DVA: Australia’s absolute shame
When the wrong diagnosis is fatal.
The family of an army veteran who killed himself believes the rejection of his compensation claim by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) pushed him to take his own life.
Private Jesse Bird, 1RAR Infantry Battalion served eight-months in Afghanistan in 2009-10. Jesse was only 32-years old when he took his life last month. The ADF experts didn’t believe he had a mental problem. Private Bird was one of those soldiers, whom, perhaps should never have been put into a war zone. Not every soldier is mentally suited, a matter sometimes undetectable during enlistment and training. The horror and fear upon first engagement can change things — dramatically.
That appears to be the case with Private Bird. And thus begins a familiar path to ruin by drugs and alcohol exacerbated by doctors who never had a shot fired at them with intent to kill. To such DVA practitioners the weeding out of malingers seems to be a brownnose culture for approbation by a coterie of seat-polishers.
Over 15 years 325 veterans have necked themselves leaving a trail of sadness for families and friends and utter shame upon those who simply failed to believe them. Families of victims of our system feel deserted by their country—and they are—but the veteran was deserted first.
Desertion is a serious military offence but apparently not even a minor offence for offending doctors who may or may not be in uniform. There will be more—how very, very sad! Lest we Forget.
‘They deserted him’: Veterans’ department accused of contributing to digger’s suicide
Minister for Defence Personnel and Veterans’ Affairs Dan Tehan has told 7.30 he has now ordered the Defence Department and DVA to review their handling of the case.
Jesse Bird, 32, took his own life last month, just weeks after losing a claim for permanent impairment he had been pursuing for almost two years.
The decision came despite DVA accepting initial liability, in August 2016, for Mr Bird’s post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and alcohol abuse.
His stepfather John Bird vowed during his funeral eulogy to fight to have the decision overturned.
“Jesse fought for his country, he fought for every single Australian, but his government returned the favour by deserting him,” he said.
“We cannot let the Department of Veterans’ Affairs get away with this terrible injustice.”
Jesse’s mother, Karen Bird, said the loss of her eldest son was devastating.
“I don’t have him anymore and it’s been painful to watch seven years of him struggling with his mental illness, and in the recent years struggling for recognition of his mental illness after he mustered the strength to actually acknowledge that he needed help,” she told 7.30.
“He’s going to be sadly missed.”
There is growing concern about the high rates of suicide in the veteran community.
Between 2001 and 2015 there were 325 confirmed suicides involving people with at least one day of Defence Force service.
Despite her grief, Karen Bird says she is not looking for sympathy.
She is calling on the Turnbull Government to urgently change DVA’s adversarial approach to claims before more lives are lost.
“We sincerely hope there is no other veteran family that has to go through this ever again,” she said.
“And I suspect it’s going to take a monumental change from the top down.”
The Department of Veterans’ Affairs refused to produce specific figures about the number of claims for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and alcohol dependence abuse it declined, and instead touted the number of accepted claims.
DVA has accepted 1,590 claims for PTSD and 543 claims for alcohol dependence abuse from veterans of the Afghan war.
It did not say how many of those accepted claims included permanent impairment.
While DVA did not say how many claims it had declined, it provided a more generalised category which included claims that had been rejected, withdrawn or accepted as another condition.
Forty-four PTSD claims and 33 alcohol dependency and abuse claims were in this broader category.
Jesse Bird was a private with Townsville’s 1RAR Infantry Battalion who served an eight-month deployment to Afghanistan in 2009-10.
According to army records seen by 7.30 he was exposed to psychological trauma including being shot at, and nearly hit, by insurgents and standing in close proximity to bomb blasts caused by improvised explosive devices.
A close mate, Private Benjamin Ranaudo, was killed instantly by one of those bomb blasts, severely affecting Jesse Bird.
Following his service Jesse struggled with night terrors, anxiety and depression that came with his PTSD.
After leaving the army in 2012 Jesse Bird struggled to hold down a job, became addicted to alcohol and relied on his parents for financial support.
His brother, Brendan Bird, said it was clear he was unwell but he refused to talk about it.
“If I asked how he was he’d say things like, shit or not good, and that’s all he would reply, which would make me really concerned,” he said.
“I’d always keep trying to talk to him about it, you know, he just kept shutting me out.
“He’d always tell me not to tell Mum and Dad.”
Submission to Senate inquiry led nowhere
In November last year the Bird family became so worried about the impact of the DVA claims process on Jesse they wrote a submission to a Senate inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel, pleading for help.
“It seems to him and us that the level of bureaucracy is intentionally obstructionist and unedifying,” the submission said.
“The jungle of paperwork, the lack of follow-up and the non-existent support has contributed to his deteriorating mental health.
“Jesse has not received any money whatsoever from DVA to help him survive and without our financial and emotional help he would be on the street or worse.”
The Bird family say the only acknowledgement of their submission was to receive a pro-forma letter thanking them, and no one from the Senate inquiry or DVA had contacted them to offer any assistance.
Their worst fears were confirmed in May, when the Department of Veterans’ Affairs declined Jesse Bird’s claim for permanent impairment.
Even though DVA accepted his conditions were caused by his military service, it rejected his claim based on a psychiatric report that said his condition was not stable or severe enough.
Without a job, Jesse had pinned his hopes on a successful permanent impairment claim providing him with an ongoing income.
Furious, he phoned his family after receiving the decision.
“It was total resignation in his voice, that he’d done all this work and it had been rejected,” John Bird said.
Seven weeks later Jesse Bird was alone in his St Kilda apartment.
He put on his army jumper, laid out his medals and ended his life.
“He had his rejection papers prominently displayed along with a lot of other paperwork that that he’d had to endure with the DVA,” John Bird said.
‘All he wanted was to be believed’
His younger brother Brendan Bird believes Jesse’s death could have been easily avoided.
“A simple recognition of what he was feeling … could have changed everything, because all he wanted was to be believed, that what he was going through was real,” he said.
“For them to keep knocking him back must have been really tough for someone of his mental state.
“If we could see something was really wrong with him then someone who makes that (DVA) decision should be able to see it as well.”
Jesse’s sister Kate said the family would continue to speak out about what happened.
“I want every veteran that’s committed suicide post-service to be a wake-up call,” she said.
“I don’t want any family or veteran to go through it ever again (because) obviously this can be avoided.”
Until recently the Department of Veterans’ Affairs had not tracked the number of veterans to die by suicide.
In a statement it told the ABC it had accepted four death claims due to suicide since the beginning of 2016.
DVA also said it was working to improve its understanding about the incidence of suicide and recently commissioned the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare to provide these figures.
This information will now be collected on an ongoing basis and updated every year.
Minister for Defence Personnel and Veterans’ Affairs Dan Tehan was unavailable for interview because he is overseas on official business.
In a statement he said:
“I have asked for a review by both Defence and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs of the handling of Jesse Bird’s discharge and case management.
“Due to privacy reasons, I can not comment on individual cases, but I will be meeting with Karen and John Bird in the coming weeks.