EDITORIAL: The royal commission into veteran suicides in the Australian Defence Force must be line in sand

The Nightly
3 Min Read
ADF chief General Angus Campbell apologised "unreservedly" for the shortcomings of the military.
ADF chief General Angus Campbell apologised "unreservedly" for the shortcomings of the military. Credit: AAP

It fell primarily to the mothers to speak for their children who could no longer speak for themselves.

Patricia Fernandez de Viana, mother to Flying Officer James Fernandez de Viana, told the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, that she had begged the RAAF to leave her son’s room at the Adelaide base where he died untouched.

“I wanted to be able to be where he’d last been alive ... and to smell his smell in the room,” she said.

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“By the time I arrived in Adelaide about 10 days later his room had been completely sanitised. I really felt ... violated I didn’t get to have that last clue as to how he was feeling.”

Mrs Fernandez de Viana said her son’s depression had been compounded by the ADF’s refusal to allow him to transfer to the navy, where he could have used his honours degree in electrical engineering.

Nikki Jamieson, mother of Private Daniel Garforth, read from her son’s suicide note.

“The thing that finally pushed me over the edge was this job. Constantly being demoralised and ridiculed, I just could not handle it any more.”

Private Garforth was just 21 and father to an infant girl when he took his life at Darwin’s Robertson Barracks in 2014.

He had applied to leave the military before his death, but his discharge was delayed.

And Julie-Ann Finney, whose advocacy was instrumental in setting up the royal commission, spoke of how her son Petty Officer David Finney was discharged from the navy while in hospital after a suicide attempt.

“He was in hospital dying and they signed his discharge papers … and they walked away which left my son in a hospital bed, with no one to pick him up, nowhere to go, because Defence are not responsible,” she said.

“How is this anything human? How do you leave someone on a suicide attempt, in a hospital bed, and walk away from them?

Petty Officer Finney, Private Garforth and Flying Officer Fernandez de Viana are just three of at least 1677 servicemen and women who took their own lives between 1997 and 2021. The true toll of preventable deaths is now estimated to be about twice that.

Almost three years after the royal commission commenced, ADF chief Angus Campbell has told the families of these dead servicemen and women he apologised unreservedly for the “deficiencies” in care that preceded their deaths.

It’s a strange word to use when talking about the deaths of thousands of men and women who signed up for lives of service.

Likely it does not fill those families, nor current or former ADF personnel, with confidence that things must change.

But they must.

This royal commission must be a line in the sand. Defence must become better at predicting who is at risk of self-harm, and offering them every support they need, whether or not they remain in the service.

Our servicemen and women, veterans and their families deserve nothing less.

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