A piece in The Australian states that our Defence Force is “losing its new soldiers, sailors and pilots at an accelerating rate, with more than one in five army recruits quitting in the first 12 months.”
As well continuing difficulties with retention, we are also falling short in initial recruitment numbers. No doubt there are many reasons why this is so, but I am convinced that a key one is our continuing failure to properly assist service men and women who are harmed in the course of their service – whether it be in warzones or within Australia. I have written about this before. While there will always be some mistakes made, it seems to me that serious failures continue to happen far too often.
The following story that appeared in News Limited papers on Anzac Day is another simply terrible example.
Geffrey Gregg didn’t die in Afghanistan, but his family believe the horrors of that war cost his life. The Gregg family from Ballarat in Victoria will gather in Sydney to remember a son and brother whose tragic death has left the tight-knit family deeply scarred and desperate for answers. For the first time since Geffrey committed suicide in Perth last September, his father Phil Gregg, mum Chris, sister Rebecca and grandmother Stella have spoken publicly about the tragedy.
Geff Gregg joined the army in March 2000 and was discharged as medically unfit in May 2004. The young signaller, or chook, from the 152 Signal Squadron, attached to the SAS, served in Afghanistan in 2002 and was a member of an ill-fated SAS patrol designated Redback Kilo Three.
Geff was not a qualified SAS soldier and was the youngest and least trained member of the poorly led patrol involved in a controversial fire-fight that left at least 11 Afghan villagers dead.
When he returned to Australia, Signaller Gregg was a changed man, according to his mum Chris.
“His eyes used to sparkle, but they had turned grey,” she said. “He had lost his spirit and become very cold.”
In fact the proud soldier who loved the army was suffering from physical injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Geff was discharged from Perth’s Hollywood hospital in early 2004 without the family or his GP being notified. “We still don’t know who did that,” Phil said.
The Gregg family is not seeking compensation, but they want the Government to establish a formal inquiry into Geff’s treatment and his death to help prevent the same thing happening to someone else’s son or daughter.
His story is also told in a recent issue of Time. An independent inquiry would be desirable, despite the feeling that it could be ‘just another inquiry’, following on from many others, while similar incidents seem to keep happening.
When a service man or woman experiences neglect in a time of serious need, often their families that can bear the brunt almost as much. And many of them then make it known loud and clear that they wouldn’t recommend a career in the services to anyone. Similarly, every service person who sees something like this happen to a colleague has a big incentive to get out before something happens to them.
I just cannot see how this doesn’t have a huge impact on our inability to meet targets for recruitment or retention.
Speaking of drawn out inquiries and battles for justice, I also received an email containing a media release by lawyers acting for people involved in the Voyager/Melbourne disaster, which occurred in 1964 with the loss of 82 lives – our worst peacetime military incident, yet rarely formally acknowledged by the government. I met a veteran of this disaster at a veterans’ forum last week who reminded me that litigation was still ongoing, something which is almost impossible to believe.
A copy of the media release follows:
ANZAC DAY is a poignant reminder of the past. Australia’s largest naval peacetime disaster is a memory the Federal Government prefers to forget. On 10 February 1964 the 22,000 tonne aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne sliced the destroyer HMAS Voyager in half, with the loss of 82 lives. The collision shocked the nation and led to two Royal Commissions.
On Anzac Day 1994 the then Labour Government agreed to establish a mediation scheme for crew members of HMAS Voyager. To this day, the Federal government has ruthlessly fought claims for compensation on behalf of HMAS Melbourne crew members. Very few of those men will march tomorrow. They suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and avoid reminders or triggers of the horrible disaster when 82 young men needlessly went to a watery grave. In 1982 the litigation battle commenced and this saga continues today with 48 claims still proceeding through the courts.
The Australian Government Solicitors first argued that it was unconstitutional to sue. Then they argued proceedings were issued in the wrong court. Next, they argued that post traumatic stress disorder was not a condition which existed in 1964. It was then known as “purple heart”, “anxiety neurosis” and many of our diggers suffered “shell shock”, another name for post traumatic stress disorder.
Tragically, Commander Wendt, Chief Petty Officer Bruce and Leading Seaman Edward Trudgett are three plaintiffs who have died in the last six months. As these frail and elderly men die off, will we remember them? The Government pursues plaintiffs remorselessly. They spend millions in the belief that more plaintiffs will die before their cases get to court. There is no glory when we recount the history of this tragedy. Our sailors were ordered not to discuss the collision and go out and get drunk. If they required psychiatric help, chances were that the Navy would have discharged them as unfit for naval service due to a personality disorder.
The greatest tragedy of this collision is that the Australian Government Solicitors are prepared to use all their resources and power to deny the truth. The Minister for Defence, Mr Nelson, has acknowledged that too often his Department has failed the common sense test. In the Anzac spirit the Government must announce the introduction of a mediation scheme for all remaining cases. Hiding behind the mask of confidentiality clauses will not solve the saga.
As Australia faces the perils of a new terrorist threat, we must look after our servicemen. I am reminded of the Plaintiff who was attacked in court under cross-examination for displaying a sticker encouraging persons to join the forces. Little wonder many of our ex-servicemen, whose family members are a primary source for new recruits, remind the Minister for Defence that we must look after our own.