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Partners of Veterans Association Speech

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (19:14):

Two weeks ago today people around Australia stood back and remembered those who fought for our country in the past and those who continue to serve on Australia's behalf today. For me, reflections at this time of year always include memories of my father, who served in New Guinea during the Second World War. My father would usually spend Anzac Day in his shed, a bit more subdued than usual. He did not often talk about the war but in later years he explained to me that he thought about the mates he had lost, especially his best friend, Freddy, who was shot by a sniper on the day before the war ended. Sadly, peace came too late for Freddy, and for many others.

As we remember those who died, we must also pause to think about those who return home to us from conflict zones and what they bring with them. We know there are long-lasting impacts of service, not only on veterans but their partners and families, ranging from financial and employment concerns to physical rehabilitation and poor mental health. As part of my work as Australian Greens spokesperson for veterans' affairs, I have had the great honour to meet many inspiring people and organisations around Australia. Recently, this has included meeting the Partners of Veterans Association. The PVA is a national not-for-profit organisation which provides support for partners, children and widows and widowers of past and present Australian Defence Force Personnel. It was established in 1999 by partners of veterans who recognised a common and unmet need among families of veterans for support, advocacy and, importantly, friendship. Run entirely by volunteers and supported only by limited grants and donations, the PVA provide support through personal advice and by building a stronger community. They also provide leadership and advocacy in the sector, being a vital voice for otherwise isolated people, as well as working on policy and program development strategies.

When I met with members of the association recently both in South Australia and New South Wales, I heard firsthand stories of the long-term, often debilitating impacts of war-not only for those who return but also for their partners and families. One widow, Kathie, told me how her late husband suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, for years, without diagnosis or treatment, after returning from Vietnam. Actually, accounts of the effects of post-traumatic stress were alarmingly common among those I met with, and heart-rending. Manifestations of PTSD can include depression, rapid and severe changes in mood and behaviour, terrifying nightmares, hypervigilance, and in some cases violence.

Twenty years ago, Kathie had no idea what PTSD was or how to deal with it. She told me how much easier life would have been if only she had known about this condition, and described her relief on finding out, after her husband's death, that he had been diagnosed with PTSD later in life-relief because she finally believed that his behaviour and suffering had not been her fault. Other PVA members told me how their partners are so worried about security that they lock the house up at four in the afternoon and refuse to let anyone come in or to let their family go out. It is not hard to imagine the isolating effect this has, not only on the veteran but also their partner and their children.

PTSD and mental health concerns are not unique to the veteran community, of course. But the unique circumstances of Defence Force families create particular needs and make the work of organisations such as the PVA so important. Because of the constant relocation, families often have limited support networks. And the common social stigma still present around mental illness in the wider community is particularly acute in the Defence community, where mental illness can be seen as a weakness. There are pressures to keep it secret where the person is still serving, for the sake of their career, and there may be added isolation for families due to the veteran's hypervigilance. In 2010 Professor Graeme Hawthorne, from the University of Melbourne, noted increasing rates of mental ill health in the veterans' community, and he is just one of many researchers. He reported that, among Australian war veterans, estimates of PTSD range from five per cent to 26 per cent, and throughout the 1990s the number of successful compensation claims for PTSD to the Department of Veterans' Affairs increased very substantially.

Increasing numbers of veterans with mental and physical illnesses are being cared for in their own homes by their partners or other family members. And the number of carers will likely increase in the future, with young service men and women undertaking more frequent deployments to modern war zones, and predictions of increased prevalence of PTSD and other mental health disorders as a consequence.

I was deeply touched by the strength, commitment and loyalty of the partners I met. They play a crucial role as carers, a role which is often underestimated and unrecognised. They often have to give up their own work because of the 24-hour nature of caring for someone who may experience debilitating symptoms at any time. So they sacrifice income during their younger years and the opportunity to accrue superannuation for retirement. Without their unpaid, voluntary work, it is the community which would have to pay.

But there are more than financial costs. A number of studies have identified significant health risks for veterans' partners and their families, related to their caring role. Professor Brian O'Toole, from the Brain and Mind Research Institute, recently reported that partners of Vietnam veterans have mental illnesses at levels 20 to 30 times higher than the general population. More than half of the wives interviewed for his study had a history of major depressive disorder which was related to their husband's combat experience.

Similarly, in 2005 Dr Hedley Peach, of the University of Melbourne, reviewed studies and reported that psychological disorders affect partners and children of veterans at substantially higher rates than the non-veteran population and carry an associated risk of cardiovascular and other physical diseases.

It is crucial that we recognise the work that these partners do, not only with words but with actions, such as the modest reforms sought by the PVA to support these carers in their challenging and generous work. They would like their unique role as carers of veterans to be recognised and administered by the DVA, the Department of Veterans' Affairs, which is best placed to understand their circumstances, as it administers the affairs of their veteran partners. Application forms for the carers allowance, overseen by the DVA, should inquire into the all-consuming effects on a carer's life when they must provide 24-hour full-time supervision for a partner who is prone to unpredictable panic attacks, flashbacks, agoraphobia or memory lapses. They advocate for much better education and information for all service personnel and their families about the nature of PTSD and its treatment. They seek practical support, such as accommodation, for carers from rural areas who must travel from home to accompany their partner to hospital.

Perhaps most importantly, the PVA seeks increased respect for and acknowledgement of the vital role of those who care for a person who has been injured in the course of serving their nation in a conflict zone on behalf of all of us. In meeting with partners, I have often been moved by stories of young men-usually men-who went away to war and came back fundamentally altered. One partner told me about her husband, who rarely laughs and finds life very bleak. 'Was he always like that?' I asked her. 'Oh, no,' she told me, 'I married him at 16 and he was the life of the party.' He came back changed from Vietnam, as a young man still, 40 years ago.

As a community, we owe these partners a huge debt. Through the decisions of the governments we elect, their partners are sent away to serve on our behalf in situations of conflict, danger and often unimaginable horror. If we are willing to do this, we must also be willing to care for them fairly and adequately when they return. This includes caring for those who care for them. Not only on Anzac Day but all through the year it is important that we recognise that the true cost of war includes the wounds borne by those who do return and the effect on their partners and families.

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