ABC: Soldiers complain that conditions, neglect during Melbourne coronavirus deployment took toll on mental health

(3 Dec) There have been multiple reports from soldiers about how they struggled while in Victoria helping with the coronavirus second wave but the Defence Department says employees have been looked after.(Unsplash: Louis Blythe)Share

Australian soldiers are accusing their hierarchy of not properly looking after their mental health during and after their deployment to Melbourne to help with the state’s COVID-19 response.

Key points:

  • Soldier says rules confining Defence Force personnel to hotel rooms has negatively affected their mental health
  • He says Defence members were not given post deployment mental health screening
  • Defence says mental health support was provided and a survey is being carried out to determine follow up needs

A soldier has told the ABC he and colleagues were virtually confined to Melbourne hotel rooms for months, in between carrying out duties including accompanying ambulance crews to car crashes.

He said many have been deeply affected by the confinement.

The soldier was among hundreds deployed to Melbourne between June and October from bases in Townsville, Darwin, Adelaide and Brisbane.

He said during deployments of up to three months, they were only allowed to leave their hotel rooms while carrying out duties including home quarantine checks.

The ABC is not identifying the soldier because he is not allowed to speak to the media without approval.

“It was insane. It was the most shithouse experience I’ve ever had,” he said.

“It was nuts driving all day, during the daylight hours, and then you were back in the hotel room, not seeing the sun.”

The soldier said he and colleagues went weeks without rest days, lost weight, and many couldn’t pass physical fitness tests when they returned to barracks.

He said while off duty, their only exercise option for the first month was in the hotel’s underground car park, in a few spaces each.

Alfoil container with rice and peas inside.
Soldiers were supplied peas and rice for breakfast.(Supplied)

Later, they were allowed an hour of exercise in a small park, but often the allotted exercise times clashed with times on duty.

“There was a sense we couldn’t hack it,” he said.

“A lot of fellas were having a hell of a hard time. We were in borderline isolation all that time.”

The soldier said being supplied “second rate, minimal” food, including peas and rice for breakfast, and not being able to leave the hotels to buy alternative food, was morale-sapping.

He said the experience was worse than an overseas deployment, particularly for soldiers backing up ambulance crews.

“The fellas on the ambulance task went to suicides, heart attacks, houses where a bloke’s bashing his missus,” he said.

“They saw more traumatic things than they did on other deployments.

“Then they were locked in their rooms for weeks on end.

“And now we’ve come back we didn’t do the Post Operational Psychological Screening,” he said.

The moderator of an online veterans’ mental health forum told the ABC multiple soldiers have reported the same experience.

He doesn’t want to be identified because he receives information from serving personnel.

Department of Defence says soldiers were looked after

Asked to respond, the Defence Department provided a statement saying the personnel had access to mental health support including for critical incidents during the deployment.

Alfoil container with sausages and potato
Meals such as this one were not adequate for ADF staff but they were prevented from leaving their hotel to buy their own food.(Supplied)

“As with all Victorians during the lockdown … ADF members … were required to adhere to directives concerning exercise periods,” the Department said.

“A welfare system was established that included regular welfare checks and a buddy system.”

It said the soldiers would get mental health screening, and the Department would conduct an anonymous survey to determine “what they found stressful and how they coped”.

“A Post Operational Psychological Screening is conducted between three and six months following deployment … [or] earlier if a member requests it,” the Department said.

“Defence has designed a deployment experiences survey … to identify risks associated with Operation COVID Assist, which can then inform … longer-term, follow-up care responses.”

The soldier who spoke to the ABC said Defence Force members are reluctant to admit they need mental health support because they fear it will affect their careers.

Veteran community members have to look out for each other

The President of the independent Defence Welfare Association, Kel Ryan, said that was a common concern.

“It is a common factor in military life that individuals tend not to report injuries or particular mental health issues that they perceive would be detrimental to their future promotion, to their future positions,” he said.

“So what we have to do is to ensure there is a system by which individuals are not disadvantaged because they report these issues.”

He said everyone in the Defence Force and veteran community should look carefully for signs of mental stress in friends and colleagues, and offer help.

“It is common that individuals try to hide these things, and it really behoves their mates, to really notice changes in the individual’s mental state,” he said.

“We all have to play a part. It’s called mateship, it’s called looking after each other, and that’s what we have to do, that’s what we should be doing.”

The defence force veterans’ charity Mates4Mates has expanded its independent telehealth services during the pandemic and is about to open a Darwin centre.

Its CEO, Troy Watson, said it had recently experienced a surge in demand.

“Compared to this time last year, we are seeing about a 30 per cent increase in access to our services since that time,” he said.

“Obviously the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on individuals and the family unit, and people being dislocated from others, and being unable to access services, have had a significant impact this year.”

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