‘Constant belittling’: mother tells veteran suicide inquiry of army son’s trauma

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Albert Perez/AAP</span>
Photograph: Albert Perez/AAP

Royal commission hears private Daniel Garforth felt ‘betrayed’ by his chain of command before his suicide

Nikki Jamieson sat before the royal commission into defence and veteran suicide with a photo of her son in uniform in front of her – and his slouch hat.

“This is what I have left,” she said quietly, on the first day of evidence in Brisbane on Monday.

Jamieson said her son, private Daniel Garforth, “was committed to his service but because of the constant belittling and demoralisation … by his chain of command, he felt incredibly betrayed by those who were supposed to protect him”.

“They didn’t have his back,” she said.

Her son, who was posted away from his family including his infant daughter, took his own life in November 2014. He was 21.

Related: ‘Opportunity for change and healing’: royal commission into veteran suicide begins

In forthright and at times emotional evidence, Jamieson told the royal commission there were clear signs her son needed help, but he felt trapped inside a military regime unwilling to respond.

“Daniel was left traumatised when he felt unable to help a colleague who was also struggling with mental health problems. He was ordered back on duty again.”

The other service member later died also, Jamieson said.

“I had that phone call with my son when he was traumatised and he was devastated because he couldn’t help that person. So I was the one on that phone with him trying to counsel and support him through that process,” she said.

“So I know something happened. I know something went drastically wrong.”

Jamieson said her son felt isolated being within the military’s chain of command, and said there were catastrophic flaws in the army’s response to his deteriorating mental and physical health.

He had applied for a discharge from the military and expected to be home for Christmas, but was then told it had been cancelled.

“He wanted to come home, he wanted to leave,” his mother said. “Something happened in that process.”

Jamieson described her son, who arrived in Australia aged 13 from the UK, as “one of life’s little helpers” and a “cheeky chappy”.

“He was … loyal to the core, which ultimately became a bit of an achilles heel.”

Jamieson is a suicidologist and expert on moral injury and trauma in veterans, her work inspired by her son’s experience in the military.

“Since his death, I have dedicated my life to defence and veteran suicide prevention and have been actively involved in the advocacy and push for a royal commission.”

Jamieson has also accepted a role working with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, arguing the defence force’s institutions need “positive, sustainable and continuous change”.

She said for family of veterans and defence members who suicide, getting information about their loved one was often difficult and re-traumatising. She accessed information about her son’s death through freedom of information laws, but it took four years.

“We as the loved ones want to know what happened to our children so we can start to work towards some kind of closure,” she said.

The royal commission, tasked with investigating “systemic issues” around defence and veteran suicide, will hear 10 days of evidence in its first set of hearings this year, with a focus on people with lived experience, such as serving defence personnel, veterans and bereaved family members.

Counsel assisting the commission, Kevin Connor SC, urged veterans to approach the commission if they felt able.

“Your voice needs to be heard,” Connor said. “Your stories will throw light on the systemic issues that the royal commission needs to explore.”

Connor said veterans organisations had long disputed the official suicide statistics reported by the defence and veterans’ affairs departments.

“Their concern was that the official number was low and not reflective of what they were seeing on the ground,” he said. “This appears very much to be the case.”

The latest statistics compiled by the Australian Institute of Health and Well-being found 1,273 defence force members and veterans committed suicide between 2001 and 2019. The cohort examined was anybody who had served in Australia’s defence forces since 1985.

The rates of suicide for serving defence force members is lower than the general population – a reflection of the so-called “healthy soldier effect” – but significantly higher for those who have left the services: 24% higher for ex-serving males; and 102% (or 2.02 times) higher for ex-serving females, the AIHW said.

The inquiry has already flagged its inquiry will include confronting accounts of life in Australia’s defence services, including bullying, concerns over the treatment of women, sexual and physical assault, and the ritual hazing of new recruits. It will cross-examine government and defence force officials in subsequent hearings in 2022.

The commission heard three key elements had been identified in its preliminary work and through previous inquiries: “Culture, transition [out of the services], and mental health support.”

• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org