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The Why, What and How of a Network of Veteran Community Hubs

 

Executive Summary

The veteran community is not supported to the extent most Australians believe it should be, and the evidence of inadequate care is a decade of inquiries and reviews that led to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.

Positive and proactive management of the veteran community care ecosystem is needed. Like many government agencies, this could be achieved by establishing a regional control model centred on operationally funded non-profit organisations.

A whole-of-government approach is required to coordinate efforts nationally and regionally. Nationally, DVA should take control with direct and close support from the Departments of Defence and Health and support from other Federal agencies that have veterans as clients and customers. Locally, a network of veteran community hubs responsible to DVA achieve a similar coordinating role in the regions working with other regional federal agencies' offices.

Hubs in regions are community centres for all veterans and their families. They provide a place to feel safe and connected, a referral service to the plethora and complex array of programs and services available to veterans and the general community. They are also the centre of ESO operations for the region, ensuring a cohesive and collaborative approach to what each is attempting to achieve.

Defence cannot effectively support the transition of serving veterans and their families from one side of the transition divide. Working closely with an agency with detailed local knowledge to work with ADF Transition Centres on the civilian side of transition is imperative.

Hubs need to support real connections in a safe environment, especially connections that support integration into the civilian community. They must be trusted by serving and ex-serving veterans and families to have their interests first and to collaborate with other agencies, especially ADF Transition Centres and Primary Health Networks and all others on the civilian side, especially those related to health, skilling and employment. They must know the best programs and services available, and which ones serve the veteran community best, and support effective navigation. The hubs must be networked with other hubs directed by a single authority and have paid staff who learn and adapt routinely, retaining detailed corporate knowledge.

They should be tasked with establishing and supporting a relationship with serving veterans and their families to get them thinking about their future. This will support a better decision to separate from the ADF for the right reasons when the time comes. They should work closely with ADF Transitions, especially to support the actual move by veterans and families across the transition divide and, once separated, do all necessary to make the veteran care ecosystem as cohesive and effective as possible, leading other regional-based federal agencies, ESOs, and all service providers to align services in the interests of the veteran community.

The result would be fewer mental health-related symptoms in veterans, especially immediately either side of transition. These health-related issues also significantly adversely affect veterans’ families and the communities within which they live after service to their country. They also waste significant resources due to uncoordinated programs and services from governments and others through duplication, overlap and gaps.

 

 

Introduction

The veteran community is not supported to the extent Australians believe it should be, and the evidence of inadequate care has led to over a decade of inquiries and reviews and eventually to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.

DVA should lead the significant efforts of all government agencies that support the health and wellbeing of the veteran community. This could be achieved by establishing a regional model of operationally funded non-profit organisations. Taking positive control over the veteran care ecosystem is likely to not only reduce the instances of mental health problems in veterans but also reduce wasted resources, particularly in underutilised and non-complementary programs across governments. A DVA-directed and funded network of hubs covering designated areas around Australia could focus on aligning the programs of other regional representatives of federal agencies and the relevant state government. Many of these other agencies have significant numbers of veterans as a component of their client/customer base. Most actively seek, but fail to receive, direction and guidance within their regions to best support their veteran community.

This article describes why a network of veteran community hubs is needed and could significantly enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the veteran community wellbeing ecosystem, what they should do to have the best effect, and how they could achieve it.

 

A Regional Model

he whole-of-government approach must begin with a mechanism at the national strategic level to deconflict and align responsibility for how programs by Federal agencies that affect veteran community care can be best executed in the interests of veterans. This is particularly important over the different stages of the life of a veteran and their family, specifically from towards the end of service in the ADF and transition through to their next career back into the civil community. The period of most concern and greatest need for collaboration is ‘transition’ when at least Defence, DVA, Department of Health and Aging, Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation (CSC) and Services Australia have responsibilities or interests.

Despite some consultation and coordination with DVA at the strategic level, other Commonwealth Government department programs are executed at the regional level with little consideration of local veteran communities. This is particularly pronounced in areas with high veteran community density. DVA lacks a local/regional level (or what ADF members would refer to as an ‘operational level’ that sits between the strategic and tactical levels) representation that can lead and support collaboration with other Commonwealth Government agencies that are represented at the local level. This is also true for state government agencies, non-government organisations and ESOs. Consequently, many disparate, uncoordinated programs executed locally could benefit veteran community members but miss the mark for want of other programs that are not complementary. They would be more effective if a capable organisation with the authority to represent DVA in the region had the lead. This would be an authority that others wanting to improve the lot of the veteran community are looking for.

