Royal Commission into Veterans Suicide

Opening Remarks – Michael Stone, Timor Awakening, 29 November 2021
Commissioners, ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for the opportunity to speak, and for all who made this RC possible. I will start by briefly introducing myself. My name is Michael Stone, I served in the Australian Regular Army for 15 years, and the Australian Army Reserve for 5 years. I spent over seven years of my regular army career on overseas missions, a career that started and finished overseas. I experienced significant moral trauma witnessing and working to prevent violence and death in my various roles. My life was in danger frequently. I am proud to have served and represent my country, to serve alongside many great Australians and have the opportunity to make a difference. As with most soldiers, I actively sought out operational service. I avoided discharge and transition by transferring to the Army Reserve. I refused to believe I was unwell, deserving or in need of help. I was dragged to outside medical support by my father, also a veteran with lived experience, who processed the veteran’s affairs paperwork for me and assisted me with the challenges that came with that. I lived many years of expecting an early or imminent death, high-risk behaviour, suicidal ideation, isolation, addiction, horror filled restless nights, stress and anxiety. I was heavily medicated. I lost hope, purpose, joy and my identity. I have had friends who have taken their life. I work regularly with veterans who are suicidal or have been suicidal. I prefer to demonstrate than talk about it, though I am proof that healing and return to a purposeful life is possible. 

I was invited here today to speak about a holistic health program that I have been leading for the past 6 years called Timor Awakening. It is important to start with Why.Timor Awakening is run by mature age veterans and some partners, mostly volunteers, who have personally struggled with a wide range of health issues in uniformed service and beyond. We did not receive insight or support until we were acutely ill. We have tried all on offer, worked in the support system, attended funerals, and desperate to find a successful approach for ourselves and others. The current pathway for veterans is medicate, compensate, and isolate. This may not be the intention of the healthcare system, but it is the reality. It is not working and the well-intentioned people in the system cannot bear the load. We identified that we could help fill a gap in contributing to both prevention and early intervention of illness in veterans, and we could engage them in ways that civilian clinicians don’t. Our driving mission has been to prevent veteran suicide. To reduce domestic violence and the range of impacts on the families of veterans. To restore the lives of some of our finest and committed citizens to feel a part of their society, to live lives of dignity and purpose. 

We come with a solution. We have six years of thorough evidence, quantitative and qualitative, that we have presented to the Commission, that holistic health education, practices and meaningful engagement, delivered by lived-experience peer-support mentors, saves lives. It has saved many lives. It has turned around damaged lives to purposeful and dignified lives. I will refer to veterans, though our program, which treats participants with equal weight, respect and attention, has included partners of veterans, parents, adult age children, first responders and a range of clinicians and workers in the mental health community. 

Our strategic objective is to model and improve the systemic way veterans’ health is managed, shifting the current “treating sickness” model, to a funded, post traumatic growth, and “promoting wellness” model.  A holistic rehabilitation program is based on a paradigm of wellness and growth, of potential and empowerment, and facilitates healing and recovery whilst restoring, reshaping and developing an individual’s sense of identity, purpose, values, responsibility and accountability.Timor Awakening engages disengaged veterans and educates them about health and wellbeing possibilities and promotes clinical therapy commencement before they become acute cases requiring hospitalisation. We utilise a front-line team of peer supporters, all former military leaders, and an advisory group of doctors, nurses, psychologists, exercise physiologists, holistic health practitioners and social workers. Timor Awakening centers around a residential program of between 9-12 days. We have a program in Timor-Leste, and we have a domestic version and we have developed a peer mentor development program. The endstate of the program is the veteran walks away with a holistic health plan, a connected group of peers and avenues of possibility and resources to help themselves, other veterans and the community. 

A key element of Timor Awakening is cooperation with Timorese veterans, our mentors and friends, and community development work in Timor-Leste. This started with a scholarship program of over 50 Timorese youth through vocational training. Over the past 3 years we have funded, built and operating a large boarding school for rural poor in Timor-Leste. This year we deployed ourselves to a natural and humanitarian crisis and almost every day since April have been delivering aid to people in desperate need. All initiated, facilitated and funded by Australian veterans. Timor Awakening is a program predicated on veterans willing to be accountable and take responsibility, to do the work, to move in a positive direction in life. The activities and structure in the program are designed to help each veteran make a positive plan towards purpose, identity, to realise their potential, and regain a sense of dignity in their lives. Veterans provide each other with inspiration, practical tools, strategies and routines in overcoming trauma and re-establishing purposeful lives. They learn to try new things, re-engage with the community, get out of their comfort zone, to laugh, to cry and have some fun. 

