Thursday, December 20, 2007

More Than 1200 East Timor Veterans Now Suffering PTSD

Almost one in ten Australian veterans of the East Timor conflict have sought out help to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. It's a stunning figure, and is reflective of the horrors that many Australian servicepeople experienced during that deployment. Events that most Australians remain blissfully unaware of.

It's too early yet to know how high the PTSD numbers will be for Australian veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The last figure I heard was about 500, but PTSD has a nasty habit of taking more than three or five years, or a solid decade, to really kick in, therein making normal life next to insufferable.

More on this from the Sydney Morning Herald :

He served in Afghanistan for just six weeks, but it was enough time to see things that would haunt Andrew Paljakka long after his tour of duty ended.

He told of having witnessed an atrocity with a civilian victim, and of having to listen to the sounds of a man he had shot slowly dying.

After Captain Paljakka, 27, returned to Australia last year, he began drinking heavily and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and severe depression. In February he was admitted to a private hospital, but discharged himself.

On February 26 he was found hanging from a bootlace in a cupboard in a Kings Cross hotel room. He left a young widow.

Captain Paljakka was the youngest army recruit ever to graduate as an officer from Duntroon Military College in Canberra. He went on to become a specialist weapons expert in the field of major explosives and their destruction.

He was based at the army's Explosives Ordinance Distribution Ammunitions Centre at Orchard Hills. His expertise in destroying unexploded bombs, bunker systems and booby traps led to his deployment in Afghanistan with an SAS group in April last year.

His suicide is the second to have occurred among troops who have returned from Afghanistan.

In May, a former SAS trooper, Geffry Gregg, took his life in Perth. He was a signalman, and had been among the first SAS soldiers deployed to Afghanistan. He had been involved in a bungled mission in which 11 civilians died and many were injured in an attack by Australian troops.

Mr Gregg's family were angry that the Defence Department did not try to find out why he missed psychiatric appointments in the nine months before he killed himself. He had been suffering from post-traumatic stress, and they said he was frustrated at having to deal with three different agencies.

In August, war veterans urged the Government to provide greater access to psychiatric treatment for former soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress, particularly those who had served in East Timor.

About 1200 claims for shell shock and post-traumatic stress from the 16,000 veterans of the East Timor peace-keeping operation have been filed with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

There have also been suicide attempts.

In August 2005, two years after being discharged from the navy after rising to the rank of lieutenant commander, David Buck, 53, a Timor veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result of seeing machete-wielding mobs and hacked bodies, tried to get police to shoot him by staging a robbery at the Umina Bowling Club with a fake bomb. He hoped the police would kill him in the belief he was a terrorist.

Last year the District Court judge Michael Finnane, in deciding not to jail Mr Buck, described his case as tragic and bizarre, and a case of post-traumatic stress.

"He is a tragic and broken man who has been exposed in the course of the service in the navy to terrible events which it is hard for me to fully comprehend," Judge Finnane said.

In many cases it's not just hard, but downright impossible, for the friends and family of Australian war veterans to understand how the sound of a traffic helicopter, the backfire of a car or the cry of a distressed child can reduce the veteran to a quivering mess years, or even decades, after they've come home.

The Rudd government promised during the election to increase and ease up the avenues through which veterans can seek help to deal with PTSD. It's a promise they better keep, and keep expanding on, particularly if they are going to keep Australian combat troop in Afghanistan for another decade.

For far too many Australian veterans, the war doesn't end when they come home.