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I have taken the last few months to travel and meet with a considerable number of Veterans and their families who have reached out following the release of the Brereton Report in November last year.  In my travels, I met with Veterans, Mothers, Wives, Husbands, Fathers and Children from all across our country including Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, the Gold & Sunshine Coasts, and Townsville. I listened to accounts that made me shocked, saddened, disappointed and disgusted at the way that these Australian Citizens had been treated. With Australia Day just passed, the irony of just how un-Australian some of the stories and information I have seen first hand is not lost on me. Further examples of premeditated punishment and confirmation of the toxic leadership culture being exerted by senior leaders in our Defence Force, specifically the Chief of Army and those he must answer to.

I listened as wives told me how they watched their husbands deteriorate from proud patriots, with over 20 years service in the Army, to being so fearful that they would take their own lives. Mothers told me how they were torn apart deciding to send their children across the country to live with their Grandparents during the middle of the COVID pandemic, because they were more fearful for their safety at home. Fearful because they had been contacted in name, address and private phone number by members of the Australian media. They went further to detail how these media representatives suggested to them that they could make these details public should the family be unwilling to support an article or provide comment. These accounts came directly from the families of those who have already had actions taken against them by the Australian Defence Force before and after the official release in November 2020.

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I heard of how during the conduct of the Brereton Inquiry, so adamantly conducted “at arms length” from the Australian Defence Force, actions were still initiated as far back as March 2020 to remove current serving members from active service. The removal of their financial allowances and placing them on restrictions that included denying them the ability to travel from their home city or even go onto the military base of their employed unit without prior approval and the requirement to be accompanied at all times. I heard of the complete isolation of these military personnel and their families from their workplace supervisors and support. I heard of perceivable corruption of the Defence Administrative process to coerce members of the Army to seek medical discharge from service as “their best option” to ensure that they could support their families, prior to any evidence brought against them. 

As I sat and listened to these Australians, often coming to tears as they also told of the incredible trauma this has caused their families, marriages, children and trust in our democratic values let alone rights, I continued to ask one simple question: Have any charges been laid? With every response: No. I even went further to ask: Have you been questioned by the Police? Every response: No.

Then with the issuing of notices calling for their termination from the Army, Christmas and New Years carried very different emotions for dozens of Australian families as they ‘endured’ these periods without response, filled with uncertainty for their futures, families and fundamental democtratic rights. In addition to this, mid-year posting orders are set to be issued to those other Special Forces Veterans who fought in Afghanistan during the Brereton Report period but not personally accused. This latter circumstance is not standard practice, with the regular posting cycle at years end, but has been made personally legitimate under the Chief of Army's (Lieutenant-General Rick Burr) Workplace Modernisation Plan (officially), “Cultural Purge” (unofficially from those within). 

Of all the questions and emotions that arose, I simply found myself asking: Have any charges been laid? Why are these actions being taken now - in 2020 & 2021, when it has been 7+ years since the last Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) returned from Afghanistan (2013)?  What impact are these actions having on the culture within the Special Forces, Army & Australian Defence Force today?


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…Many felt their conscience had been wounded, felt abandoned and left with moral injury as they watched the authoritative actions of a few senior leaders tarnish the reputation and trust of the many who have and continue to serve.

During my travels I continued to provide these questions to current and former serving Veterans of all ranks, trades and experiences. Their answers were powerful and, to the very last person, filled with disgust and outrage at our most senior Military & Political leaders. Many felt their conscience had been wounded, felt abandoned and left with moral injury as they watched the authoritative actions of a few senior leaders tarnish the reputation and trust of the many who have and continue to serve. Many veterans spoke of how this had not only caused them to feel tarnished and ashamed at the lack of leadership and responsibility, but how for some it had left them and their families to seriously question their purpose for service under such toxic leaders - and query how they could identify with, let alone trust them after such actions in front of the Australian public and global media. 

However, many veterans did present some hope in the realisation that the Australian public have now been provided with their first and front row seats to finally see these toxic leaders and their culture of securing personal and political advantage through focusing their service and support those above but not below their rank or authority. When queried on the announcement of key positions to the Office of the Special Investigator, many veterans again expressed hope.

 

Hope that perhaps we might return to due process and await any actual charges to be laid for judicial process, and hope for the media to also appreciate this and move on from questions and provocations seeking comment on opinions, rumours or interpretations. Hope that respect and integrity may be restored to democratic process and public opinion.

My hope is that all actions from here will allow this due process the support and integrity it requires. We must also ensure that the actions of a few toxic leaders, witnessed first hand by all Australians and indeed the world, do not further tarnish the reputation of those who have and continue to serve. While some may speak of ‘a few bad eggs’ - culture comes down from those who lay the path by example for others to follow. What I have heard in the accounts and anger from the wider veteran community now cause greater concern. Because it is obvious that the Army and Defence Chief, currently entrusted to lay this path and example, no longer do so with the moral authority or authentic purpose once entrusted.

We must now work to further support these Veterans, their families, and all Australians, to bring more transparency and truth to the forefront of these conversations and the accountability that must follow, up and down the chain of command.

Heston Russell

Retired Special Forces Major

Founder - Voice Of A Veteran

 

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