'It is almost impossible to pass the Department of Veterans’ Affairs bureaucracy'

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has stated that the rate of suicide by male former members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is 13 per cent higher than that of other Australian males. 

However, there appears to have been no concerted effort to determine how many suicides of former ADF personnel have occurred after claims for service related injury or psychiatric problems have been rejected by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA).

In 2016 the Senate Inquiry ‘Suicide by Veterans or ex-Service Personnel’ was provided with evidence of at least one case where a suicide occurred after the rejection of a claim for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

As shown on the ABC’s 7.30 Report, Private Jesse Bird was an infantry soldier who served in Afghanistan during 2009-10. 

During his tour of duty in Afghanistan Bird was shot at by insurgents, was nearby to the explosions of improvised explosive devices (IED). 

Bird also lost a close friend when Private Ranaudo was killed by an IED.

The ABC reported that Private Bird’s claim for PTSD and subsequent alcohol dependency was accepted as ‘service related’ but was then rejected because of a report of a psychiatrist who indicated that his condition was not severe enough.

A short time after the DVA rejection of his claim, Private Bird put on his army jumper, laid out his medals and ended his life.

A short time after Department of Veterans’ Affairs' rejection of his claim, Private Bird put on his army jumper, laid out his medals and ended his life.

I myself have had experience of DVA’s extraordinary ability to make it almost impossible to pass the department’s wall of bureaucracy.

In 1995, to be fit to continue to serve in the RAAF, I underwent what would generally be accepted as routine gastric surgery.  The surgeon conducting my operation admitted liability for damaging my heart. 

The damage caused erratic heart beats which, in turn, resulted in my having multiple hospitalisations, many electric shocks and open heart surgery.

Because the surgeon admitted liability, DVA quickly accepted my claim for injury while serving. 

However, DVA did not accept the seriousness of my injury; not fully compensating me for several years. 

During the years of DVA rejection my level of depressive disorder worsened and I attempted suicide.  It was only the swift actions of my wife, paramedics and emergency staff at the Mater Hospital that I was saved.

In 2008 my bottom front teeth began to disappear, being worn down by my grinding.  After researching my dental problem, I lodged a claim with DVA in mid-2009.  My claim was that my teeth were wearing down because of my taking large doses of anti-depressants. 

DVA rejected my initial claim and subsequent appeal.

In 2017, DVA’s senior medical officer published an article warning that the taking of anti-depressants can cause serious dental problems.  DVA accepted liability for my dental problems in mid-2017; eight years after my initial claim.

For the past 19 years DVA has provided me with household assistance. 

At the age of 72 with a doctor’s report that my health remains poor; DVA has asked me to make an appointment with an occupational therapist to see if I still require household support. 

It is little wonder that the Black Dog reappears when you are asked to undergo such meaningless, and costly, examinations.

From 1992 until 2004, service related injury and illness was addressed under the, then new, Military Compensation and Rehabilitation Scheme (MCRS). 

Even if Totally and Permanently Incapacitated (TPI), former ADF personnel covered by MCRS were not entitled to a Gold Card covering all medical treatment.

The MCRS system was so bad that in 2004 the government introduced the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, which provided Gold Cards for TPIs. 

However, the government of the day didn’t bother to backdate the scheme, so those TPIs injured between 1992 and 2004 still have to seek approval for all medical procedures.

In the past few years DVA has rejected five applications for me to undergo surgical procedures, all of which were approved on appeal.

As a former senior officer, I am able to defend myself by writing to government ministers, arguing my case and writing opinion pieces.  However, I fear for the Private, Aircraftsman or Able Seaman who do not have my skills. 

DVA and the minister must do better.

Mike Sargent is a retired senior RAAF officer