The Australian, September 26, 2009
83 Diggers 83 injured in Afghanistan became invisible
In hospitals around Australia, soldiers who have been seriously wounded in Afghanistan are checked in under false names in order to protect them from the public eye.
One Afghanistan veteran, in his early 20s, is in a private hospital in NSW. He has lost both his legs. The doctors and nurses treating him are sworn to secrecy. Were someone to ring the hospital's reception, asking for him by his real name, he would not exist.
As far as the public knows, his terrible injuries never happened. There was no media release from the Defence Department giving even cursory details of this man's suffering. While the dead - there have been 11 Australians killed in Afghanistan - are seen coming home in coffins, in tragic airfield ramp ceremonies, discussion about the badly wounded, who come home in secret, is off limits.
Silence is now official policy. Defence told The Weekend Australian: "In order to protect the privacy of wounded personnel and to aid convalescence, Defence does not publicly release details of the repatriation of wounded personnel. Tragically, some of these have been seriously wounded. However, the figures also include those with minor wounds who recover quickly and continue to serve in theatre."
Australian Special Air Service Association national president Dave Lewis says: "I'm sure Australia has no idea how some of these guys have suffered the most horrendous injuries. I know one who was shot six times in the chest and stomach and no one has a clue about him. That's a bit sad, for me. "I'd like to see some of their stories told. Some of them have very serious stories to tell. In 15 years' time, no one will be interested."
The Australian, Sep. 26, 2009
Australia knows almost nothing about its wounded soldiers. Defence revealed, in response to questions from The Weekend Australian, that 83 soldiers had suffered various forms of wounds in Afghanistan since late 2005, when Australians re-engaged in the war. It says the soldiers have a range of damage, from severe bruising, concussion and fractures, to gunshot and shrapnel wounds and significant blast trauma. Any further breakdown of those figures is not available.
statistic in a Defence media release. Or he may not. Since late 2005, Defence has issued 22 media releases relating to only 52 of the 83 wounded ADF personnel.
Veterans, old and young, believe Australia is not even getting half the picture of what's happening to ADF personnel in the deteriorating Afghanistan war.
They fear for the long-term mental cost on soldiers who are asked to fight a hidden war. They worry the public has little understanding of what they're going through, and have little appreciation of the soldiers' sacrifice.
Although Defence seems willing, in some cases, to disclose that unnamed soldiers have been wounded by improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs, they close ranks at any mention of soldiers being shot in battle. Unless, that is, they are forced to discuss it.
When nine members of the Special Operations Task Group were hit by heavy rocket and machinegun fire in an attack on the Taliban in September last year, Defence had no intention of releasing any details about the battle after the casualties were brought in.
In a briefing two months later, special operations commander Major General Tim McOwan complained that news of the battle "was leaked and found its way into the Australian media".
Because of the leak, Defence was forced to confirm the incident, in which Trooper Mark Donaldson became the first Australian to win a Victoria Cross in 40 years. McOwan said the Taliban exploited the news on local radio stations the same day.
"In essence," he said, "an information release by us afforded them a propaganda opportunity."
It appears, however, that some serving troops in Afghanistan felt their fellow Australians deserved to know that members of the SOTG - made up of SAS, the 4th Battalion, and commandos - had just faced the bloodiest combat seen by Diggers since Vietnam. That is why they "leaked" it. For many soldiers, the age-old war veteran mindset of keeping your war stories bottled up means many recently returned vets do not feel comfortable discussing their recovery, even if Defence were to give them the all-clear to do so.
But the blackout on information may also mean wounded soldiers receive no acknowledgement in society.
Australian Special Air Service Association national president Dave Lewis says: "I'm sure Australia has no idea how some of these guys have suffered the most horrendous injuries. I know one who was shot six times in the chest and stomach and no one has a clue about him. That's a bit sad, for me.
"I'd like to see some of their stories told. Some of them have very serious stories to tell. In 15 years' time, no one will be interested."
It would be ghoulish and unwarranted to demand that wounded soldiers display their wounds. It is up to the soldier to decide whether or not to discuss the worst moment of his life.
Lewis says wounded Afghanistan vets don't want to talk. "They're all cranky and they claim they haven't been treated well," he says. "Their expectations were that if they were shot, then people (within Defence) would fall over backwards to help them. It hasn't come to reality.
"I've tried to persuade them to talk, tell them that people need to know, but it's their choice. They think they'll be punished, that their entitlements will be affected. If it was an injured footballer, he'd be in the news for the next six months."
The personal silence is understandable. But is the official silence from Defence on our wounded soldiers, whose injuries will most likely be accompanied by degrees of psychological injury, based on what is best for the soldier? Or what is best for the morale of the Australian public?
Simon Lee, a Darwin barrister who has worked as a military legal officer and represented returned soldiers in compensation claims, says Defence is motivated by two factors.
