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The Royal Commission into Veterans Suicide will begin hearings in Darwin this week

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After 30 years in the Australian Defense Force, former Sergeant Dan Tellam considers himself one of the lucky ones.

Unlike the 648 defense personnel between 1970 and 2020 who are confirmed or suspected to have taken their own lives, Sergeant Tellum survived an attempt to take his own life.

He said his suicidal thoughts were caused by the treatment he received from senior officers in the Royal Australian Air Force.

“Even though I loved the defense, it wasn’t fair how you were treated. You could be harassed and bullied defensively [and] it was part of the job,” he said.

He said he was sent away from his family in Darwin against his wishes in what he believed was a coercive plot by senior officers to force him to resign.

The former airman, who was medically discharged in 2015, made a statement to the Royal Commission into Veterans Affairs and Suicide last week.

Darwin’s relative remoteness and smaller population will be a key focus of the next two weeks of royal commission hearings.(ABC News: Dane Hurst)

The new figures show that he is far from alone: ​​in the last two months alone, the commission has received a fifth of its materials.

The commission will hold its next two weeks of meetings in Darwin for its first session since then submitting an interim report in Augustwhich made 13 recommendations and led to a government apology.

And his mission remains the same: to hear and document the many horrific stories and make effective changes to reduce the relatively high suicide rate among defense personnel and veterans.

The tyranny of distance to be tested

Another veteran, Sam Weston, said the Australian Defense Force had given him “zero” support after two deployments to Timor-Leste.

“For me personally, there was no help when I came out,” he said.

“I came out in 2004, it was ‘goodbye’. There was no help. It wasn’t until years later that I contacted them and I got any help,” he said.

Mr Weston has already given evidence to the commission in Darwin ahead of a public hearing which starts tomorrow.

Sam Weston is sitting in the Mad Snake Cafe
After retiring from the ADF, Sam Weston now runs a cafe in central Darwin.(ABC News: Emily Smith)

“While I’m skeptical, I think if we can put it down on paper and the public can see what we mean, that would be a good start,” Mr Weston said.

Although the public hearings have not yet begun, commission chairman Nick Kaldas has already begun gathering information on the ground.

Last week the Commissioner visited Darwin’s HMAS Coonawarra Naval Base and is expected to visit RAAF Base Tindal, near Katherine, today.

As in the previous six locations where the commission has held hearings, over the next two weeks in Darwin we will try to learn more about the issues facing veterans and defense personnel in the local community.

Mr Caldas said addressing the issues of geographical isolation for veterans in the Northern Territory and access to services would be at the forefront of the commission’s work over the next two weeks.

Mr Weston said the tyranny of distance was compounded by the territory’s relatively small population.

“There aren’t enough psychologists, there aren’t enough doctors to deal with all of us,” he said.

Post-interim report surge

Ex-servicemen and their families have made more than 2,500 submissions to the royal commission since it was set up in 2021.

But 514 of those submissions were received only after the commission released its interim report two months ago.

Among those who have noticed an uptick in filings is senior attorney Rachel Vincent of the Defense and Veterans Legal Service.

A woman wearing black-rimmed glasses is looking at the camera with a neutral expression on her face
Senior solicitor Rachel Vincent says more and more current and former ADF staff are reaching out for information and advice about their experiences.(ABC News: Peter Garnish)

The organization has supported more than 400 people since the commission was established, and Ms Vincent said that number looked set to grow.

“We’ve seen a lot more interest in the question, ‘How can I get my story heard?’ What are my options?” There are a lot of people who have told me that all of these issues in the interim report are all issues that we’ve been talking about for years,” she said.

“So I think the recognition that the commission is listening and that’s really encouraging.”

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-10-17/defence-veterans-royal-commission-to-start-hearings-in-darwin/101540962

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