A DVA network of operationally funded regional veteran community hubs would provide the input DVA needs for effective engagement in a national oversight mechanism. Each not-for-profit veteran community hub, with a designated area of responsibility and a known number of veterans within it, would answer to DVA and coordinate with local agencies on the needs and recommendations for the application of programs for their veteran communities. This DVA network of hubs could be tasked to coordinate with local agencies of stakeholder government departments and other local agencies (including state and local government) and report to DVA for alignment with the priorities of the national oversight mechanism. An example of how this is done now is the Department of Health’s 31 funded Primary Health Networks (PHN) across Australia that assess the healthcare needs of their community and commission health services through funds provided by the Department of Health to meet those needs. Likewise, Defence has 16 ADF Transition Centres at major bases around Australia that provide services to support ADF units and service personnel to prepare for their transition to civilian life, particularly through the application of national Defence contracted programs. There is a general expectation by other local/regional agencies in the veteran care ecosystem that DVA has the responsibility, or at least the consultation lead, for the care of veterans and their families. Yet, they find it difficult to establish appropriate consultations from the local level with the Commonwealth Government department in Canberra. DVA’s Veteran Access Network (VAN) offices do not do this – they are individual client access points only.

 

Why are they needed?

The value the hubs could bring to supporting the veteran community is best explained by understanding why they are well-placed to address the issues associated with the most challenging life event for a serving veteran – returning to the civilian community.

While Defence has transition arrangements that have significantly improved in recent years, it is unreasonable to expect that Defence can most effectively transition serving veterans back to the civilian community without harmonised support on the civilian side of the transition divide. Each of Defence’s 16 ADF Transition Centres would benefit from a relationship with an organisation directed by the department responsible for ex-serving veterans that complements their transition efforts.  DVA-funded veteran community hubs in local communities would provide a unifying purpose to the many other Commonwealth and state government agencies that support civilian communities and ensure they are veteran-aware, if not veteran-focused. The result would be programs and services that align and focus on veterans and families where that is appropriate making them more effective and more efficient.  

The ’why’ starts with veterans and their families having unique challenges that are well understood and are not generally within the remit or expertise of the ADF Transition Centres or the ADF chain of command but can be supported by a hub on the civilian side.

  • ADF Culture is so different. Life outside the ADF is relatively complex compared to the structure and order of life while serving in the ADF.

  • Expectations of the length of service are generally overestimated. Many servicewomen and men believe they signed up to serve their country for a lifetime of service or at least with no consideration for their next job. The reality is most will serve less than seven years. The transition occurs most often sooner than expected.

  • Navigation of the complex support ecosystem on the civilian side is difficult. An individual’s ability to navigate the many services that might help them to transition and settle into life after transition is particularly challenging. While the experience of most is that while serving, personal administrative tasks can be completed utilising singular, clear and well-described processes, this is not the case in the civilian world.

  • Maintaining ADF identity and adapting that identity to the new reality post-transition can be very challenging. An individual’s identity as a member of the ADF is strong. Most veterans have made life-long friends even only after the rigours of recruit training. Connection with mates, peers and others with a shared life experience in the ADF is essential but can be difficult to maintain after transition. Connections to the local civilian community are also essential. Both provide an inoculation against isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and depression. Many veterans need help to appreciate the need to adapt their ADF identity to accommodate their new civilian and workplace community to thrive.

  • A poor transition often manifests itself long after two years post-transition. Support provided to a veteran and their family during the transition out of the ADF can be better followed through after transition, especially after two years post-transition (at which time Defence support ceases), by an organisation outside Defence. This is especially the case for veterans who leave with a mental health condition that makes then uncomfortable return to a military base.

  • Most veterans consider DVA and the ESO community their principal source of support. In doing so, they often miss the opportunities afforded the rest of the community that does not have the same special attention of a Commonwealth department. Examples are Medicare, Centrelink, NDIS and My Aged Care.

  • Most organisations in the ESO Community deal with a specific demographic and limited functions. It is not easy for those transitioning, who would often be entitled to belong to several ESOs, to find and be supported by an ESO that might be able to help. A hub can ensure connection to the appropriate ESOs, especially if funding is funnelled through the hub to which the ESO needs to remain connected to be most effective.

 

The ADF and Department of Defence also have challenges, and in particular, those closest to the transitioning individual are not well-equipped or focused on transitions.

