Soldiers coached for stress claims - 1 May 2007

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Mark Dodd, ABC

The filing of civil claims for shell shock by 1200 of the estimated 16,000 veterans of the East Timor peacekeeping operation has rung alarm bells in defence circles.

The high incidence of compensation claims for post-traumatic stress disorder from the East Timor operation has been attacked as disproportionate, particularly when compared with the stresses under which troops operate in the far more dangerous Iraqi and Afghan theatres.

The Australia Defence Association warned yesterday lawyers and advisers were coaching veterans on how to seek taxpayer-funded payouts for the disorder also known as war neurosis or combat fatigue.

"There's a growing industry of people coaching soldiers how to put in a PTSD claim," said Neil James, the association's executive director.

"In East Timor there have been more than 1200 claims. It's illogical and out of all commonsense proportion."

Mr James said counter-insurgencies like those in Afghanistan and Iraq were more stressful and brutal than conventional military campaigns, let alone East Timor where the Diggers faced militiamen and criminals armed with machetes and light automatic weapons.

He stressed claims involving returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan - of whom up to five had committed suicide - were legitimate as the Diggers were subjected to the threat of suicide, rock-propelled grenade and roadside bomb attack.

The warning was backed by Veterans Affairs Minister Bruce Billson, who said he had anecdotal reports of aggressive tactics from some law firms.

"It would not surprise us as some legal firms are extremely aggressive and proactive when it comes to sourcing potential clients," Mr Billson said.

It is understood many of the claims were lodged under the Veterans Entitlements Act, which covers peacekeeping operations.

A total of 35,000 servicemen and women have served in East Timor but this also includes troops deployed more than once. Australia's involvement peaked with the Interfet-deployment in 1999 that involved operations against anti-independence militias.

Between 2004-2006 more than 236 PTSD claims had been lodged by East Timor veterans, of which 195 were upheld.

Over the same period ex-servicemen and women lodged a total of 3200 claims after serving in other theatres, including East Timor.

Mr Billson said 2761 claims were upheld - an acceptance rate of about 80per cent.

The minister said the department's compensation system and support services were designed to be pro-veteran and to not require legal representation. However, civil action was common.

"Beyond the statutory compensation system, some veterans may choose civil legal options as remedies," Mr Billson said.

The Defence Department confirmed it kept no records of PTSD claims. A spokesman said the issue was managed by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

At the weekend, the Medical Association for the Prevention of War accused the Australian Defence Force and federal Government of covering up a looming mental health crisis among veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan by not engaging in a clinical study.

It said a recent study of 104,000 US soldiers who had served in Iraq showed more than 31per cent were suffering mental illness.

"What we've been concerned about for some time now is there is no long-term study into the health consequences of Australian soldiers being in the Iraq war," said spokesman Robert Marr.

"Just being in Iraq is a very stressful situation - you don't know who the enemy is.

"It's like living in a house with a psychopath who could come out and kill you any time."

Mr Billson urged serving and former soldiers to take full advantage of counselling services for combat stress.

"For many young people in the defence forces an almost macho style of outlook means that many might not be aware of the emotional stresses they are experiencing and the impact that may have on their wellbeing," Mr Billson said.

The Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, rejected claims of shabby mental health support for returning veterans.

"The importance of the mental health of ADF personnel was just as important as their physical wellbeing," he said.