"I suppose both the Rudd and Howard governments don't want to unnecessarily scare the Australian public," Lee says. "When it comes to wounded and injured soldiers, they want to both protect their privacy and not alarm people."
Another barrister with close military connections says: "The casualties are very serious. They're amputees and things like that. With any war we're in, public support is very important."
The US military routinely issues statements about soldiers wounded in service, detailing the nature of the wounds inflicted. Recently returned vets appear proud to display themselves on sites such as Canines for Combat Veterans, in which dogs are provided to maimed or blinded vets to assist them.
US veterans have little fear in speaking out about healthcare issues or offering their views on the war itself.
Only one wounded Australian soldier from Afghanistan has been officially paraded before the public. That was Sergeant Michael Lyddiard, who lost an eye and an arm while trying to defuse an IED in 2007. He spoke publicly, earlier this year, after being nominated for a medal.
Lyddiard was clearly an unembittered man, someone Defence could trust to say the right things. He spoke warmly of his 3rd Combat Engineer Regiment as a "second family" which had helped him find a positive outlook on life, and of the importance of the ADF's work in Afghanistan.
Peter Cosgrove, the former chief of the defence force, says that when his son Philip was slightly wounded by a car bomb in Baghdad in 2005, he didn't want to see his son's name flashed around.
"The only reaction that I had in particular was I didn't want him to be known to be there (in Iraq) because I thought that would put pressure on him, and his colleagues," Cosgrove says. "And I was quite anxious that wasn't to happen."
Cosgrove says that during his time as chief of the defence force there was no policy "one way or the other about access by the media to wounded servicemen or women".
"I don't see any problem in talking about the wounded," he says. "I mean, I guess there's a family consideration and a privacy consideration. If the wounded soldiers and their families want to be in the public eye for any reason, I wouldn't have thought there would be any difficulty with that."
This year, there is a difficulty. The chief of the defence force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, declined to be interviewed for this story.
But Defence told The Weekend Australian: "The ADF publicly reports incidents in which personnel are wounded as a result of enemy action. However, the timing may be delayed if reporting of the incident has the potential to compromise ongoing operations."
It would appear the delayed reporting on the wounded may run into months, or even years.
Clearly, the question of identifying wounded soldiers is a nuanced and delicate one. Military sources have revealed that one recently returned wounded soldier is under 24/7 protective guard after "elements" that are against the war in Afghanistan made phone contact in order to torment him. But across the veteran world there is a deep concern that Afghanistan is becoming a war that is best not mentioned.
They fear the military hierarchy has become too political and claim Australian operational commanders in Afghanistan answer not to their own military bosses but to "embedded bureaucrats" from the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister's Department, who are on location and make the final call on whether or not to attack a specific target.
Veterans from Vietnam, Cambodia, the Sinai, Western Sahara, Rwanda, East Timor, Somalia and Iraq are watching closely what's happening to Afghanistan vets. They are not against the war itself; they are against the damage that silence carries with it.
For now, some of them fear that by speaking out they will be ostracised by a paranoid and potentially vindictive hierarchy, which will make it hard for them to access and help those who most need it - the crop of young returning veterans.
In January 2002, Defence issued a media release about a soldier who was possibly the first Australian to be injured in Afghanistan. It stated the man had two toes amputated after a landmine incident, and that he sustained multiple fractures of the foot and right ankle, and superficial lacerations.
Nowadays, such level of detail would be unthinkable. The release is more likely to be about a vague incident in which no one was wounded.
One veteran says: "It's offensive not to talk about this. Governments commit people to these conflicts in the name of Australia, and if soldiers are wounded or killed, we have a right to know that these people are stepping up to the plate."
David Christie, the head of the NSW branch of the Australian SAS Association, deals with injured soldiers returning from Afghanistan and believes the anonymity policy is best, at least in the early stages of a soldier's recovery.
"Having experienced working with guys in that situation, it's beneficial from the individual's point of view," Christie says.
"It's protecting an individual going though a pretty critical time in his life. He's given that anonymity while his mates are still overseas. It gives him quiet time with family and a limited number of people who know about the injury.
"It may be a mental health injury and we don't want to expose kids to additional stuff that will irritate the mental health situation."
Few would disagree. But Defence has more work to do to find a compromise that better lets the Australian public in on Afghanistan. The names and the faces of the wounded are not necessarily needed. But significantly better public disclosure is.
Defence told The Weekend Australian: "It is Air Chief Marshal Houston's intention to be as open and transparent with the Australian public and the media as is possible, without compromising the security of our troops and our operations."
WWI and WWII veterans did not tell their tales. They did not want to be seen as whingers and, besides, they were so horrified and damaged, they simply did not know how to talk about it and suffered in silence.
It suited the politicians of the day. It suits the politicians of today.
In this information vacuum, is the policy forcing our service people to carry a secret burden for the rest of their lives?
Christie pauses for a long time. "I'm not sure," he says.
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