A veteran still bears the mental scars of being interrogated over her sexuality in the army in the 1980s, and a woman can vividly recall the transformation of her former husband in the armed forces triggering alcoholism and his death.
As the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicides began its first day of hearings on Monday, testimony of the ripple effects of mismanagement of veterans’ mental health and their families emerged.
Yvonne Sillett, a former army officer who is gay, told the commission she had been “humiliated” during two three-hour interrogations by her superiors in 1988 that she says were designed to coerce her to make an admission of her sexuality.
“It was just bullying,” Sillett said. “There was nothing about that three hours and the following three-hour interview that showed any compassion.”
She experienced suicidal thoughts and took an honourable discharge the following year, and in the time since she co-founded an organisation to support LGBTIQ+ defence members.
“The only time I was ashamed … was when I served, because I knew I couldn’t be [myself]. But now I am out and proud,” she told the commission.
“When I went to work as a public servant I knew I could be out and proud, but I kept a very low profile because of my history related to Defence.
“The culture within the ADF, I believe, is still not equal and the way it should be.”
Another witness, who gave evidence anonymously and is a survivor of family violence, told the commission her former husband had been promoted while serving in the Army but while in Afghanistan the role changed, leading to him becoming nervous and stressed.
“I contacted the duty room, and they pretty much didn’t know what to do about the situation,” the witness said.
“He approached a psychologist himself and said that he wasn’t OK. They then gave a recommendation, so he talked to his superiors and was pretty much shut down and they told he had to do his job.”
The member was then given a 30-day notice which led to him returning home and his position being terminated.
“The first thing I noticed when he got off that plane, his eyes were black. It’s the easiest way to describe them, and that’s the day I knew I lost my husband,” the witness said.
The witness said her former husband’s behaviour changed as he experienced bouts of anger, at times directed at her, and alcoholism. When she reached out to the Army, she was told to contact a padre who would take him to hospital.
The couple, who had two children, later separated and the man returned to live with family while suffering from a range of diagnosed conditions, including PTSD, alcoholism, agoraphobia and adjustment disorder. The man died some time afterwards, with a coroner determining alcoholism as the cause.
“He was a man who reached out for mental health support and was shut down,” the witness said.
She called for the families of ADF members to be supported and listened to.
“Defence needs to remember that members are people, and they need to treat them like [people] and there needs to be a program for families pre-deployment, mid-deployment and post-deployment that families feel like they are given the tools and have a support program around them,” the witness said.
“Ask the families; we have the key to open up the wealth of information that you may not have. Don’t just treat us like we know nothing.”
Lifeline: 13 11 14. Open Arms: 1800 011 046.