2021 certainly has been a very active time in veteran welfare matters. I was very pleased to be able to participate along with DFWA President Kel Ryan in the National Symposium on preventing defence and veteran suicide in Canberra in February. Interim Commissioner Bernadette Boss came across as a very impressive individual committed to implementing the many recommendations of numerous inquiries that have already been tabled, but also the recent initiatives raised with her team, and more that were raised at the Symposium.
Beyond that, we are experiencing a lot of brokenness. Our enthusiasm at a renewed focus on immediate steps at preventing suicide has been challenged by the announcement of a Royal Commission into previous veteran suicides and a push by interest groups to delay any implementation of suicide prevention measures till the end of the Royal Commission. Whilst I fully understand and empathise with the needs of grieving family members to want to call people to account for behaviour in the past, I hope and pray that the focus and energy required for the Royal Commission will not be allowed to detract from preventative work needed right now. Immediately the Royal Commission was announced I experienced a significant increase in cases of veterans in crisis and with suicidal ideation, that hasn’t abated. Of course among the shadows in the background is also the ongoing investigations into matters flowing from the Brereton inquiry into conduct in Afghanistan. Clearly, any veterans with complex health issues have the potential to be triggered by a focus on traumatic memories of the past. We can’t wait for the years that the Royal Commission will take, before implementing obvious fixes. Hundreds more could die as the Royal Commission proceeds.
One thing that I have learnt in chaplaincy over many years is that whatever we focus upon looms larger. If we focus upon the things that are not working in our life, or guilt, shame or anger about past events, we can ruminate on them and be preoccupied with the darkness, spiraling downwards in our health. If we focus on positive solutions to problems and matters that are strengths in our lives, we can be reminded of the resilience that we have shown, and we can use our strengths to lever ourselves out of the difficulties.
My organisation, the Veterans Care Association has a positive proactive vision of raising the health and well-being of veterans and their families through holistic health education and peer support mentoring. We have found this has been very empowering and uplifting support to many veterans who have spent too much of their life preoccupied with what has not gone well for them.
Whilst there are many things that can be improved in the veteran’s space, it would be helpful if all of us kept reminding ourselves of the successes and achievements that have been made. Social media is replete with veterans whinging about myriad issues without suggesting solutions. I’ve heard people complaining that there are too many veterans organisations. I would rather celebrate the fact that many veterans are engaged in the widest variety of ways to help other veterans. Many small veterans groups have developed to provide niche capabilities that have not been previously supported by DVA or the larger veterans organisations. Everyone involved wins when we put our energies into helping those in need.
From the point of view of a positive growth mindset, It would be wonderful if all of us within the veteran space grasped onto a primary objective of collaboration in improving the health and well-being of veterans – focus on developing solutions rather than complaining about problems. Clearly, that will involve some of us advocating for systemic improvements, but not leading us to the despair and negativity that some veterans eschew. While clinicians can play their part in supporting wounded ill and injured veterans, the largest impact can be affected by veterans helping, mentoring, and educating other veterans in need, especially those with suicidal ideation. Over many years as a Padre, I have engaged empathetically with hundreds of veterans with suicidal ideation. All of them are still alive today. Despite complex personal circumstances all they needed to stay alive was to have someone actively listen to them, affirm their circumstances, embrace them in love, encourage them to have HOPE, invite them to embrace forgiveness, and mentor them into exploring options they could choose – one of which was always to see scope to use the lessons of their brokenness to help others. In the midst of this, they got back in touch with their soul and chose to follow its lead rather than the torment in their minds. I invite them to find a new purpose in mending the broken.
At a recent clergy conference one of the presenters posed the question, what does God do when God gets up in the morning. He suggested that what occupies Gods every waking moment is encouraging us to mend the broken. God invites every human being to join in a divine project of mending brokenness, tearing down walls between people, promote reconciliation, and healing those that are wounded. 2000 years ago, in the time of Jesus, before mental health clinics, medication, or cognitive behavior therapy, healing was achieved by personal visitation, active listening, loving touch, words of affirmation, and empathetic accompaniment. The story of the Good Samaritan lifting a wounded man onto a donkey was later copied at Anzac Cove by Simpson and his donkey. It remains our most iconic symbol of veteran care. I invite us all to uncover, cherish and enable all that is true, good, and beautiful in our military tradition of caring for those in need. May we be Ambassadors of Hope. We veterans can do this. When we were in uniform, many of us aspired to save the lives of others. Paradoxically we have many more opportunities to do that post uniformed service. We never really become Ex-Service people. We can continue to serve as wounded healers.
Let us spend less effort on complaining about what is broken, and have more focus on the simple practical measures to mend what is broken
May God bless you all in this mission of veteran care, because we are veterans who care.
God Bless From your loving Padre Gary Stone.