The federal government’s increasing demands on the Australian Army to help manage the country’s natural disasters have generated stressful new challenges for soldiers, a royal commission has heard.

Brigadier Kahlil Fegan DSC, Commander of the Australian Army’s 3rd Combat Brigade in Townsville, told the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide on Monday the army had been deployed in seven domestic operations in the past six years.

This has seen periods of deployment for soldiers “balloon”, disrupting critical training for combat-ready troops as well as creating extra stress for families and a reduction in leave time.

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“Government’s expectations of us as an army is that we are able to do more things, more places, more often,” Brigadier Fegan told the commission sitting in Townsville, Queensland.

“In some respects, we’ve been required to perform tasks that we’re not necessarily trained for as an army, but the reality is there is probably no one else within our society that can provide the same sort of functionality.”

Brigadier Fegan said during the recent catastrophic floods in northern NSW 500 of his 3000-strong brigade were deployed with 48 hours’ notice for “a task that we were very happy to be able to do, to be able to assist people in need”.

But there were special challenges for the 3rd Combat Brigade, which is currently designated the “online” brigade and the first to be deployed in any overseas conflict.

Training soldiers to be combat-ready, he said, was “austere and harsh”, but it ensured they were “best prepared to achieve mission success and bring our people home alive”.

Under questioning by counsel assisting the inquiry, Kevin Connor SC, Brigadier Fegan admitted disruptions to training as a result of an increased number of local deployments were a “concern”.

Many soldiers also felt ill-prepared for what they had to deal with during crises in their local communities.

“Soldiers are trained and probably expect to see that sort of stuff in some other country, possibly a third world country,” he said.

“But when you are actually seeing that level of devastation and hardship in our own backyards, and in some cases in our own communities, I think that adds a level of confrontation that we need to deal with.”

The commission’s nine-day public hearing in Townsville is expected to hear from a string of high-profile witnesses, including the chief of the Australian Defence Force, Angus Campbell.

Commission chairman Nick Kaldas said Townsville was a critical location for the inquiry to visit because it’s home to one of the country’s largest defence communities and Lavarack Barracks.

The royal commission was called in 2021 following years of veteran suicides and grieving families calling for the inquiry.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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