The flow of asylum-seekers to Australia is exacting an increasingly heavy toll on the defence force, with stress levels among personnel as high as those in combat zones such as Afghanistan.
“He has seen for himself how border protection operations work and he knows how difficult the job can be,” a source close to Admiral Griggs told The Australian. “He wants to ensure the right measures are in place to assist those sailors who may be having difficulty coping.”
Sailors on what the navy calls Operation Resolute have experienced people-smugglers’ boats exploding into flames beneath them, searching for drowning asylum-seekers after overloaded boats sank in storms and recovering decomposing bodies that have been in the water for days.
As a frigate captain in 2001, Admiral Griggs was one of the few Australian commanders ordered to turn boats away.
In a Senate estimates hearing in October last year, he detailed the dangers to defence personnel and asylum-seekers of turning back boats at sea.
As two new asylum-seeker boats were intercepted in Australian waters at the weekend after sending distress signals, other navy sources said the crews on border protection duties were under constant pressure as they faced the threat of physical danger and verbal abuse.
“They are dealing with it every day as more and more boats are coming,” one source said. “There’s the constant tension of knowing what might happen and being on the alert for something going wrong that leaves the scars — and it’s happening on a daily basis.
“Sailors as young as 19 are pulling bodies out of the water. That sort of thing stays with you but it’s not politically expedient to talk about it.”
The sailor said some personnel who were ordered to turn around boats in the 1990s were still carrying the emotional scars of having to lift children back on to vessels not knowing for certain that they would make it back to Indonesia.
An Australian Defence Force spokeswoman said about 8 per cent of Defence personnel who had been on any deployment reported significant PTSD symptoms and the rate for navy personnel was 7.7 per cent.
“Limited data to date shows similar rates of referral for detailed assessment and support for mental health symptoms of personnel deployed on Operation Resolute when compared with other ADF operations,” she said.
The navy was concerned enough about the pressures its sailors on border protection duties were under to launch a comprehensive support program for them last year.
“In response to unique stressors associated with Operation Resolute, a program of mental health support commenced in July 2011,” the spokeswoman said.
She said an ADF study indicated that there was a relationship between exposure to traumatic events and post-traumatic stress.
The navy program comprises a pre-deployment resilience briefing, annual mental health and wellbeing screening, an interview by a psychologist and tailored screening and support after exposure to combat or trauma.
“Any personnel who are identified as high-risk are referred for further detailed clinical assessment and treatment as required,” the spokeswoman said.
She said post-traumatic stress disorder could develop in otherwise highly functioning people, following single or repeated exposure to traumatic events.
PTSD in the military appeared to be linked to exposure to traumatic events, rather than to deployment alone. “ADF personnel are considered a high-risk group for the development of PTSD due to their involvement in war-zone stressors, peacekeeping, and humanitarian deployments.”
As first appeared in The Australian, 3 December 2012