We can do better than a parade and national day of 'Goodonyermate'
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We can do better than a parade and national day of 'Goodonyermate'

It's unusual to hear of an Australian dying in combat these days.

The years of high-intensity ground conflict with Taliban and ISIS fighters are gone.

The men and women of the ADF promised to lay down their lives for us.

The men and women of the ADF promised to lay down their lives for us.

Photo: John Donegan

And yet every year dozens of soldiers and former soldiers still fall.

Nearly 250 ADF members have killed themselves after serving in Afghanistan, Iraq and with the navy (enforcing the migration policy of successive Labor and conservative governments seeking to harvest outer metropolitan votes).

There's not a lot of honour or glory to be had pushing refugee boats back out to sea, but of depression and stress and a sickness of the soul there seems an elegant sufficiency to claim a couple of lives a year.

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The exact toll across the three services remains unknown, even though governments have known for over a decade that something was very wrong.

The ADF doesn't collect statistics on rates of depression or suicide in veterans, and although the Department of Veterans Affairs has recently begun paying attention, its efforts so far could be generously described as well meaning but haphazard.

The website Government News reported in November last year that Veterans Affairs was "currently collecting suicide statistics by cross-checking coroners' reports with service records."

It's a makeshift approach, almost guaranteed to under-report the incidence of self-harm.

Without reliable data – a bloodless term that obscures the human reality of what's been happening – it's not possible to know whether the stresses of military service now are greater or just different than before, whether they're comparable with the stress that also claims the lives of too many emergency services personnel, and what might be done to start reducing the toll.

There will probably be a hellish tangle of reasons behind every tragedy. The violence of close combat, for example, might not be as stressful as the creeping anxiety of adapting to civilian life after years in uniform.

One tentative finding of the research being done right now by veterans support groups is that difficulty finding employment after military service is an enemy more dangerous than any human foe.

The violence of close combat might not be as stressful as the creeping anxiety of adapting to civilian life after years in uniform.

That is unacceptable.

The men and women of the ADF promised to lay down their lives for us. Forty-one of them did so in battle in the years after the September 11 atrocities. They'll be remembered today.

But don't forget the hundreds who died alone, depressed and feeling as though there was no point to continuing with their lives. We can probably do better than a parade and national day of "Goodonyermate", for them.

John Birmingham is a columnist and blogger for the Brisbane Times. He is also an award winning magazine writer and the author of Leviathan, the Unauthorised Biography of Sydney, which won the National Award for Non-Fiction. He amuses himself in his down time by writing novels which improve with altitude.