The cafe in north Canberra echoes with lunch-hour conversation and veteran Todd Berry sends a text when he arrives outside. "I'm here, mate. Inside or out?"
At a table indoors he sits down, fresh from a fundraiser that raised $1 million nationally for ex-services personnel adjusting to civilian life. Passersby arm-wrestled veterans and donated. It was an easier challenge this time for Mr Berry, who in 2015 ran 100km for the Anzac centenary, raising money for charities supporting veterans. The run was tough, but for him, exercise staves off a worse pain.
After a near-two decade career in the Australian army including deployment to East Timor in 2001, Mr Berry keeps a strong frame. It hides a mental health condition that spiralled when the federal agency that decides on compensation for veterans delayed supporting him.
Years living with diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression have taught him lessons, the chief among them being not to compare himself to the soldier who was yet to become ill all those years ago. "When I'm doing things physically, I'm still quite mentally strong. But little obstacles can tear me to pieces," he says. "Every day is a bit of a lottery."
Mr Berry's re-entry into the civilian world in 2007 was harsh. He had a sense of unfinished business, being medically discharged. The government accepted liability for his mental health condition. When he deteriorated further as he left the army, he leapt into an unknown world, unsure if the federal government would agree to support him for his new level of disability as he raised a family and managed a serious health condition acquired during service.
The financial uncertainty, lasting two months, sent him crashing. He spent several weeks recovering in a mental health facility. The transition from the military would have been hard, he says, even without a health condition. For someone who is medically discharged, it's more difficult again.
"When you've got mental health issues on top of that, it's quite exponential."
The death of five fellow soldiers in Malaysia haunted him with nightmares after he had to watch their autopsies and escort their bodies home in 1993. Mr Berry self-medicated with alcohol when he was posted back for two years to the country, where he lived in an apartment overlooking the same morgue and drove every day past the place where they died in a motor vehicle accident.
His recovery remains fragile. In 2009, his mental health took another dive and he attempted suicide. He was in a coma for two days, and later was in an intensive care unit, before spending six weeks in a mental health facility.
Mr Berry, like many veterans, gives good reviews of the support he received from the Department of Veterans' Affairs after it accepted liability for his worsened condition in 2007, a moment he describes as lifting a weight from his shoulders. Some are wary of criticising the department too harshly as it embarks on multimillion dollar reforms to repair a bureaucracy that has been the subject of multiple government inquiries.
In 14 years, he's learnt to keep balance with exercise and his guitar. He counts himself lucky to have a supportive wife and is eyeing an ironman race for his next physical challenge. His gratitude towards the department comes with an honest testament to its part in his mental illness 11 years ago.
"For a couple of months there, I was in limbo," he said. The volume of documents, the long and involved process proving he acquired his conditions during service, the wait; all did harm.
"We need to get back to our men and women being given the benefit of the doubt. There's a lot of hoops we've got to jump through to get our conditions recognised."
'The family is holding them to account'
In the lead-up to the commemorations of 100 years since the end of World War I in November 2018, national attention turned to veterans as Prime Minister Scott Morrison proposed a discount card scheme in support of a "culture of respect" for ex-services personnel. A few days later, a plan at Virgin Australia to give them priority boarding and thank them for their service fell flat.
The Invictus Games, applauded for raising awareness about veterans' health, also brought them into national conversation in October.
It was a hard week for Karen Bird, whose son Jesse died by suicide in 2017 aged 32, weeks after he lost a claim for permanent impairment he had pursued for almost two years. Jesse, who served in Afghanistan, had been a talented swimmer and rugby player, and may have competed at the games.
Mrs Bird has had to reinvent herself as she recovered from her loss. She refuses to draw the curtains on life, and wants to see the Department of Veterans' Affairs - which supports more than 165,000 veterans and 117,000 of their family members - act on reforms it promised in a review into its treatment of Jesse.
"You need to remember and you need to act on those memories. There's been that many reviews, that many papers written," she said.
A Senate inquiry into suicide by ex-services personnel in 2017 urged changes to the department that would expand its work identifying those at risk, and better aligning its mental health care with the Department of Defence. It called for continued funding to clear backlogs for claims, a review of training for staff, and paid health care for ex-services personnel who have just left the military.
Recently, a national audit found that while Veterans' Affairs was largely processing claims within targets, it was failing to monitor for potential time blow-outs and letting some cases get lost in its system for up to 183 days. The federal ombudsman has criticised the way it explains its decisions to veterans. The government's economic advisory body said the department should be abolished in interim findings about veterans' compensation in December, saying the system should operate more like a modern workers' compensation scheme. Another inquiry by ex-Attorney-General's Department secretary Robert Cornall was expected to report to the government last month.
Among nearly 400 submissions to both the Productivity Commission inquiry and Mr Cornall's review, ex-services personnel have opened a window on the damage Veterans' Affairs caused them.
Veteran Craig Thomas raised slow processing times and said claims were denied despite the evidence.
Lawyers at Maurice Blackburn and Slater and Gordon, dealing directly with veterans, told the Productivity Commission inquiry Veterans' Affairs should adopt compulsory time limits in deciding cases. Clients had reported claims taking years to process.
