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Tess Ikonomou and Belad Al-karkhey

ADF spells 'disruptive' life for struggling members

Angus Campbell has pledged to do better to care for ADF men, women and veterans. (HANDOUT/ROYAL COMMISSION INTO DEFENCE AND VETERAN SUICIDE)

While relocation might sound like a travel opportunity, Australian Defence Force members with families say the price of strained relationships and worsening mental health is too costly.

Such stress can further the risk of fatal self harm, the federal Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide was told on Thursday.

Lives disrupted as a result of "tight rental markets and hard to find homes" and parents forced to fret over settling kids into schools only for them to "relocate back all the way onto the other side of the country" a few years later.

Testifying exclusively on the final day of hearings at the long-running inquiry in Sydney, Chief of the Australian Defence Force General Angus Campbell said he did not think housing was a significant issue but openly acknowledged the risk of relationship strain.

While he could "absolutely agree" there could be housing stress, General Campbell pointed to rent allowance and house payment schemes offered to the nation's soldiers, sailors and aviators.

Angus Campbell
Angus Campbell say a lot of effort goes in to providing housing options for personnel. (HANDOUT/ROYAL COMMISSION INTO DEFENCE AND VETERAN SUICIDE)

"A great deal of effort goes to providing housing options for people so they don't find themselves in a setting in which there is no housing option for them," he said.

About half the accommodation cost is paid by the government, according to the chief, depending on a member's circumstances when posted. 

Escalated housing pressures born from the COVID-19 pandemic and living cost challenges has led to that increasing to about 55 per cent.

Other issues raised included reports, largely from women, of sexual harassment, and unsafe work environments.

General Campbell said the ADF was working to make military members, particularly women, feel more "confident they can raise concerns".

He highlighted cases when reporting had led to disciplinary or civil action, or the person chose "not to pursue" but was supported.

ADF hearing
The hearing was told parents stress over settling kids into schools only to have to move again. (Dave Hunt/AAP PHOTOS)

Commission counsel member Erin Longbottom KC criticised the general's lack of talk on proactive measures addressing "unacceptable behaviour".

"Again, you're just generally talking about reactive measures with sexual misconduct," she said.

"Those policies have to do more than just have a system that responds well when sexual misconduct occurs and also needs to proactively take steps to cancel risks."

General Campbell agreed culture was only a protective factor when the system was functioning well.

Poor culture continues to be a significant challenge whether it is "expressed in the smallest groups or larger settings", he said.

More than 25 per cent of members report experiences of unacceptable behaviour, Ms Longbottom said, a statistic that has "largely stayed static since at least 2018".

General Campbell apologised to personnel and veterans for the military's failures and pledged to do better.

"Our people deserve and should rightly expect the support and care they need both during and after their service," he said.

"I acknowledge this has not always been the case and tragically it's led to the deaths by suicide of some of our people.

Chief of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) Angus Campbell
Angus Campbell says Defence has a "great deal of work to do" to win back the trust of veterans. (HANDOUT/ROYAL COMMISSION INTO DEFENCE AND VETERAN SUICIDE)

"Defence is committed and I am committed to doing better.

"I apologise unreservedly for these deficiencies."

General Campbell said the courage of those who came forward to share their experiences was deeply admirable.

"I sincerely appreciate the efforts of those who have contributed to my learning and our deeper understanding of suicide and suicidality and its enduring aftermath," he said.

ADF members of different ranks attended the hearings so that evidence given at the royal commission would flow through the military for generations to come, he said.

The royal commission was adjourned after Thursday's hearing until the Ceremonial Closing Sitting in Sydney on August 28.

Its final report is due to be handed down in September.

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