Breaking the barriers to community support

Commissioner Gwene Cherne
Veteran Family Advocate

Headshot of Gwene Cherne, Veteran Family Advocate

Over recent times, we have been inundated with challenging news stories and hard truths, from the Inspector-General of the ADF Afghanistan Inquiry report to the fall of Afghanistan and two reports on Defence and veteran suicides, on top of COVID and lockdowns.

The reality is we are a resilient community, but one that is questioning the blood, sweat and tears we shed over the past two decades in Afghanistan and what it was worth. We have been forced to take a hard look at what has caused veterans and veteran families to experience shame, disappointment, betrayal, moral trauma, moral injury, bullying and abuse, grief and loss. Many are questioning the years spent overseas, marriage breakdowns, and missing out on childhoods, weddings and birthdays. I for one am proud of my time in Afghanistan, my husband’s service there, and what we did accomplish, but I know the toll it took on our family and many of those we love.

As we reflect on all of this and turn our attention to potential pressures in the region, new strategic partnerships and the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, we are left asking what is all this going to mean for veterans and veteran families? We know the Royal Commission will review the important recommendations from the interim National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention’s report, dig deep and find more solutions. We already know the reasons leading to suicide can be complex and that it’s not just a mental health issue. We also know that there are things that can be done to help prevent it and better support those vulnerable or at risk now.

I have been exploring some of these things, including support for the bereaved, Defence and veteran youth and children, carers, parents and victim survivors of family and domestic violence (FDV).

The 2021 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s Defence and veteran suicide monitoring report states there were more than 1,200 suicides in the Defence and veteran community from 2001 to 2019. And that’s just those who served since 1985. Research suggests for each suicide there are 135 people directly impacted by the death. I believe this number could be much higher for the tight-knit serving and ex-serving community. This means there are at least 165,000 individuals who have been directly affected by a Defence or veteran suicide. Many of those continue to need our support. Disturbingly, children of parents who die by suicide are three to four times more likely to attempt or die by suicide. We have much work to do to protect those directly affected and ensure they are supported to heal and thrive.

I am working with DVA, Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling, and others to support the co-design and co-implementation of these types of programs for veterans and veteran families in Australia. I also have been advocating for all ex-service organisations (ESOs) to include parents in their services – especially bereaved parents.

We know many Vietnam veterans experienced moral trauma, moral injury and post-traumatic stress among a host of other things. We now know this is not unique to Vietnam veterans, and our Afghanistan veterans and others are experiencing similar things. If the Australian Institute of Family Studies Vietnam Veterans Family Study showed us anything, it is that service impacts veteran families, including the next gen-eration. Understanding and communicating to government the current and enduring intergenerational impacts of service on families has been an important priority for me over the course of the last few years, and will continue to be.

My work with the National Mental Health Commission CEO Christine Morgan ensures the Commission is aware of the unique experiences of veterans and veteran families and the barriers to care for our specific community. I am pleased that the Commission has launched the first National Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy. This is an important step in recognising the need to better support youth and children’s mental health in Australia.

In 2018, the DVA and Department of Defence Family Wellbeing Study found that FDV occurred in ex-serving Australian Defence Force (ADF) families at a similar rate to the general Australian population. The latest numbers show that one in four Australian women and one in 16 men have experienced domestic violence, and the majority of these cases occur in their home. That means someone you know has likely experienced FDV. Survivors of FDV can be from any background, gender or age group, including children, adults and the elderly. It is important we understand that any member of a veteran family (including the veteran themselves) can be the FDV victim survivor just as they can be a perpetrator of FDV.

Over the course of the last year, I undertook a nationwide consultation to build awareness of the supports and services available to veterans and veteran families, listen to their voices and explore their experiences and issues, including the unique challenges of veteran life. I heard from families across the country about the effect of Defence service and systems on FDV experiences. I spoke to families who are experiencing violence and also families who are working hard to break the cycle of violence for the next generation. They also told me the unique nature of service is an added barrier for both men and women to access support services and protection from violence, and is not well understood outside the veteran community. This consultation made it very clear that FDV is a highly complex issue and that it is not just the victims who require support. If we want to make real, generational, change, we must find ways to protect and support victims, while keeping perpetrators accountable, connected and responsible for stopping their violent behaviour.

From my lived-experience as a Defence wife for nearly a decade, a victim survivor of FDV from my father and intimate partner violence (IPV) from my partner, and as an advocate for veterans and veteran families, I know first-hand that families are fearful and reluctant to report FDV and IPV or pursue interventions. I also know perpetrators are fearful of seeking help and support for themselves.

Their stories confirm the challenging and complicated circumstances veterans and veteran families face in accessing support and services in response to violence. ESOs all over Australia have shared with me that family violence is one of the many concerns they have when working with veterans and veteran families and these stories are not uncommon.

As a delegate at the National Summit on Women’s Safety (the Summit), I actively advocated for veterans and veteran families to be considered a cohort in their own right in the next National Plan. A number of individuals with lived-experience as well as ESOs got behind this effort and also made submissions to the Summit. It was amazing to see the community come together over such an important issue.

We still have a lot of work to do in the area of stigma, especially when it comes to issues of FDV. I know it is hard to put up a hand and say, ‘I am not always in control of my anger’ or ‘I need support to ensure I don’t continue the cycle’, but until we start talking about it more, too many will continue to suffer in silence.

The Open Arms veteran and family lived-experience peer workers have made an enormous difference for our communities in providing support and pathways to care. Many families who have been reluctant to engage with any support services now have a better understanding of what is available, what clinical services actually look like and are better connected with the support they need. DVA’s veteran and family Wellbeing Centres will also provide new entry points and avenues to support for both current and former serving families who were not sure how to connect previously. I admit, some days I feel overwhelmed by all there is to do, but I keep getting up every day and working hard to push for change. Ever the optimist, I find hope in much of what I see.

If this article raises issues for you, please contact: Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling, which offers free and confidential counselling to the veteran community on 1800 011 046 Safe Zone is available for current and former ADF personnel on 1800 142 072. Calls to Safe Zone are confidential and not recorded.