When Julie-Ann's veteran son died by suicide, she worked on a petition. It prompted a Royal Commission.

More Australian veterans have taken their own lives than have been killed in active duty since our troops were first deployed to Afghanistan in 2001. It's a sobering statistic that has stuck in the minds of many.

This week the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide released its interim report after seeing more than 1,900 submissions and 194 witnesses. The findings and recommendations handed down paint a complex picture of the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

For years, it looked like this Royal Commission wouldn't take place. It's thanks to significant lobbying efforts by the veteran community that the government established the Royal Commission in 2021.

And one of the most high-profile campaigners for the establishment of the national inquiry was Julie-Ann Finney. Because for her, it was personal. And she knew change was desperately needed.

Julie-Ann's son David enlisted in the Australian Royal Navy at the age of 18, inspired by his father who had spent 25 years in the services. And for 20 years, David was a part of the Navy.

"He was a very, very proud sailor," Julie-Ann told Mamamia last year. "He loved his career - the travel, the friendships, the family, the challenges, the accolades, really everything about his career was good until he broke."

Around 2017, there were signs that David was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. He had been to Timor and Iraq during times of conflict, seeing the worst of humanity. 


"Every night he experienced nightmares and was waking up, sweating, crying and not being able to sleep."

Julie-Ann speaking about her son David. Story continues below.

Video via A Current Affair.

After an attempted suicide that left him in hospital, David was discharged from the Navy on medical grounds in December 2017. 

"When these young men and women break, the military discharges them medically. They never try to rehabilitate or get them back on track to work. They just discard them. And they have nothing to do with them again," Julie-Ann noted.

David knew he was suffering. He was not silent about his struggles and actively sought help. In an email that Julie-Ann found after her son's death, David had repeatedly asked the Australian Defence Force and the Department of Veterans' Affairs for help. 

He died by suicide in February 2019, two weeks before his 39th birthday.

For those who loved David, their grief will never subside. Julie-Ann started talking to other parents of veterans who had suicided and realised something needed to change. She found a stagnant petition online and rang the owner, a veteran, to ask if she could help. She ended up taking it over, telling her son's story to anyone who would listen. 


The petition, calling for an urgent Royal Commission into veteran suicide rates, attracted more than 400,000 signatures. Two years after the petition began, the government finally called for an inquiry.

Julie-Ann and her late son David Finney. Image: AAP/Supplied.


What we know so far from the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.

Since July 2021, the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide has had hearings across Australia, with more than 1,900 submissions and 194 witnesses sharing their experiences.

This week, the commissioners made 13 urgent recommendations in their interim report, which was handed to the Governor-General. These recommendations were considered so urgent that action is being call for now, with the Royal Commission not due to end for another two years.

Here's what we know.

 A hyper-masculine culture of 'tribalism'. 

Historical abuse suffered in the ADF has had an ongoing and often devastating impact on serving and ex-serving members, their families and loved ones. 

The interim report noted that there has been a consistent neglect to acknowledge the impact of a toxic culture on a veteran's mental health.

Experts interviewed for the Royal Commission said the culture fostered within the ADF was "hyper-masculine, commanded secrecy, had intense stigma against acknowledging injuries" - whether emotional, mental or physical - and that "tribalism is a root cause of misconduct".

It was also noted that the ADF's hierarchical structure further perpetuated a culture that "discouraged the reporting of abuse" and "mismanaged reports of abuse".

A significant backlog of Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) claims.

The Commission Chair Nick Kaldas said one of the most pressing issues was the unacceptable backlog of Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) claims - almost 62,000 claims as of June 2022 - that were still awaiting processing.


"We know that the long wait to receive entitlements can have a terrible effect on veterans' mental health and in some cases leads to suicide and suicidality," he said.

"Behind each claim is a veteran who needs support, and it is gravely important that this assistance is provided as quickly as possible - lives and livelihoods depend on it."

Listen to The Quicky for all your daily news updates. Story continues after audio.

Moving from military to civilian has been a key issue.

The transition period is often described as one of the most vulnerable times for a serving/ex-serving member.

The Royal Commission has so far found that the ADF is great at socialising civilians into the military. What needs further focus is directing that expertise and attention to transitioning them safely out too. 

As one veteran submission read: "My job was my everything, and to lose that made me feel like I was going to lose myself, and that life was no longer worth living. This challenge is still ongoing."

More accountability is needed.

Another urgent recommendation was highlighting the inefficiency of the Australian Government and the ADF to enact change and respond to previous reports.


Despite decades of scrutiny and calls for greater action, the Royal Commission found that the government formally responded to fewer than half of the 57 previous inquiries or reports submitted in relation to matters surrounding Defence and veteran suicide.

"We were dismayed to come to understand the limited ways that Australian Governments have responded to these previous inquiries and reports," the commissioners wrote.

They have said there should be a permanent independent body to report on the progress and quality of the implementation of recommendations from this Royal Commission and previous inquiries.

The Royal Commission underway. Image: AAP.


Ultimately, this week's interim report is one step in the process. A final report is due in 2024.

"We will continue to listen, consult and learn," Commissioner Kaldas said. "We want all current and former Defence personnel to go on to live long, happy and meaningful lives."

As Julie-Ann said, more needs to be done to support our veterans.

"I'm often asked how do I keep going? I just do, because it matters," she wrote this week. "Tonight I'm just a little sad because I wish David could see what a difference he is making. I wish they all could. To all who have lost, you know what I know. It hurts."

If you find yourself needing to talk to someone after reading this story, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

The Defence all-hours Support Line is a confidential telephone and online service for ADF members and their families 1800 628 036. Open Arms provides 24-hour free and confidential counselling and support for current and former ADF members and their families 1800 011 046.

Feature Image: AAP/Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide/Mamamia.

Want to win a $50 gift voucher? Complete this survey now to go in the running!