Remembrance Day 2016: commemorative address The Hon Jeff Kennett AC

For those in whose memory we gather here today …

  • For those who returned home, many with broken limbs, minds and spirits
  • For the families who have lost loved ones in whole or in part
  • For those who continue to serve

From we who remain, who live, and on behalf of those who will follow…

We salute you.

We are now and forever in your debt.

It is incumbent upon us to use your service and your sacrifice to build a better, safer Australia.

An Australia where our democracy is secure, where people are meaningfully occupied and where, as a result of our economic strength, we can – with compassion – provide comfort and dignity to those in genuine need.

As we gather here today at this great Memorial…

As Australians around the country come together in numbers large and small – in cities and country towns – to pause and remember those who put their lives on the line so that we could enjoy the opportunities we have today…

I ask myself why this grateful nation lets down so many servicemen and women, who on surviving the threats and brutality of conflicts and war, take their own lives on returning home.

Why is it that we as a nation have not been able to provide sufficient help – the services – that might have prevented all or some of the suicides of our armed forces personnel.

Just this year alone, more military personnel and veterans have died by their own hand – on Australian soil – than lost their lives during 13 years of Australia’s involvement in the Afghanistan conflict.

Surely, our obligations to those who return, should be, must be, that they are safer here, on home soil, than when away.

We know that many who return don’t leave those battlefields behind. They bring the battles home with them, but they carry them inside.

Too often these internal battles against depression, anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and suicide are fought and lost alone.

Mental Health issues and alcohol abuse are on the rise, particularly among younger veterans.

Their private battles must become our cause.

People in positions of authority – governing and leading from the safety of Australian turf – have made and will continue to make decisions in all our interests to send younger men and women to war.

Our service personnel volunteer for careers that place them at the pinnacle of the country’s First Responders. They knowingly put themselves at great risk, willingly entering theatres of conflict from which they may never return.

But most do return.

Some come home heroes. Some with a renewed commitment to family, friends and country, keen to forge new careers in civilian society. But some, unfortunately, return damaged physically and mentally as a direct result of the job we ask them to do.

Many who return home are unable to adjust to family life or put aside the grief of losing friends in battle. They carry with them excess baggage of fear, stress, anger and nightmares which if not addressed can lead to anxiety, depression and even suicide.

That’s no surprise. In fact, it is a common, natural human reaction.

We have known about post-traumatic symptoms for more than 3000 years. It was first reported in the epic poem, The Tale of Gilgamesh, when confrontations with death in battle changed the lead character’s personality. Gilgamesh was the first reported case of chronic mental health symptoms caused by war.

It has been called many things such as “soldier’s heart”, “hysteria”, even “nostalgia”. It was “shell-shock” in World War I and “combat fatigue” in World War II and Korea.

So why – after all this time – are we still so ill-prepared for the damaged home-coming veteran?

No-one will ever know the number of suicides of those who returned home from service in Vietnam, except it was tragically large, and has subsequently included many of their family members.

Records are much more precise today, but that so many servicemen and women and ex-service personnel have felt they have no alternative but to end their lives should be a national sorrow and is unacceptable.

In 2013 around 150,000 veterans with service-related disabilities were being supported by the Department of Veterans Affairs and, of these, up to 46,000 had ‘an accepted mental health disorder’. Common conditions included anxiety disorder, depression, stress disorder and alcohol dependence.

Put simply and tragically, many veterans struggle to adjust to civilian life and without the proper support they can spiral into deep depression and take their own lives.

If Australia cannot find the resources to provide the care necessary to help our servicemen and women re-adjust to life at home then perhaps we should not put them at risk in the first place.

We do not have the right to ask these people to risk their lives for us only to abandon them when they need us most.

It is not just an obligation, it is our duty, to care for our servicemen and women and to extend that support to their families.

It was encouraging to see the Federal Government announce in August a trial suicide prevention initiative in Townsville to help Australian Defence Force personnel there.

At the launch the Prime Minister said we have to go beyond the memorials and the monuments and focus on the men and women, the real challenges they face. I whole-heartedly concur.

But this must be just the first of many initiatives deployed without delay.

These are complex issues requiring a multifaceted response, not least of which is action to change the culture of the defence forces so that seeking support for mental health is seen as strength rather than a weakness.

We have to fight the stigma – some of it self-imposed, some imagined and some very real – that discourages people from acting early to protect and improve their mental health.

It should be seen as a public health first line of defence.

At beyondblue we know that early intervention and peer-to-peer support works and that it is possible to recover from many mental health conditions.

We can all play a part, especially those former defence force personnel who have first-hand experience. So I call on those veterans to mobilise again to assist in destigmatizing mental ill-health in your community.

We need you to step up once more; speak out about your journey and help others.

Talking about suicide does not make it happen and could well save a life.

More must be done, urgently, to address this trend. We may not prevent all such deaths, but we should be able to prevent most.

Australia must declare war on veteran suicide. This has to be a zero tolerance campaign.

This wonderful War Memorial, is more than just a historical record of past deeds. It is correctly and increasingly a place that does and should explain our current military involvements overseas.

It is a living place as well as a place of history and remembrance.

As a National Serviceman of the ‘60s, I value my service, and what that period taught me. I respect those men and women who have in the past and today proudly worn the Australian uniform.

But I am so saddened that our nation, in a bi-partisan way, cannot make the welfare of those who returned from service a top priority.

At services such as this we repeat the words Lest We Forget. We should never Forget. We will never Forget.

But let us also remember our obligations to those who served. To those who return from conflicts with broken bodies and minds we must commit ourselves as a nation to work with them to ensure their return to Australia is a happy, worthwhile and lasting experience.

Lest We Forget. But let us Remember.

Lest We Forget. But let us Remember.

Lest We Forget. But let us Remember and meet our Obligations.

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