ANZAC Day 2016

Treating a simulated casualty.

ANZAC Day is an appropriate time to reflect on my RAAF service.

My time in the RAAF was one of the most professionally rewarding periods of my career. I met many wonderful people and had some amazing experiences. Without the sponsorship I received through the ADF Undergraduate Scheme I would not have been able to afford to study medicine. To a large extent I owe where I am today to the ADF.

But along with the opportunities it offered me there were many challenges that people outside the military may not appreciate. Even if you never see combat you are forced to confront aspects of yourself and others that you would often prefer not to acknowledge – that under pressure you are perhaps not as brave, not as tough and just not as nice as you once believed. As a military doctor you continually face conflicts of loyalty and moral and ethical dilemmas. And then there is the issue of the ADF having more or less complete control over your life – not only your working conditions and your career path, but your living conditions and social circumstances as well.

During my time in the RAAF I saw a young colleague deployed to Rwanda 6 weeks after she was married, who was never the same afterward. I knew servicemen suffering PTSD after being involved in aircraft or industrial accidents, at least one of whom refused to seek further treatment for his condition because he was concerned about the impact on his career of revealing the extent of his problems. I saw families with husband and wife both serving who were deliberately posted apart. I saw members facing medical discharges who were devastated by a process that felt as if they were being pushed out of their own family. I saw our forces increasingly deployed for purely political reasons, with those whose lives were actually on the line caught between a government’s bravado and an often hostile public.

I  experienced few of these adversities myself, partly because I was never deployed overseas but also, I suspect,  because retaining medical officers in the ADF has always been difficult so they tended to be treated a little better.

The recent news reports of the appallingly high rates of PTSD and suicide among veterans, many of whom feel abandoned by the ADF after suffering physical and psychological injuries as a result of their service, are something I have been reading with dismay.

The ADF is a resource which should not be squandered: it should be appropriately resourced for its purpose and its members well trained, thoughtfully deployed and well supported both during and after their service.


What are they thinking?


“Cable ties and restraint chairs are set to be approved for use on children in custody as young as 10 if new laws pass the NT Parliament next month.”

This is apalling. Not just in terms of the potential consequences for individual detainees, but what it says about the level of staff training and the underlying policies and attitudes.

There is already one example of this level of restraint being used on a minor in the NT for the alleged reason of “preventing self-harm” – completely counter-productive in this setting and guaranteed to compound the trauma that leads someone to consider self-harm in the first place. Detainees of any sort do not resort to serious self harm merely to get attention or to evade authority. It is an act of desperation.

The NT Attorney General is also quoted as saying that “achieving de-escalation is entirely in the hands of the detainee if they’re playing up”. This is patently untrue, and reflects a very poor understanding on his part of the psychology of power and the dynamics of imprisonment.

Yes, there will be extremely challenging situations in prisons. But especially when they involve individual detainees, and adolescents who lack the capacity for mature and considered decision-making, this is not the way to deal with those situations.

In a timely coincidence, last weekend I re-read some of the details from Phillip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford University Prison Experiment and some of his later writings, including discussion of how the knowledge gained from this research could have been used to anticipate and prevent situations such as occurred in Abu Ghraib prison, and attempts to replicate elements of the experiment by others (with exactly the same results). I can attest to the ease with which such situations develop based on my own experiences of well-intentioned but poorly thought out exercises in the military. Repeated experience tells us that we cannot pretend that “this will not happen to us”- it will.

We can do better.

ADDIT (27 May 2016) Unfortunately this law has now been passed.

ADDIT (26 July 2016)  Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs has called for an independent inquiry into the treatment of Northern Territory children in detention, which was revealed on the ABC Four Corners program on 25 July.



Safeguarding the right to say no


“Outcry as Muslim students exempt from shaking female teachers’ hands at Swiss school”

For the two students involved the reason given is one of religion – which in the current social and political climate tends to immediately raise hackles and unleash prejudices – but if we can look beyond that, the article should prompt each of us to examine our own beliefs about bodily autonomy – the right to decide who we will touch or let touch us and under what circumstances.

Too often we let “politeness” or social convention override discomfort or even personal safety. If a child grows up believing that they “have to” let aunty A pinch their cheek or uncle B tickle them, even if it makes them uncomfortable; or a young adult is made to believe that they are being insufferably rude if they don’t let Mrs C adjust their clothing, or Mr D hug them, even if they find it embarrassing or creepy, we are fostering a culture where that inner voice that warns them when something might not be okay is ruthlessly silenced and they learn that they do not have control over their own bodies but must defer to someone stronger, older or of higher social status. Abusers take full advantage of this. While it might be argued that only a tiny percentage of people are abusive, as we are seeing in the two recent Royal Commissions in Australia (into Institutional responses to child sexual abuse and Family violence), the resulting damage is massive. Allowing everyone, from the smallest child upwards, the right to say no is one step we can take in limiting the opportunities for that damage to occur.