Australian Lance Corporal Ryan Goodwin returned home from Afghanistan in 2012 with no welcome-home parade, no fanfare, and no support for the traumatic injuries he suffered.
Tormented by the horrors of war and unable to seek help from the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA), Goodwin took his own life in December 2019.
Goodwin’s family told his story to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide on Monday, saying that military personnel returning from combat were “almost made to feel like a villain” and that the lack of support for transitioning defence members to civilian life meant families were left to pick up the pieces alone.
“When he got back, he was not the same person … you would get glimpses, and you would think, ‘Oh my goodness, that would be the most horrific traumatic thing’,” Lauren Goodwin, the veteran’s sister, recalled.
“It was almost constantly walking on eggshells with him… he just totally disengaged from everyday life, and we begged him to go and seek help. But the more we sort of begged, the more the resistance we were met with.”
Goodwin, a cardiac nurse, said her brother was so tortured by what he witnessed in Afghanistan that he struggled to sleep. He also stopped exercising or eating properly, suffered from “fits of rage,” and withdrew from even his closest friends.
In 2018, Ryan was so desperate for some sort of relief he started taking drugs.
“He was trying to numb his pain… just drown out what he was feeling… watching my mother crying every day,” she told the commissioners, emphasising that it had come to the point the family no longer recognised him.
“It’s absolutely horrible to watch someone dying before your eyes, and there is absolutely nothing you can do.”
When Ryan finally agreed to ask the DVA for psychological help in late 2019, he was told he would have to join a waiting list. Weeks later, on Dec. 10, he killed himself.
Despite having served in Afghanistan as a crew commander between 2011 and 2012, the veteran was treated as “just another number there, another statistic, another caseload,” noted Ryan’s father, Phil Goodwin.
Goodwin added that DVA’s lack of enthusiasm in helping defence members assimilate to normal lives left many veterans feeling as if their army “family” had abandoned them.
“It’s like the modern army comrade is almost made to feel like a villain,” she continued, “He very much felt that. There was no welcome home parade.”
“How do you go from a very regimented life to a normal everyday civilian life?” she asked.
The DVA had accepted liability for Ryan’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTD) in June, which was three years after he had lodged the claim and 18 months after his death.
Calls for a Change in Veterans’ Support System
According to the latest figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), over 1,200 ex-servicemen and women took their own lives between 2001 and 2019, a number almost three times higher than previously reported.
This is predominantly a result of unresolved moral trauma, involving “hopelessness, shame, guilt, loss of identity and purpose,” said Padre Gary Stone, a former army commander and founder of the Veteran’s Care Association, in the hearing last Thursday.
Instead of getting the kind of integrated, holistic care needed, veterans had to navigate a model of care which left them over-medicated, “broken,” and at heightened risk of suicide.
“Anyone can tell you that if you go to DVA and tell them you grind your teeth, you can’t sleep at night, you are constantly hypervigilant, hyperaroused, the doctor listens to you and says, “Well, you must have PTSD. Here you are, here’s a whole bunch of medications you need to have,” he noted.
“We have had a whole bunch of people who have been given a whole bunch of drugs that have made them sexually impotent, made them constantly sleepy, made them angry and grumpy, and they didn’t need any of that.”
“Veterans are [also] part of the problem because they don’t admit to what they actually have got.”
Isaac Adams, who served five years in the army, said the DVA should give veterans funding, retrain them in a new vocation, and provide mental health support rather than “treat people with medication and compensation.”
“I truly believe we need to establish a formal process of how we help guys transition out of the Defence Force,” Adams told the commission last Friday, “I think that some empathy across the board of everybody, just as people, would really help everyone move forward.”
“Just throwing away the judgment and getting rid of undermining one another. I see it all the time.”
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