Non-combat blows soaring for our diggers
Oruzgan Province in southern Afghanistan. Photo: Supplied: ADF
At least one in eight of the 18,206 diggers who served in Afghanistan between 2005 and October 2012 fell victim to a non-combat related injury or physical or mental illness.
The figure peaked at almost one in five in 2009 with 851 Australian Defence Force members reporting non-combat related illnesses or injuries that year.
Defence blamed the 17-fold increase on ''confusion'' which it said led to ''significant under-reporting'' before 2009. The true figures for illness and injury over the past seven years were almost certainly higher.
A senior soldier welfare advocate labelled the statistics a disgrace, saying a 12.5 per cent casualty rate would not be tolerated in any other workplace or workforce.
''The employer would be held to account,'' the national president of the Defence Force Welfare Association, David Jamison, said. ''There would be a royal commission or a judicial inquiry.''
Mr Jamison, a former colonel with the army, wanted a ''covenant'' to be developed to spell out what soldiers had given up as part of their commitment to Australia and what the country pledged to do for them in return.
''We are having difficulty getting the support we need for that,'' he said.
Defence told Fairfax Media that 2276 out of 3841 work health and safety incidents in Afghanistan that included ''near misses, exposure, illness, etc'' had resulted in injury or illness.
This was in addition to the 39 soldiers killed and 242 wounded in action since the war began.
A Defence spokesman said that in many cases injuries and illnesses were minor and included sprained ankles, minor cuts, abrasions and bruises sustained during physical fitness training, head colds and gastroenteritis.
Mr Jamison said combat wounds could also be relatively minor but had to be reported as a matter of course.
He said mental illness and psychological issues such as post traumatic stress disorder, the 21st century incarnation of World War I shell-shock, fell into the ''non-combat related category''.
Defence insiders told Fairfax Media that soldiers were often reluctant to report non-combat related illnesses or injuries as, once disclosed, they appeared on annual fitness reports and could affect career opportunities.
While all soldiers injured in Afghanistan or the United Arab Emirates were compensated at the same rate as for combat wounds, those injured while training to go were not.
Mr Jamison said a recent review of military compensation had fallen short of delivering a fair result for many soldiers.
He wanted the distinction between whether an ADF member was hurt or maimed in a combat zone as opposed to non-combat related activities elsewhere to be abolished.
''There is a higher degree of recognition [in the amount of compensation] for wounds received in combat [zones],'' he said.
''My personal view is the level of disability or impairment should dictate the level of compensation.''
He said the public did not understand that when an individual signed on with the ADF they relinquished human and legal rights.
''ADF members can be ordered into lethal situations where it is almost certain they will die,'' he said. ''If they refuse, they are breaking the law. That is the nature of military service. There needs to be a unitary compensation system that is easy to access and provides appropriate rehabilitation and compensation.''
Mr Jamison said a decade of conflict coupled with the relatively small size of the ADF had contributed to illness and injury.
''We see soldiers clock up significantly greater combat experience than their forefathers in World War II. I have heard of one SAS member who has completed 16 service rotations in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have to look after these people.''
The Greens senator Scott Ludlam agreed. He had been pursuing the issue of diggers' injuries in Afghanistan for more than 18 months and said answers had been hard to get.
''There is an apparent reluctance to hand the information over. The obvious reason being the figures are awful and would help educate the public and other serving members about the human cost.''
He said soldiers worked in arduous and hostile environments, were on the job for very long hours and often handled hazardous materials. Psychological pressures were high. ''A lot hold it together until they come home and then it hits them.''