Newly
appointed Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Bruce Billson has outraged
Australian defence force veterans by declaring in a controversial SMH article
by
Cynthia Banham
early
last month:

The
armed forces need to foster a new breed of “emotionally resilient” personnel,
who are better equipped to cope with the demands of modern military
engagements. Whereas in the past the
military was viewed as a place where social “misfits” did time in order to get
“sorted out”, such people were not suited to today’s defence force, where
multiple deployments to difficult environments was the norm.

For
thousands of diggers who are suffering post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due
to their military service, they’ve taken Billson’s criticism personally. Billson, as
a former parliamentary secretary to
the Minister for Foreign Affairs, would be aware, more than most, that words are
bullets. Many
veterans are embroiled in fights with the Howard government for better TPI
(Totally Permanently Incapacitated) pensions which average around a paltry
$21,000 pa, and a devalued health gold card.

One such group of veterans
known as the Sea of Orange are frustrated that behind the façade of
memorials, marches and medals is a government more interested in administering
the act in an adversarial rather than benevolent way. This is on top of a chasm developing between
veterans and their traditional voice to government, The Returned & Services
League of Australia (RSL). Some veterans are incensed that RSL President
Major General Bill Crews AO classifies email from them as spam. One Vietnam veteran, a former Major in
the Army, suffering PTSD, told me: “I don’t think Billson understands the
absolute anger we have towards him and his government as many of us are
suffering from lack of proper healthcare.
If I were Billson or John Howard I’d be concerned because desperate
people do desperate things. You might
think that is an exaggeration but I’m telling you veterans are feeling desperate
because of the lack of proper healthcare.”
He might be right. Vietnam
veterans have a higher average rate of suicide compared with the rest of the
Australian male population. Their children have a
suicide rate three times higher than that of the general population.

The
reverberations of the offending article were slow to start but they have
mushroomed to the extent that Sam North, Managing
Editor of The
Sydney Morning Herald
and The
Sun-Herald,
wrote to veterans groups last Friday in an attempt the quell the
fire raging in the their minds.
Unfortunately North’s message has only made matters worse because the old
diggers believe it was done in response to hundreds of angry emails, telephone
calls and letters to Billson’s and John Howard’s
office.

Peter Fray

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