A mother who lost her son to suicide has harrowingly recounted how he went through a first-aid training course that forced him to re-live the death of his own baby boy.
David Finney, a veteran who died by suicide in 2019, lost his first son to SIDS in 2007 while he served in the Navy.
The first-aid course, which took place the following year, involved practice to resuscitate dummy babies, something David had done in real life as he fought to save his boy’s life.
His devastated mum Julie-Ann Finney said David had called her afterwards in grief.
“David broke down at work,” she said, recounting her conversation with him.
“‘I broke down, mum, I just broke down. I couldn’t do it,’” he told her.
“My son tried to resuscitate his own son for so long,” Ms Finney said.
Ms Finney also said the person in charge of the training told David to stop being “soft”.
Ms Finney said the Navy “absolutely” knew about the death of David’s baby before putting him onto the course.
“They knew … lots of people turned up to the child’s funeral,” she said
“There was nothing to say, ‘you are human, David. You are a human being.’”
In more than two hours of testimony before the Royal Commission into Veteran and Defence Suicide, Ms Finney blasted what she saw a lack of care and support for David as he struggled with mental health challenges and thoughts of suicide.
Ms Finney said the Navy discharged David at the very moment he was in hospital receiving treatment.
“He was in hospital dying and they signed his discharge papers,” the Adelaide mum said.
“He signed them and they (the Navy) walked away, which left my son in a hospital bed.
“No one to pick him up, nowhere to go.
“Because Defence is not responsible. How is this anything human? How do you leave someone on a suicide attempt, on a hospital bed and walk away from them?”
The Commission, which Ms Finney helped launch, is in its 11th hearing today in Melbourne since launching in 2021.
Led by commissioner Nick Kaldas APM, the investigation has received 230,000 documents, 4165 submissions and heard from 280 witnesses, drilling into the issue of suicide among Australia’s veteran community, which has taken the lives 1600 service men and women between 1997 and 2020, or 20 times the number of service personnel killed on active duty.
Ms Finney, who broke down at times but spoke with conviction, said the Navy had “discarded” David and “failed him”.
“They had every opportunity to wrap him up, to take care of him, in hard times,” she said.
“The institution of Defence, was not ever his family.”
She also spoke about the emotional fallout his death had had on the family.
“This is not something you move on from,” she said.
“There is no closure, it’s something we have to live with.”
‘It needs to be human’
Veterans Jonathan Morgan, James Kerin, Kate-Frances Duffy and currently serving member Steven Hill appeared before the Commission in the afternoon to speak about the struggles veterans face in the transition process from military to civilian life.
For Mr Morgan, a Royal Australian Air Force veteran, and Mr Kerin and Ms Duffy, both Navy veterans, navigating the byzantine agencies that exist to help veterans in their transition phase posed a significant challenge that often left defence personnel feeling helpless and overwhelmed.
“It needs to be human,” Mr Morgan said.
“That’s the one thing for me at least that is prominent in the frankly terrible and heart-wrenching stories that we hear about transitions that haven’t gone well.”
Mr Morgan said humanising bureaucracies that needed to run on clear policy and procedures would prove to be a massive challenge for the Commissioners in drafting their final recommendations.
“I’ve grappled with how you might practically implement that,” he said.
“Good luck, Commissioners,” he said.
Mr Kerin and Mr Hill suggested streamlining the agencies and number of people tasked with transitioning members away from military life would benefit everyone.
The veterans also spoke about the struggle to maintain a sense of purpose after leaving military life.
Ms Duffy suggested a substantial portion of veterans who had been medically discharged would like keep serving in the Reserve forces, something that is not currently allowed.
“I would stay and return in a heartbeat if that was the case,” she said.
“I think the ADF would be quite shocked and surprised by the number of people who would return.”