A former Australian soldier was ‘humiliated and degraded’ by servicemen during questioning about her sexuality in the 1980s, a royal commission into defense and veteran suicide has said.
The royal commission’s public hearings in Sydney this week are collecting testimonies from members of the ADF community who have had suicidal thoughts and family members of those who have taken their own lives.
The inquiry came after Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last year he would not block a decision to finally look into ADF and veteran suicides.
Yvonne Sillett, a former serving army member who is openly gay, told the inquest on Monday that in 1988 she was called to meet with superiors above her security clearance, as part of of a “witch hunt” against homosexual ADF personnel.
The encounter was actually a three-hour interrogation during which she was “broken”, “treated like a criminal”, and learned that she had been followed for several months while traveling with friends and on nights out, said Ms Sillett.
The purpose of the meeting, she said, was to extract an admission of homosexuality, considered at the time by the army as a “national threat”.
‘I knew it would be the end of my career and my dream,’ Ms Sillett told the inquest, describing the army’s treatment as ‘humiliating and degrading’.
Ms Sillett, who at times held back tears as she testified, said she took an honorable discharge in 1989 after having thoughts of suicide.
She was on the verge of committing suicide, but managed to get out of it thanks to her companion at the time who supported her so that she could “tell her story” during the investigation.
“I didn’t know anything else, I had no plan B,” Ms Sillett said.
In the years since, the veteran ‘pioneer’ has formed an organization to support LGBTI+ members of the defense forces, but is still awaiting an apology.
“That’s what I fight for, and that’s why I’m here today,” she said.
“No one really wants to listen or take responsibility for how we were treated.”
Another witness, who has not been identified, told the inquest that she was abandoned by DVA when her husband ADF died of alcohol addiction after returning from Afghanistan with PTSD, from the alcoholism, agoraphobia and adjustment disorders.
Although she sought support from DVA, the woman said she had to deal with issues such as domestic violence, road rage and her husband’s drinking.
She said that when she asked for help, authorities told her, “It’s not our problem, it’s yours.”
“We had no support,” she told the inquest.
“I still struggle to this day (with) scars that you can’t see.”
Earlier, lawyer assisting the royal commission, Peter Gray QC, said the inquiry would address urgent issues, including delays in dealing with ADF claims, describing this ‘backlog’ in claims as being at the center of the hearings.
He described the backlog as “unacceptably high” and said it had grown significantly since March 2019, with the time it takes to process some Veterans Affairs applications doubling in two years to an average of around 200 days. .
Commissioner Nick Kaldas, in his opening remarks, said the investigation issued more than 150 notices to the MoD, DVA and other agencies, resulting in more than 320,000 pages of documents to examine.
It had also received more than 1,100 submissions from a range of individuals, ex-service organizations and experts.
In addition to members and veterans of the ADF, witnesses scheduled to testify this week include DVA staff, staff from consulting firm McKinsey and medical experts.
Compared to the general population, suicide rates are 24% higher among former servicemen and double among former women, according to government data.
Australian Associated Press