"Reviews have found DVA's processes are disjointed and slow, and veterans' mental health and physical welfare is being put at risk by a department struggling under a disorganised bureaucracy," Slater and Gordon's Brian Briggs said.
Not long before leaving the cafe in Canberra, Todd Berry describes the military telling him he would be supported after finishing service. He wants to see Veterans' Affairs determine claims quicker for ex-services personnel.
"When you're in the defence bubble, and when you're transitioning out, they say you're going to get looked after," he said.
The Veterans' Affairs Department's slowness is blamed in part on a tangle of legislation setting the rules. Maurice Blackburn, and Slater and Gordon, want an overhaul that would consolidate the various schemes. Others, like Australian National University military compensation expert Peter Sutherland, say that could cause other problems. They want the schemes simply brought closer.
Following Jesse Bird's death in June 2017, another inquiry found problems in the department's computer system stopped it following up with him during critical points in his case, including when he lodged a complaint saying he was suicidal. The department failed to make a face-to-face welfare check, and didn't offer interim permanent impairment payments despite his repeated requests.
It failed to comply with legislation when it didn't register Jesse's claim for his mental health conditions as including an incapacity payment claim. It also took 192 days to determine his case, against a benchmark of 120 days.In making determinations about Jesse's claim, the department's delegate, against policy and due to lack of resources, did not discuss options with him.
In August 2016 the department had accepted initial liability for Jesse's post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and alcohol abuse. He had warned Veterans' Affairs he was under severe financial stress.
After its inquiry, Veterans' Affairs promised to better manage claims involving clients at high risk, and share information with the veterans' counselling service.
Karen Bird wants to see the government make changes that would send help to a veteran at risk of suicide. Her family had never realised the department wasn't fully equipped to help Jesse, nor the severity of his mental health condition.
In a letter, new department secretary Liz Cosson promised the department would pursue reforms with "sincerity and determination" to stop others dying in the same way. Mrs Bird says she and her husband John want to help the department.
"I'm holding them and the family is holding them to account on that," she said.
"What's on paper, I want them to actually show me their sincerity and determination, what their determination has changed.
"It's part of making sure that other families are not put into this same position.
"It won't stop all suicide, because it just won't. But if there's measures in place that we need in place, they can go a long way to reducing it."
'A rusty old battle ship'
In response to the inquiry following Jesse's death, the Coalition government began pouring money into improving mental health services for veterans. An update on the department's progress making reforms in September said it had adopted changes to quicken its claims decisions.
The government had begun payments for financially vulnerable veterans waiting for mental health claim decisions. The department is changing the way it contacts and supports veterans after unsuccessful claims, and how it monitors at-risk clients.
Veterans' Affairs Minister Darren Chester announced the government's reforms would be the subject of another, independent review by veterans' entitlements and military compensation expert Robin Creyke.
The department reported it took less time to decide on compensation last year as it cut the number of systems needed to process 85 per cent of claims. It said new technology for clients lodging claims online brought quicker decisions and had reduced more than 40 paper-based forms to between three to seven questions on its website. Veterans' Affairs identified the 40 most common conditions linked with military service, and has started making immediate decisions on claims related to those injuries without seeking more evidence.
Officials are creating a single IT system to replace 18 separate predecessors. The technology will improve how Veterans' Affairs processes claims, giving automatic alerts when milestones are missed.
The department says the Coalition's reform program - funded with $117 million in 2017 and another $124 million in 2018 - is the most significant in the agency's 100-year history.
Mr Chester in December said a survey showed satisfaction levels for veterans aged under 45 years increased from 49 per cent in 2016 to 58 per cent last year, while dissatisfaction more than halved, from 31 per cent to 14 per cent. Older veterans reported better satisfaction levels than younger ex-services personnel. Across all age groups, 81 per cent of veterans surveyed in 2018 were satisfied with the department.
Despite cautious welcome for its reforms, the Department of Veterans' Affairs is the target of at times bitter criticism and scepticism in both the Productivity Commission inquiry and Mr Cornall's review.
Slater and Gordon's Brian Briggs said the constant talk of reform within the department, coupled with the lack of action, left little hope that both the secretary and the minister's claims were anything more than another hollow promise.
"I have numerous complaints on file from my clients who have documented their struggle with the DVA. The department’s incapacity and incapability is undisputed amongst the veteran support community." Contrary to the Veterans' Affairs figures showing reduced wait times, he said the process had worsened recently.
Advocacy groups Soldier On and the Returned and Services League's national branch want to encourage the agency in its reforms, rather than kick it.Both have their criticisms too. RSL national interim chairman John King, who was in the army between 1971 and 1993, said the department had improved compared to the 1980s and 1990s.
Veterans' Affairs has the fragile trust of many veterans and their families in hand. Speaking in the lead-up to Remembrance Day, Karen Bird hoped those suffering after wars would be remembered as much as those who died in battle.
"We're more comfortable acknowledging those who fell from bullets and bombs, than we are in acknowledging the long-term consequences of war."
The change to Veterans' Affairs may come slowly. Former navy personnel put it to Mrs Bird in nautical terms: "You won't turn the rusty old battle ship around too quickly."
If you are a veteran who needs help, the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service can be reached on 1800 011 046.