specific announcements supporting the processing of claims, rehabilitation and a wellbeing focus that identifies risk factors and prioritises support for those in crisis. So, what does the Budget mean for veteran families?

Family Support Package — eligibility for families extended

For families experiencing crisis (like a mental health episode, family conflict or relationship breakdown) support is now extended to all forms of service if the veteran is under 65 and eligible for incapacity payments, special or intermediate rate of Disability Pension or receiving the Veteran Payment.

Eligibility for widows/widowers extended

If the veteran suffered a service-related death or suicide they are eligible for support for 4 years from the date the claim is accepted.

Flexibility introduced

Individual support financial caps have been removed and replaced with an annual cap so the family can choose which support or service they need.

Wellbeing Centres for veterans and families

Expanded to include locations in Tasmania and South-East Queensland.

Funding for around 440 additional Australian Public Service staff

To help reduce the backlog of claims, bolster capability and support continued improvement.

Budget is a great time to look at how responsibility for supporting our veterans and our families is shared across the whole of government. I am passionate about advancing the agenda for the recognition, understanding, and provision of support that our Defence and veteran families need across both the public and private sectors.

It is neither feasible nor in the best interests of our families for DVA or Defence to duplicate supports that all families in Australia need access to, like mental health care, suicide awareness, family and domestic violence support, family assistance, carers assistance, education and more. What is vital for both departments to do is step in where the system does not adequately cater for the unique experience of military life.

It is important to recognise that government isn’t always the best, or first way, to meet our community’s needs. Many of the great initiatives that make a big impact are either run out of our ex-service organisations (ESOs), or have their start there. This builds the evidence base that our decision-makers in Parliament need to justify spending taxpayer dollars.

In my engagements this year I have seen firsthand that ESOs are continually changing and adapting to meet the needs of veterans and their families. Veterans’ families can now participate in activities, sport, education, scholarships, retreats, camps, online courses and more. I am hopeful that DVA’s Wellbeing Centres can offer a first port of call for families and veterans to learn what is available and help guide them to services and programs that best fit their needs and interests.

In many ways we are still at the beginning of this journey. While there has been a great deal of progress, there are still gaps in services for groups who require more support. From my discussions with families around Australia, I believe mental health support and assistance with transition will be two areas that future policy will need to focus on.

I recently attended the opening of Fussell House at Concord Repatriation General Hospital in Sydney. Fussell House is a 19-room residential accommodation facility available to current and former Australian Defence Force personnel and their families as they access comprehensive mental and physical health services at the world-class National Centre for Veterans’ Healthcare.

Fussell House provides veterans and their families from across Australia with a home away from home at Concord as they access the care and support they need. The facility offers private and shared spaces and includes family suites, individual rooms, family lounge areas, kitchen, laundry and utility rooms and outdoor BBQ area. This practical support will go a long way to assist veteran families.

I also had the honour of attending an event at the Australian War Memorial announcing that a sculpture called Every Drop Shed in Anguish will be installed on the grounds of the Memorial. The sculpture is intended to honour the sufferings of war — both seen and unseen. The droplets will represent blood, sweat and tears and will be a powerful way for veterans and families to reflect on both the physical and mental wounds of war and service.

In the wake of the recent announcement of a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, I worked with families to contribute to the Terms of Reference. The discussions were powerful and gave me a chance to hear from families directly impacted by suicide in our community. The Royal Commission is an important opportunity for us to be heard, learn, continue to improve systems, and provide the restorative justice many in our community need in order to heal.

If you are interested in hearing more about what I am up to, I have started bi-monthly snapshots that highlight what I am doing, where I am going and what I am hearing. If you would like to join the mailing list to receive these snapshots please email me at vfa [at] dva.gov.au. Till next time, Gwen

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Nine people posing for camera inside a building

At the opening of Fussell House with Mr and Mrs Fussell, parents of the late Lt. Michael Fussell.