War's toll on modern Diggers

EXCLUSIVE Joseph Catanzaro

The widow of a Digger who took his own life has revealed the tragic hidden toll of mental illness on Australia's modern-day troops, which in the past decade has claimed the lives of more defence personnel than the battlefields of Afghanistan.

Figures obtained by The West Australian show that since October 2001, 70 serving Australian Defence Force personnel have taken their own lives, compared with 39 killed during operational duty in Afghanistan.

Joanne Dominguez, 43, is one of 56 dependants who in the past decade have received compensation from the Veterans' Affairs Department after the department accepted 23 cases where a veteran took their own life as a result of peace or wartime service.

In April 2009, her fiance, East Timor veteran Lance-Cpl Rick Dominguez, 36, committed suicide in their Perth home after losing a battle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mrs Dominguez, who has broken her silence to reveal the tragic impact of mental illness on Australian military personnel and their families, said yesterday she believed her fiance was still a casualty of war. Her plea, for Diggers who are mentally "wounded" during frontline service to be given the same recognition as those who have been physically wounded in battle, has been echoed by two of the nation's top medical experts working with traumatised troops.

Mrs Dominguez said she believed her partner, who was medically discharged from the Defence Force in 2003 and diagnosed with PTSD after his operational stint, was mentally wounded in the service of his country and died as a result.

"The difficulty is that when they are alive, there isn't that recognising, seeing someone (with mental trauma) as a wounded soldier," she said. "He had PTSD. I know that's how he died.

"For other people, it's a rung below on the ladder. In my mind he died and it's equally as valid."

Psychiatrist Winston Chiu and psychologist Doug Brewer, who coordinate the trauma recovery program at Hollywood clinic, said they strongly believed mental or "moral wounding" should be ranked comparably with physical wounds.

"These are very real illnesses," Mr Brewer said. "We can no longer put our head in the sand and just pretend it's those who are coming back in wheelchairs."

Mr Brewer said research showed the impact on quality of life for a PTSD sufferer was equivalent to becoming a paraplegic.

With research indicating up to 15 per cent of soldiers who see frontline service return home with some form of mental trauma, the two experts said they were working closely with Veterans' Affairs - which in addition to compensation payments spends $165 million a year on mental health services - to be ready for the "huge increase" in traumatised troops expected to come forward when Australia pulls out of Afghanistan this year.

Only nine of the 70 serving ADF personnel who took their own life served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and "fewer than 10" of the 23 suicides accepted by Veterans' Affairs had been deployed to either of those modern war zones.

But a Veterans' Affairs spokesman conceded the department "was not aware of all cases of suicide among former defence members including those who served in Iraq (and) Afghanistan".

Veterans' Affairs said the suicide figures were lower than in the general population, but Mr Brewer said the figures were "hotly debated" because making a comparison between civilians and highly trained troops was difficult.

A spokesman said the department's annual report outlined its work, including dealing with and acknowledging mental health issues.

Dr Chui said Veterans' Affairs had made great advances, but there was more work to be done on the emerging issue of mental trauma. He said struggling veterans should seek treatment as soon as possible.

Veterans and Veterans' Family Counselling Service: 1800 011 045