Sunday, 11 July 2021, saw the anticlimactic announcement that the last of Australia’s military personnel have been withdrawn from Afghanistan, a conflict that saw over 39,000 veterans deployed over the 20 years our country committed to the coalition against terrorism. During the conflict, 41 Australian Veterans lost their lives, with over 700 more lost to suicide during the same period, as the true cost of our deployment continues to be realised.
For the majority of Australians back home, our country’s commitment to this far away land was an initial focal point post the September 11 attacks on the United States. However, since then, much like our political strategy in the conflict, we have heard silence except for commemorating those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, or those who won the highest awards our country can offer.
What we have not heard is of the true commitment and success of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and women who, for two decades, represented our country to the finest of our national values. Australian Defence personnel who earned the reputation of being feared by our enemies, loved by the locals, and first-pick partners and allies within the coalition of the willing.
Instead, the Australian public is now seeing images and reports of the Taliban re-claiming the land we fought to free. We are left to watch as bureaucrats try to explain the red tape and paper stacks that are preventing those who fought and worked alongside us, and their families, from being protected from assured death. Payment for their loyalty to our democratic ways.
It is during these times as the question of “was it worth it?” grows louder, that we’re seeing some of the greatest injuries and wounds appear. Was it worth those we lost? Was it worth those who still suffer today? What about those who are left behind? What about the billions it has cost the Australian taxpayers? How is it that our veterans, who went at the call of our country to take action as the final means of diplomacy, are the ones now being asked these questions?
As we stand at the start of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, we already know how damaging and deadly this path of doubt and uncertainty is.
After the Prime Minister held a media conference to announce the commencement of the Royal Commission, we again failed to hear or see any proactive support or real understanding of how difficult this emotionally charged and triggering period is likely to be for thousands of veterans and their families.
It is those Veterans and Family members who must now come forward and give their accounts of the systemic failings in our veteran affairs and support systems that have driven so many to contemplate suicide, or to have a loved one take their own life. Prepared lines like, “Call this number if you need help”, and “we have dedicated additional resources”, merely tick the boxes required to meet mediocrity. They are continuing to miss the mark where it counts.
Our withdrawal from Afghanistan should have been a time to celebrate and commemorate those who went forward to represent our country and everything our ANZAC spirit represents. Instead, during this time of pandemic and when our nation is in crisis, the withdrawal from Afghanistan has become a footnote, lost under the piles of red tape and paperwork that otherwise consume our political powers.
Our political leaders need to understand that those who proudly and patriotically served are simply left wondering why.