Accumulated evidence from our lived experience and engagement with veterans suggest effective elements for rehabilitation include:-      

  • To be engaged as early as possible to the point of awareness and desire to be rehabilitated.
  • To acknowledge the past, forgive, focus forward & experience an awakening to positive possibilities.
  • To be intentionally educated that they can get healthier and discover a new identity, life purpose, and community of belonging.
  • To have guidance to address the injuries that are non-medical, non-vocational, non-psychological, those involving shame, guilt, unforgiveness and hopelessness. The soul matters, whichever way you refer or identify with it. 
  • To be guided to the realisation and empowerment that they themselves need to become their own complex case managers, eventually, and ultimately responsible for their health and wellbeing. 

Our public system and DVA cannot meet the demands of acute and chronic mental health. Veterans successfully managing their mental health, including engagement with the health system, reduces the burden on the system and allows better health system planning, while achieving better health outcomes for the individual.

From the hundreds of veterans that have participated in Timor Awakening it is clear that many veterans who are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress are suffering from moral trauma, which merits a unique diagnosis and modalities of treatment.

Awareness and acceptance of moral trauma, and reframing the self-esteem and potential of an individual, is a healthy foundation for rehabilitation. Without this, moral traumas manifest and cause more damage to the individual, their family and can lead to suicide. Who will a veteran trust to encourage them, motivate them, understand them, love them and call them out? Empower them to take responsibility, accountability and do the hard work it takes to get well and stay well. We have evidence and methodology that veterans, especially veterans with lived experience, their partners with lived experience, can do this. It is very difficult work, though in healing others, veterans are healing themselves. We have not spent money on marketing and never had a program undersubscribed. Veterans and partners who do the program find others in need, they become mentors.  Medicate, Compensate, Isolate is not enough.

I appreciate your time with one final comment. Part of the issue is isolation of the difficult conversation about the harsh realities of conflict that I have spent a great deal of the last decade unpacking and is reflected widely in our evidence. Military operations have multiple dimensions of exposure to violence, human suffering and foreign policy, not likely to be at the front of a soldier’s mind on operations, though it can have damaging impact when the dust settles or upon discharge. This can affect those who have been on the front-line witnessing suffering. Those charged with prosecuting violence. It can impact someone in the long chain of a particular mission or campaign. It is imbedded in the conditioning required to prepare people to kill and die for a cause. And exists before a trigger is pulled. The cognitive preparation required for the complexity and gravity of conflict is reflected in the culture, focus and stress of being a soldier. We will hear many examples throughout this commission. It should be no surprise that the moral burden of overseas missions, wars executed on behalf of the Australian People, and ordered by the Australian Government, are left with the Australian veteran to process (and their families to absorb the impacts).

Contemporary examples exist in the ‘no-prisoner warfare’ or ‘mass civilian casualties’ of WW2, Korea and Vietnam. In the purpose, end state or morality of conflicts such as Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the grave loss of life in Rwanda, Somalia, the Balkans, the Middle East and Timor-Leste. It exists in every conflict and human disaster. It is all very hard to acknowledge, to talk about, to share with our families and our communities. To stand witness to all those who die and suffer, mostly innocent and helpless civilians, from malevolence and humankind’s failure to resolve issues peacefully. Many of us don’t want to know about it, which sees us repeat and repeat. I, along with many veterans, have toiled and been tormented with the unconscionable nature of foreign policy, justified as ‘National Interest’ by our political leaders, diplomats and intellects. Such as the abandonment of our fundamental United Nations obligations, and betrayal of our World War Two allies, the Timorese, from 1974 to 1999. The well publicised unethical oil and gas negotiations by our powerful rich country, the alleged spying on Timor-Leste during this process, whilst terrorists were attacking Australians throughout Indonesia…. and moments after the Australian Government rode a wave of positive public sentiment of the honourable conduct of Interfet and UN peacekeeping operations. A soldier does not question these issues, does not question the mission, will commit all to achieve it. Though a veteran often has no choice. These issues may appear in their nightmares, manifest as anger, violence, domestic violence, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, illegal activity, which includes trying to report these issues. Many have ended in suicide. Values and honor matter to the soldier and the veteran.  As with our own lives, we can and must own our past, acknowledge it, reconcile, honour the sacrifice, learn, and walk forward with honour and purpose to do better for the future. Thank you for listening. Yes, we veterans have our problems, but we veterans as peer support mentors, can be empowered to be part of the solution. We can significantly contribute to preventionearly intervention and postvention.  A paradigm shift for everyone involved, from a focus on sickness to a focus on promoting wellness, will significantly reduce veteran suicide.