Army veteran Stix McGavin. Photo: Cody Fox
Army veteran Stix McGavin. Photo: Cody Fox

Commission welcome but won’t be enough: veteran

STIX McGavin makes no secret of the fact he's tried to end his own life.

The Hervey Bay father-of-two and young veteran has no problem telling people of his daily struggles with post traumatic stress disorder, brought about by serving in Afghanistan and East Timor.

Mr McGavin, 30, says shedding light on the devastating issue is the only way to turn the tide of suicide among returned servicemen and women.

An independent commission into the 419 veteran suicides since 2001 will be part of the solution, he says, but it likely won't be enough.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday announced a commissioner with the powers of a rolling royal commission will be appointed to investigate veteran suicide.

The commissioner will conduct a review, with the full power to demand the production of evidence and summon witnesses, together with a panel of experts including the Australia Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care, the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare, the National Coronial Information System, and coroners and legal experts.

An interim report will be on the Prime Minister's desk in 12 months with the final report delivered within 18 months.

Unlike a Royal Commission, which looks backwards at a moment in time, the commissioner will be a permanent watchdog with the ongoing power of a Royal Commission to examine any veteran or active defence force suicide issue that comes up.

While he welcomed the development, Mr McGavin struggled to see how 12 months was enough time to investigate each of the deaths.

"There's been to date 419 suicides since 2001, which is when they're backdating it to, and that's just the ones that are known," he said.

"With 12 months to look at that and what caused them, I don't think that's going to be very thorough."

The father-of-two said having a permanent commissioner conducting a rolling investigation would make a difference, but it needed to go beyond just looking at the problems.

"Some people are just disgruntled and point the finger squarely at the Department of Veterans' Affairs," Mr McGavin said.

"Hopefully things are brought to light that the DVA could do better but in saying that, a lot of people are very quick to complain but they don't have a remedy for what they're complaining about.

"As long as this rolling commission can come up with a solution, it is a good thing."

Stix McGavin coaching at the Dundowran Athletics Oval. Photo: Cody Fox
Stix McGavin coaching at the Dundowran Athletics Oval. Photo: Cody Fox

Mr McGavin's personal struggles were amplified by the jarring shift from military service to "normal life".

One day, he was serving his country, giving the best years of his life to the armed forces.

The next, his defence career was done, and he was considered too broken to work at all.

He wanted nothing to do with the government or the RSL when he returned, becoming a self-described "hermit".

"Going from such a high tempo period that is Afghanistan and then essentially not being able to push trolleys, that took a sense of worth away from me," he said.

"A sense of worth and a new purpose is what's needed."

He questioned whether a commissioner could achieve this for veterans and said the defence force had a responsibility to help returned soldiers integrate back into society.

"If I was to break something, I would be the one who was in charge of fixing it," he said.

"That's why the idea of 'you train us to go, train us to come back' is so important."

The theme of brokenness is one Mr McGavin raises often and one he is deeply affected by each day.

His time in the army left his body shattered.

He lives with a battery pack implanted in his spine to stimulate his right leg, as well as pins in both legs.

"I've had more surgeries than birthdays," he said.

The injuries left his ability to work limited and he remains on a rehabilitation program overseen by the DVA, which further restricts his employment and study opportunities.

It has not stopped him from finding new purpose in his life, though.

Sport has been his healer and he competed twice at the Invictus Games, bringing home a swag of medals.

Now he has turned his hand to coaching, with his charge, Ethan Parry, achieving national athletics success.

This new focus, he said, has helped pull him out of his darkest moments.

He said younger veterans lived in a completely different culture to those who served in Vietnam or Korea and had different tools at their disposal.

The Redsix online community and mobile app was one tool that helped him when he struggled, he said.

Redsix is aimed at tackling the issue of veteran suicide by connecting past and current members of the armed forces.

"It gives veterans another avenue to say 'I'm not doing too well'," Mr McGavin said.

"Behind a screen, it's like Dutch courage. You're more likely to put your hand up behind a screen than you are face-to-face."

Mr McGavin hopes, if nothing else, the commission will encourage more veterans to be open about their struggles, and bring to light the causes behind their deaths.

He said leaders in the defence force needed to be held accountable.

"I think that is some of the frustration, the fact that some of the top brass are just hiding," he said.

"They're not there on the ground so they can't assess the situation properly."

If you or someone you know needs help, phone Open Arms Veterans and Families 24/7 Counselling on 1800 011 046 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.