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Madonna King: Royal commission into ADF suicides

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Daniel Garforth. Teri Bailey. Few of us had heard their names before this week, but we need to know everything about them.

We need to understand what drew them to join the Australian Defence Force. We need to understand their role on assignment, away from their families and loved ones. And we need to know what drove them to end their lives.

Along the way, we need to understand the culture inside the ADF, how young Australians are supported, how their mental health is addressed, and the risks attached to a job that reflects on all of us.

We owe that to Daniel and Teri, and the 1200 other ADF veterans and serving personnel who have taken their own lives in the past two decades.


But it’s also the only way the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide will be able to navigate a path forward.

Already we’ve had numerous inquiries into these shameful statistics, but it always ends with us playing around the edges. This time we can’t afford to do that.

There is a suicide among veterans each week, and this royal commission – which the Morrison government begrudgingly announced in April this year – is not due to report until June 2023.

We don’t have to do that maths to know that one more death is too many – let alone the number that will occur while Commissioner Nick Kaldas APM and his team explore what is going wrong, and why.

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Daniel Garforth with his mother Nikki.

This time, we need to open up the wound, to ensure this sorry part of our history is never repeated.And it will be painful. We should all imagine, just for a moment, that Private Daniel Garforth was our own son, or grandson, brother or nephew.

At 19, he joined the ADF and was posted away from his family including his baby daughter.

He tried to leave but felt trapped and traumatised and belittled. He was fearful of being court-martialled or having charges laid or being accused of being AWOL.

And at just 21, he took his own life.

According to his mother Nikki Jamieson, he felt ‘betrayed’ by his chain of command. “They didn’t have his back,’’ she told the commission hearings which sat in Brisbane this week, before fanning out across the nation.

Before he died, Daniel wrote a note; a small piece of evidence that should provide clarity for all of us, not just the royal commission. “The thing that finally pushed me over the edge was this job,’’ he said. Constantly demoralised. Constantly ridiculed. “I just could not handle it any more.’’

Loyal to the core, his mother says, that later became his Achilles heel.

Loyalty and service are the two words that pop up, always, when we wave off a planeload of defence force personnel. Over the years, whether they’re headed for war zones or a humanitarian efforts, our pride is chest-bursting.

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They are our young men and women. Young people who want to serve their country. Young people not caught up with the bling of everyday life. Solid young people.

But out of sight, out of mind. When they return, some broken by what they’ve witnessed, we’re rarely there to welcome them. And support them.

Teri Bailey
Teri Bailey

This is our chance to change that. To ensure another young navy servicewoman, like Teri Bailey, doesn’t feel compelled to take her life.

Teri was allegedly told to “shut the f…up, get out of my office or I’ll break your other leg and throw you overboard” when she visited a senior officer to report physical and emotional abuse.

God help us. If that is the ‘support’ delivered to a young woman asking for help, we need to start building the ADF, from the ground up.

Teri Bailey ended her life on her 25th birthday.

Her case, along with Daniel’s and dozens of others, will be put to the commission. Every single one of them deserves our attention.

And we need to remember, while the commission will sort through the rot, our ADF is also filled with law-abiding good men and women, who want to serve their country.

But we need to imagine being the young wife, who leaves her sons in the car in the driveway, before racing inside to find out whether her husband is still alive.

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We need to imagine the lot of parents, whose son has returned from service angry, violent even, unable to sleep and with a new addiction he hopes will erase the memories of what he saw.

We need to know that Teri Bailey could be our daughter or our sister or our niece.

A final report will be delivered by the royal commission in mid-2023 and this story unfolding each day will be sad and frustrating and on some days, incredulous.

That storyline seems unavoidable. But the end chapter needs to be a strong, robust ADF which our children are lobbying to join. And we stand proud of their decision.

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