  • The ADF is busy preparing to defend the nation and its people. Support for transition from an individual’s unit is often inadequate (confirmed by exit surveys of transitioning veterans), which is at least partially understandable given the operations and training focus of units and commanders. Life in the unit goes on at pace while individuals complete the checklist to transition, even with the support of ADF Transition Centres. This is human nature.

  • The immediate chain of command generally lacks experience and knowledge regarding transition. Members of an individual’s unit chain of command feel justifiably unqualified to offer advice on life after transition, especially as most had their last taste of civilian life when they left their parents’ home and joined the ADF as a teenager.

 

A lack of organisational support compounds these individual issues.

  • Defence-offered transition services are generally accessed too late.  Too many serving veterans give little thought to transition until they sign an AC853 (a Defence form announcing to the ADF chain of command, posting and promotion authorities the intention to transition). There is often an epiphany moment that brings potential transition into focus. By then, it is typically too late as the serving ADF member has already convinced themselves, their family and their friends that it is necessary and will happen. The time to prepare has gone, and it is now largely a checklist process to separate. This is compounded by those leaving involuntarily, who are often even less prepared.

  • Transition services offered on a ‘needs-basis’ alienate those who perceive they send the wrong signals to colleagues and supervisors if they engage these services. Some secrecy before completing the AC853 is often considered necessary in order not to incur consternation and ribbing from colleagues for what may only be an attempt to be better prepared for the inevitable transition. Early and mandatory guidance is needed. The first challenge is to convince those joining the ADF they need to prepare.

 

Aside from why two organisations working on each side of the transition divide is important, a hub could enhance the collective effort of the local ESO community. A hub answerable to DVA, with a focus on the veteran community as a whole, and from which the ESO community received direct support, could improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the veteran community care ecosystem in local areas. Most of the thousands of ESOs identified in the Aspen Foundation study are small and local and have unique demographics defined by service, branch/corps or theatre of operations; limited and selective functions/services; and generally, do not involve families. Most of these ESOs survive largely on volunteers and grants. At present, they generally bid directly to DVA for support. However, DVA has few mechanisms to coordinate or prioritise its efforts in regions nor a mechanism to appreciate and report on the needs, gaps and effectiveness of ESO communities by region. The cohesion of ESO operations in regions could be further enhanced if grants were funnelled through the hubs. A local grant program would provide greater incentive for ESOs to ensure proposals matched regional needs and fit with other ESO activities when the relevance of the activity proposed had local scrutiny. The key is approval/recommendation by a body that understands the region's veteran community needs, noting, “You get the behaviour you reward”. Grants approved in Canberra generally go to those who write the best grant applications and are often the subject of derision by local veteran communities for the perceived inequitable distribution of funds.

 

What do they do?

The hubs are physical locations at which veterans, young and old and their families feel they are among others who have an appreciation for who they are. They feel safe. This is paramount. A hub supports connections, is the font of knowledge on where to get the best support as a veteran and a civilian, and can be trusted by all to have the veteran's back first and foremost. To achieve this, the hubs must be networked across Australia, and must be adequately staffed with paid employees who learn and adapt routinely, importantly building corporate knowledge.

Although ‘respect’ is often taken as parades, recognition and remembrance services, the real need is for veterans and their families to feel safe and respected, particularly in a physical location where others in the veteran community can gather. This cannot be done virtually, and this effect across all the tribes in the ADF, cannot be applied from within the narrow demographics of smaller ESOs. These ESOs become the spokes of the hub for special attention when stronger camaraderie is needed, not to mention other more specific services many of them provide. A feeling of safety is often not recognised by veterans until they feel it. This is most important soon after transition but is a factor that returns periodically throughout their lives after service.

Although commonly accepted as relevant to everyone, the need for the right connections is more pronounced in the veteran community due to the teams and bonds formed in service to the nation and the devotion of families to their veteran’s service. This is especially significant for veterans, noting the AIHW's recent finding that Veterans in poor mental health were nearly twice as likely to have infrequent social contact (47%) as persons who had never served in the ADF (26%). Physical connection and interaction while doing something of common interest is very important. A hub that encourages and facilitates veteran community members to come together with other members of the veteran community and, importantly, with members of the local community is of great benefit, especially as the need to gain and maintain a network outside the ADF becomes more important. “Let’s meet at my place”. The hub must offer the space to conduct connection activities that members of the veteran community need in the location of the hub.

