The former commander of Australian forces in Afghanistan has raised fears that Navy personnel involved in operations to combat people smuggling are at risk of developing post-traumatic stress.
Earlier this year retired Major General John Cantwell warned of a “tidal wave” of psychological problems as Australian troops pull out of the 12-year conflict in Afghanistan.
Major General Cantwell has now spoken to the head of the Navy, offering his services because of his own experiences with PTSD.
He says Navy crews can experience emotional trauma when they go to the rescue of asylum seekers who get into trouble at sea, or have to recover the bodies of drowning victims.
“Whether it’s in Afghanistan or whether it’s the Navy crews who are doing that difficult and very disturbing work rescuing or recovering the bodies of boat people arriving off our borders to the north-west of Australia.
“There can be no doubt that they are under stress and strain.
“I do know of specific examples of sailors who have had to fish bodies out of the water, who have been unable to make a rescue because of terrible weather conditions, and that’s got to work on you hard. It would affect every one of us.
“Those things will leave a mark. It just is a sad fact that their honourable, proud service to our nation is likely to leave a scar on them and it will affect them and it will affect their mates and affect their families.”
Major General Cantwell says the Navy is “well aware” of the issue.
“Of course they’re concerned. All of the service chiefs care about their people and they will do whatever they can,” he said.
“I’ve asked the Chief of Navy if he’d like me to talk to some of them. I’d be delighted to do that and he’s considering that.
“It doesn’t need just individuals, it needs an organisation to be responsive and I am mostly satisfied that all of the services are now much more attuned to this and much more responsive and helpful of their people.”
Support needed for traumatised crew and their families
Major General Cantwell served in the Army for 38 years but retired last year to seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
He says Australia is obliged to care for anyone suffering because of their duty to the Government.
“We, as a society, as Australian people, we should recognise these people and I think we do increasingly but we now need to take the next step and provide proper resourcing, proper funding, proper frameworks so that these people who have done so much for us can be looked after when they need some help,” he said.
“We just need to be ready to accept that at some point in the service and in the post-service lives of our veterans and other first responders in our community that they may well struggle and we need to be there to help them out.”
He says families of PTSD sufferers also need support.
“They are certainly those who bear the brunt of the occasional bad behaviour, if you like,” he said.
“The symptoms of PTSD, the mood swings, the anger, the sense of distance and isolation perhaps, drinking too much, all of those symptoms, the first ones who cop that are the family,” he said.
“We need to do better for our families. We need to help them understand the issues because in many cases they are confused.
“They don’t understand what’s happening and we need to have a network that reaches out to them. We have veterans’ organisation that look after veterans. Fantastic. Who looks after the families? I think we can do better there.”
This article first appeared on ABC News on 29 November, 2013.