November 18, 2018

I am pleased that the government is honouring its responsibility to our exservicemen
and ex-servicewomen, and that leaders from both sides of the House are working together in support of our veterans and their families.

As the federal member for Paterson, I'm committed to honouring and serving those who have served Australia through our defence forces.

The Williamtown RAAF base is at the epicentre of my electorate, and the Singleton army base is in the neighbouring electorate of Hunter.

Mothers, fathers and children are part of the serving and ex-serving defence community.

We ask an enormous amount of our defence personnel and their families. We deploy them to serve in often dangerous and hostile environments away from their support network.

We post entire families to other parts of the country for years at a time, forcing them to pack up their lives and rebuild again and again.

When an individual serves in the ADF, their family serves too. This can take a catastrophic toll on individuals, on marriages, on families, on children.

Add to that the devastating and all-too frequent complications of physical or mental injury and you may have a recipe for disaster.

I have been in regular communication with a returned servicewoman named Rachel, who has been working to rebuild her life following seven years in the Royal Australian Air Force.

Rachel saw active service as part of the International Coalition Against Terrorism under Operation Slipper in Afghanistan.

On her return to Australia, she experienced severe post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic depressive disorders.

She said: "I couldn't even leave the house, answer the phone, hold a conversation with anyone. My daughter, who is now 13 years, was the mother in our relationship and she looked after me and the house.

Rachel's marriage broke down. She battled daily with anxiety, fear, self-doubt, hatred, flashbacks, night terrors and nightmares.

'I was literally a prisoner of my own head,' she told me.

She almost lost her life. Her weight ballooned to 119 kilograms. She battled cancer and had a stress-induced stroke.

Rachel lost her family.

Her brother decided she was using PTSD as an excuse not to heal, and he decided he could no longer be a part of her life.

This caused strained relationships with the rest of her family, and she lost them, too.

Throughout this journey, Rachel's one rock was her daughter.

It was this little girl's love that lit the path to recovery.

Rachel recalled to me, just a few weeks ago, one of her most vivid gems, which she said came to her during one of her meltdowns:

'In a daze of sleep, my little girl looked at me and said, "If you make enough good memories, Mummy, the bad ones won't seem that bad anymore."'

What a pearl of wisdom. It brings me undone every time.

I wonder how different Rachel's story would have been if she, her then husband, her siblings, her parents and her daughter had felt better supported by the government and the Department of Veterans' Affairs?

While I acknowledge the vital role that DVA plays in providing assistance to our veterans, I have heard time and time again from many veterans, not just Rachel, that exchanges with DVA are often traumatic in and of themselves.

Some describe their interactions as combative. Rachel is convinced that she was perceived
as damaged goods.

While I applaud the fact that the government has chosen to review the processes of the
Department of Veterans' Affairs, the funding allocation is nowhere near adequate.

Broad reviews and reforms are necessary to provide our veterans with the support they need and, most importantly, to ensure that they feel that their service and sacrifice has not been forgotten—that they aren't damaged goods that are just thrown onto the scrap heap of ex-service.

Labor committed, prior to the last election, to undertake a first-principles review of the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

This holistic review was set to target administrative governance and process failings.

Recently, Labor committed, if elected, to develop a family engagement and support strategy for defence personnel and veterans.

We all know there is no quick fix here. These failings have been years in the making. They really do need to be looked at very closely under a microscope.

It is important to bring about systematic changes if we are best to support our veterans and their families.

The transition from active service to civilian life is one that we must do better.

In the last fortnight, I spent a week at RAAF Base Williamtown as a member of the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program.

During that time, I had the opportunity to see all major facets of the base.

I slept and ate on the base. I often had the pleasure, if you want to call it that, of doing physical training sessions with some of the fittest people I've ever encountered in my life—and still managed to have a little smile on my face at the end of it, even though there was a part of me that was literally dying.

I was briefed, commensurate to my security clearance, on all facets of that base.

I just want to say: RAAF Base Williamtown is the greatest source of pride that I have in my electorate. It's also a source of enormous pain because of the PFAS contamination, and I've
spoken about that a lot in this parliament.

It's also painful when ex-serving personnel come to my office, as they did when Amanda Rishworth, our shadow minister for veterans' affairs, came and held a roundtable.

They sat and spoke with Amanda and me and said:
'These are the difficulties. The day the gate shuts on you, when you leave the force, when you stop serving, you're out. You can't go back in. It literally and metaphorically shuts behind you.'

We've got to do that better.

We have to allow these highly trained, intelligent, loyal people the opportunity to continue to feel valued.

I think that's one of the big psychological things.

I note that my friend and colleague the member for Solomon sits in the Chamber today as an ex-serviceman, along with Mike Kelly, who has also done terrific work in this parliament,
and others.

We've got these people.

To me, it's about their psychology. They're people who, first and foremost, sign up and step up to say, 'I want to serve my country.'

Then they train, and they are trained by some of the great trainers.

The training at RAAF Williamtown and the way that base is set up is just incredible.

There are so many complex problems that must be solved on a minute-by-minute basis to keep the whole thing functioning properly.

We train them and then we post or deploy them overseas to do incredibly difficult work in incredibly stressful environments—but they do operate like well-oiled machines.

They are trained very well.

But what happens when the machine comes back and it is a bit dinged up and a bit broken?

We talk about capability and we talk about platforms.

'Platforms' is a wonderful defence word for fantastic aircraft.

Capability is not just about those platforms and all of the things that go into making a wonderful military operation and defending our country; it's also about the people.

They are by far our strongest capability, and we need to be doing all we can to not only look after them while they are in the uniform but also care for them and give them
purpose when they return—when they say, 'My service is done,' for whatever reason.

It doesn't matter if it is TPI or whether they are voluntarily saying, 'I've done my bit and now I'm going to go and do something else with my life,' we should be saying: 'Thank you. We value you. Good on you. What else would you like to do with us? Would you like to come back in another capacity and help us in another way?— which often people do—Would you like to come back on to the base and use our gym? Would you like to use
the computers to perhaps help you reformulate your life?'

Other defence forces across the planet do this. They allow people to come back and still be part of that defence family.

We need to do it better. We must do it better.

If we are going to continue to have this cutting-edge, excellent military and defence organisation in Australia, we really have to seriously look at how we support our veterans,
how the Department of Veterans' Affairs works in this country and how we look after people  not only whilst they are serving but also when their days of service are over.