Anger at targeting of unwell soldiers

·3-min read

One of the Australian Army's most senior serving commanders has told a royal commission he doesn't believe mentally or physically unwell soldiers are stigmatised, but "on occasion soldiers will say stupid, dumb things".

Commander of the 3rd Brigade in Townsville, Brigadier Kahlil Fegan, was the first witness on Monday at a nine day hearing before the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.

Brigadier Fegan told the inquiry when he first took up his command at the Townsville Lavarack Barracks he was "alarmed" to discover a hazing ritual in one of the units.

He said the "stupid initiation", which had been going on for years, involved a group of soldiers chasing another soldier into the bush and trying to tie him up.

The perpetrators were charged, but he also called for a wider inquiry in an attempt "to change that stupidity" and hold accountable those who had failed to step in and stop the hazing.

Pressed by Commissioner Peggy Brown on why so many defence personnel had told the commission they had been targeted as "malingerers", including those who had been physically injured, Brigadier Fegan said "I can't mitigate stupidity".

"I have no doubt that on occasion soldiers will say stupid, dumb things like that to an individual and it is hurtful," he said.

"I just hope that if and when they do that, we're able to take action as appropriate."

Commissioner Brown also questioned Brigadier Fegan about the use of repeated disciplinary actions against defence personnel who were already struggling with their mental health.

"In one instance that I can think of there was a death by suicide," Commissioner Brown said.

"I think Blind Freddy, quite frankly, could or should have been able to see there was some issue that was actually contributing to this, and yet that was not picked up."

Brigadier Fegan described the suicide as "tragic and exceptionally regrettable".

Officers at a tactical level, he said, were not "as attuned or aware of those potential mental health issues as arguably we would like our people to be".

"I think there is more we can do to understand what are the implications of our taking disciplinary actions."

Brigadier Fegan said there were also cultural pressures in the army that made personnel reluctant to seek medical help for mental and physical health issues.

The fear was it could be career ending or they would miss out on an overseas deployment.

He said long delays in accessing medical support was another deterrent for people "putting their hand up".

Anyone with mental health issues would routinely have to wait up to eight weeks to see the only psychiatrist at the base of 3000 personnel.

"It would be naive of me to suggest that still isn't a concern for us in the workforce and within the brigade," Brigadier Fegan said.

"What we need to be doing is continuing to emphasise the importance of seeking early intervention for a physical or mental health issue."

Lifeline 13 11 14

beyondblue 1300 22 4636

Lifeline 13 11 14

Open Arms 1800 011 046

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting