A veteran’s battle with bureaucracy

Former East-Timor peacekeeper and veterans advocate John McNeill, pictured wearing a cap with the number of veteran suicides when protesting first began – the number now stands at over 350 since 2000 with 56 confirmed this year alone. Photo by Caitlyn Quinn.
Veterans advocate John McNeill, who endured a seven-year wait to have all his claims processed, is helping others in their dealings with DVA, Caitlyn Quinn reports.

A former East-Timor peacekeeper, who suffered depression after being medically discharged from defence, has warned that processing delays by the Department of Veteran Affairs is increasing trauma for ex-servicemen and women.

Veterans advocate John McNeill, who endured a seven-year wait to have all his claims processed by DVA, says he was forced to live without financial assistance for the first three months after being medically discharged in November 2009.

“During that time, me and my newborn son and wife couldn’t live together… without incapacity payments we couldn’t get a house or rent,” Mr McNeill says.

“It was…waiting for the postie every day, waiting for a letter… for a bit of closure.”

Lengthy processing times and inadequate financial support are major contributors to the deteriorating mental health of ex-servicemen and women, Mr McNeill says.

“The first year or two it really took a toll on my mental state with my depression and stuff and also on my family,” Mr McNeill says.

“Even with incapacity payments, it’s really not enough to live on even by yourself, even to raise a family.

“Veterans are expected to live on $35,000 a year and support a family and that’s putting them in financial hardship and that leads to mental illness and can lead to mental health problems.”

Mr McNeill estimates he has assisted over 100 veterans with their claims after being forced to learn the system during his battle with DVA.

“Four years into my battle with DVA, I got into a better headspace… I became an advocate so I could then assist my friends and volunteer and do what I do now.”

He attended a rally held last month in front of DVA Melbourne at which hundreds of ex-service men and women and their families demanded a royal commission into the department, following increasing numbers of veteran suicides.

“I know a lot of veterans that have just given up because it’s too hard,” he says. “They can’t handle all the bureaucracy and red tape that gets chucked in front of them. They’re doing it tough because they can’t fight the system anymore.”

A senate inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel is being held but Mr McNeill says more needs to be done.

More veterans have reportedly died from suicide in Australia than in active combat in Afghanistan.

Independent senator Jacqui Lambie has been vocal in her support for a “warts and all review of the way the Department of Veterans Affairs treats veterans”.

A DVA spokesperson said it would be inappropriate to comment on a proposed royal commission.

For support call – Lifeline: 13 11 14

Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service: 1800 011 046