One came back in a Hercules after being killed by an IED in Afghanistan. The other took his own life on home soil.
They were both Australian special forces soldiers who were proud to serve their country — and they both left grieving families behind.
But when their widows came together, they were dismayed to find they had received different access to support services — in part, they say, because of how their husbands died.
Bree Till was pregnant when her husband JT was killed by an improvised explosive device. It was 2009, and he was on his first deployment to Afghanistan, working as a bomb technician.
“His job was to essentially walk up and eliminate that as a threat or potential harm to the people who were following. As a consequence for doing his job, he died,” Bree says.
Around eight years later, Gwen Cherne’s husband Peter, who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, took his own life.
He had had a stroke while deployed overseas, and struggled with mental health issues during his recovery at home.
“I think Pete was suffering from … post-traumatic stress. High levels of anxiety, stress levels were quite high and depression,” Gwen says.
The two women became friends after Bree turned up at Gwen’s house to offer her support following Peter’s death.
Bree was shocked to learn she had received more access to the domestic support services typically provided to widows and their families by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
Taking in everything from childcare to lawnmowing, the initiatives helped keep the day-to-day aspects of her life from falling apart.
But Gwen didn’t receive the same help, and Bree believes it’s because Peter did not die in active duty.
“I’ve got the opinion that regardless, grief is grief and loss is loss,” Bree says.
“I spoke to Gwen and found out that because her husband essentially didn’t fly home in a Hercules — because he had died at home as opposed to overseas — there was a different process and a different level of support available to her and her children.
“Suicide in itself is difficult enough, let alone to have a different experience [and] a different level of support. Surely if anything more support should be given … it’s a more difficult and confusing experience.”
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Gwen thought this demonstrated that the Army didn’t want to acknowledge that being in a war zone could have serious impacts on mental health.
“To say that it [doesn’t] is incredibly naive and ignorant,” she says through tears.
“I also believe it says we don’t believe that they’re heroes and so we don’t honour their service … which is really the point.
“It’s not necessarily the way they died that we should be honouring, it’s the fact that they served and that they gave their lives.”
Hand-delivered hate mail
While Gwen says she “had a different outcome” to Bree, she also points out that her husband’s unit provided a great deal of support.
“There were [unit] members and friends who sat with us all week and made sure we got through the logistics of the funeral, to make sure there was enough in place for us to be OK financially, that I could take some time off work,” she says.
“They checked in with me on a fortnightly, monthly basis and that’s including commanding officers, regimental sergeant majors, the major general. Our Special Operations Commander for Australia came and visited me.”
And while Bree says she received more support, her husband’s death brought its own challenges.
JT received a full military funeral, which meant her grief was more public.
“With that came an enormous amount of respect … but there were some incidents and things you probably wouldn’t expect,” Bree says.
“We had someone attend the funeral to deliver hate mail.”
The person who delivered that letter was Man Haron Monis — who would later be responsible for the deadly Lindt café siege in Sydney.
He also sent letters to Bree’s home, and to the families of other diggers. Some of the letters likened the soldiers to murderers; others said they were going to hell.
“We had things coming in the mail to myself and my family and JT’s family, and that continued it on for years to come,” Bree recalls.
Monis was later charged over the host of offensive letters. He was sentenced to 300 hours of community service and placed on a two-year good behaviour bond.
Uniting for change
Bree Till’s artworks, which her children have added to, depict the topography of Afghanistan, Cronulla and her family. (ABC RN: Tiger Webb)
Bree and Gwen are now working with the War Widows Guild of Australia NSW to close what they say are gaps in support for the families of fallen soldiers.
One of the things they’re pushing for is the establishment of family advocates, who act as a bridge between families and Army command.
“The advocate would be a way for families to access information and the command in a non-threatening way for [both] small things — when they move into a new location and posting — to larger things,” Gwen explains.
“I know that if I had had the ability to access Pete’s command without having to go to someone in uniform … I would have been able to find out more about the process of his recovery and what was happening … to provide support to him and also to raise flags when I saw that things were not going well.”
Bree Till (L) and Gwen Cherne are working to ensure all families receive the same support. (ABC RN: Tiger Webb)
The pair are also working to fight the stigma of mental health issues within the Defence Force.
A 2010 review of suicide and self-harm by veterans and members of the Australian Defence Force found 6.4 per cent of ADF members had had a depressive episode in the previous year.
It also found service men and women between the ages of 18 and 37 showed higher rates of depressive disorders than the broader Australian community.
The report also revealed that many ADF members and veterans had not sought assistance because they feared doing so may have restricted their career opportunities. That’s a notion Gwen is familiar with.
Peter only sought professional help once. He hid his mental health struggle from the Army, afraid he might lose his job if they knew.
And while Gwen noted there was no tangible reason for that fear, that didn’t make it any less real for Peter.
“I think, still, there is a stigma within the defence forces around mental health and it does impact careers, and the serving members and veterans have seen it impact careers,” he says.
“That is very scary to many serving men and women.”
Rethinking mental illness: ‘It’s nothing extraordinary’
Gwen says the key to change is encouraging the idea that mental health issues can — and do — affect all types of people.
“We actually have to approach it in a way that shows our serving men and women that this is par for the course — this isn’t something extraordinary,” Gwen says.
“When I was pregnant and went to hospital, the idea of post-natal depression was something that I was expecting as a possibility and [I] knew what those services were in order to support myself.
“If our serving men and women go into war zones and we tell them that they will come out being affected by their service and then we provide them with consistent support — and it’s a requirement, it’s an expectation when they come home — that in of itself would begin to change the culture.”
A family portrait by one of Bree Till’s children, who explained: “Daddy is the star.” (ABC RN: Tiger Webb)
They are confident the change will happen.
“I know Bree and myself have an army of women and men behind us supporting us quite literally to help change and make things better for families and for serving men and women and veterans,” Gwen says.
“I do believe that our work with the Commanding Officer for Australia Special Operations, as well as the Chief of Army, [has] worked quite a bit to ensure that families are more included.”
Gwen says the next step is to ensure a greater support for widows and their families through the Department of Veterans Affairs and Defence, and ex-serving organisations such as the War Widows Guild, Legacy and Commando Welfare Trust RSL.
“[We want] to make sure that where the government stops and those services begin is a more continuous process and that those holes get filled for those families so that they can connect together and provide that real support,” she says.
The Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs have been contacted for comment.