Instead of ticker tape parades, too many service veterans are returning home to a life of poverty, broken marriage, welfare dependency, homelessness and potential bankruptcy, says Rod Edwards director at RSM Financial Services Australia (RSM).
He says financial ruin and shattered lives wouldn’t be a dirty, smouldering corollary to Australia’s conflicts in the Middle East, long after Australian Defence Force (ADF) veterans are discharged, if there was more government and private sector support.
“It’s a vicious circle, government support for service people discharged due to mental health issues, is minimal, which makes it hard to rehabilitate them back into productive members of society,” says Edwards.
Whether it’s due to the mental scars of combat, physical injury or both, Sean Farrell CEO of Bravery Trust, (formerly the Australian Defence Force Assistance Trust) says veterans’ lives deteriorate once they turn to drugs and alcohol to cope.
While Bravery Trust has assisted over 1,100 ex-service people and their families over the past four years with over $1 million in short-term funding, Farrell expects demand for help to increase as the number of mentally ill homeless veterans escalates.
“A whopping 74 percent-plus of our beneficiaries have mental health issues, including a large number with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), directly caused by their exposure to conflicts,” advises Farrell.
Having been asked by Bravery Trust to provide pro bono financial counselling to returning ex-service people over the last 12 months, Edwards has no doubt there’s a growing cadre of veterans in similar financial distress, and urges them to come forward and seek help.
He suspects that around 90 percent of the 30 applicants who have sought counselling so far could attribute their financial predicament to poor mental health.
“We’re witnessing a growing list of applicants to Bravery Trust seeking short-term assistance paying immediate bills, putting food on the table; and in many cases keeping creditors at bay,” advises Edwards. “Some of the applicants refuse to answer our calls, fearing we’re the next creditor, hunting for a reposition or payment.”
Enormous cost of the ‘real battle’
With over 33,000 Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, many still in their 20s and 30s returning home after several tours of duty, Edwards says the cost to the economy, due to the as yet unquantified mental anguish, and financial hardship experienced by these individuals’ and their families, could be enormous.
With all sides of government quick to commit Australian troops to foreign conflicts, Edwards says the ‘real battle’ only begins once they return home. Given the likelihood of the ADF’s ongoing involvement in the global war on terrorism, Edwards fears the economic and personal cost of war will become more acutely felt by the community.
“If you calculate all the support services involved, the economic losses incurred through debt, marriage breakdowns, the total cost would be staggering and a serious burden on the economy for decades to come,” says Edwards.
Protect Australia’s ‘real war’ assets
Nine times out of 10, counselling support by RSM’s financial services team is around budgeting and negotiating credit issues with banks to help restore financial stability.
Sadly, adds Edwards bankruptcy is often a default solution, especially if someone can’t work due to mental health issues.
“It’s time for Australia’s defence force policy to not only account for submarines and F35 strike fighters, but allocate sufficient money and support services for the ‘real war assets’; namely young service veterans forced to live with the atrocities that scar them mentally and physically.”