Karen Bird tells Defence Royal Commission about son Jesse Bird’s death

A mum who lost her veteran son to suicide has hit out at what she calls a “delay, deny, die” culture within the Australian Defence Force.

Karen Bird warned bureaucratic sclerosis has fatal effects for soldiers, sailors and airmen suffering through mental health challenges.

“These three words are well recognised across the veteran sector,” Karen Bird said during her testimony at the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide on Tuesday.

“They were coined by people who work in the support of Australian veterans and their families.

“I adopted this phrase from about 2016-17 when I realised this was my son’s experience.”

Dr Bird lost her son Jesse to suicide in June 2017.

Jesse served Australia in Afghanistan and struggled with mental health issues on his return to civilian life.

Jesse put in claims for assistance to the Department of Veterans Affairs but what Dr Bird called “malfeasance and maladministration” prevented him from receiving support in a timely manner.

“His suicide was preventable because he had a really good family behind him,” she said, her voice breaking.

Dr Bird said her son lodged support claims with the DVA but the claims were not logged, meaning they were not actioned by the Department, pushing out wait times for a response.

In May 2017, the commission heard Jesse’s claim for incapacity payments, or payments to veterans who cannot work due to injuries from their service, was denied, with Jesse called back in six months for another assessment.

Dr Bird said the rejection letter may have tipped her son into death.

“That was probably the final straw for Jesse,” she said.

“I think he lost hope.”

Deaths by suicide have taken the lives of 1600 servicemen and women between 1997 and 2020 or 20 times the number of service personnel killed on active duty.

In one harrowing moment, Dr Bird told the commission how the two police officers who retrieved Jesse’s body were also connected to the Defence force, with one a veteran and the other the wife of a veteran.

The police officers pleaded with Dr Bird to pursue a coronial inquest into Jesse’s death, she told the commission, because they were “sick of turning up to the suicides of their ex-friends and associates.”

“I chased it and chased it and chased it … from 2017 through various stages of grief,” she said.

An inquest into Jesse’s death, led by coroner Jacqui Hawkins, was delivered in 2020.

An earlier Defence-led review into Jesse’s passing was handed down in September 2017.

The report delivered 19 recommendations to improve the treatment and experience of veterans seeking help, with one recommending the DVA “put in place controls to ensure process of registration of claims is consistently followed when needs assessment is received and not delayed by other information that is not yet provided.”

The commission has held multiple hearings around the country and has received some 230,000 documents, 4165 submissions and heard from 280 witnesses, drilling into the complex mental health challenge.

Dr Bird highlighted Australian government reports from post-World War 1 to argue the problem of suicide and post-conflict trauma now roiling Australia’s contemporary defence community was not a new one.

“You would think that vets just appeared on the Australian landscape just very recently,” she said.

She said governments then had struggled to repatriate Australian veterans back into civilian life after the horrors of the war and the same failures had extended into the present.

Dr Bird offered up a number of recommendations to improve outcomes for veterans suffering through mental health and navigating Defence’s complex bureaucracy.

For one thing, Dr Bird said legal representation should be provided to veterans and their families to back them in their challenges with Defence.

“Justice costs a lot of money in this country,” she said, noting the ADF had access to in-house legal teams and public money to fund their legal disputes.

“It’s an unequal playing field.”

The commission has heard from multiple witnesses who have lost loved ones to suicide, including mum Julie-Ann Finney, who lost her son David, a navy veteran, and navy diver John Armfield, who lost his brother, RAAF Leading Aircraftman Andrew Armfield.

“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” Mr Armfield said in emotional testimony.

“You do something about this or I will.

“This is my little brother, it’s not going away.”

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