The veteran community needs support to navigate the civilian ‘sea of help’ available to support them. However, this can be challenging, given the degree to which they have been sheltered from civilian bureaucracy while serving. The plethora of online service directories for veterans is evidence of this. Regionally based hubs are most likely to have a good grasp of the information requirements and services available to the veteran community, especially if operating with DVA authority and leading collaboration of other government agency efforts for the veteran community in their areas.

Veterans and their partners are likelier to listen to and respond to those they trust. This reinforces what is widely known in all communities. In the veteran community, advice and information from peers and those with lived experience of ADF service is much preferred.  It is particularly relevant when ADF members are considering transition. The development of the peer network in Open Arms regional offices around Australia is a good example of addressing this need. Veteran community hubs offer the opportunity for accurate information and choices to be presented. DVA could own a trusted and uniform information environment for the veteran community via its network of hubs.

Veterans and their families would benefit greatly from the entire network of hubs utilising the same systems for effective referrals to each other across Australia. It would also be very helpful if they were aligned to an appropriate ADF Transition Centre. This would facilitate early involvement in the lives of serving veterans and families well before they contemplate separating from the Australian Defence Force. They also need to employ paid staff for consistency of service and being able to adapt quickly enough based on lessons and feedback.

It is also worth noting that all state governments recognise community centres, in general, as contributing positively to public health and reducing healthcare costs, especially through reduced social isolation. Significant evidence is available on the social value of community centres where activities are available.

How do they do it?

The Veteran Community Hubs have three key tasks. The first relates to establishing a relationship with serving veterans to get them thinking of the future, including remaining in the ADF, and to recognise the inevitability of transition; the second concerns support for the actual move by veterans and families across the transition divide; and the third is the long-term task of supporting the ex-serving veteran community, that can only be done by an organisation in the civil community.

 

The veteran hubs undertake three key tasks:

A.  Enable early appreciation and planning by ADF members.​

  • This should be achieved in the first year of service – in the first posting after completing recruit and initial employment training (also recommended by Dr Boss, Interim National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention) – and it must be mandatory, not on a ‘needs basis,’ so there is less likelihood of stigma associated with what should be considered best practice for preparation of the inevitable transition.

  • It needs to be executed by an organisation outside Defence and trusted by ADF members to commence early planning for transition without perceived fear of adverse implications for ongoing ADF service and will involve working closely with, and complementary to, ADF Transition Centres and the many other government and non-government organisations at all levels.

  • The organisation needs to be staffed by a paid workforce (not reliant on volunteers) with appropriate lived experience and skills and be funded by the government, not poker machines, alcohol, lotteries, chook raffles or the vagaries of grants to ensure sustained operations.

B.  Support transitioning serving veterans navigating the complex civil-social ecosystem.

  • This requires that the hub acts as a single point of entry to the civilian-side of the wellbeing ecosystem, has detailed knowledge of appropriate support to the local veteran community and can suitably refer to the most appropriate services of all types, including harnessing the capability of the ESO community. It needs staff with detailed knowledge and experience and comprehensive access to civilian support and community connections.

  • ADF members must trust the hubs to provide comprehensive guidance in their interests, especially services that can obviate the need to return to an ADF base with the potential indignation and mental health issues that can bring, especially for those who separate with a mental health condition.

C.  Facilitate maintaining ADF connections and developing new community and workplace connections at a physical location.

  • The Hub must be a place at which members of the veteran community feel safe and can connect with others in the Veteran Community and the local civilian community. It is also vital that it supports, especially through the community of ESOs, the maintenance of connections with mates from ADF service and maintains a long-term relationship with veterans and their families well beyond the post-transition period of two years of support provided by Defence.

  • It needs to connect veterans and their families with the local community, undertaking activities of common interest and offering access and introductions to civilian clubs, groups and communities that often find that if they don’t have a veteran on board already, they don’t know how to attract and integrate members of the veteran community due to limited access to military barracks and serving veterans before they have transitioned.

 

Conclusion

The need for a comprehensive, coordinated, and proactive approach to veteran care has become increasingly evident, especially in light of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide and numerous inquiries highlighting the failures. The establishment and operation of a network of Veteran Community Hubs could transform the support provided to the veteran community in Australia.

The proposed model calls for DVA to lead in overseeing the health and wellbeing of veterans by establishing regional hubs. It advocates for a shift towards proactive care, emphasising prevention and early intervention to address mental health issues and other challenges faced by veterans. These hubs would serve as focal points in localities around Australia, coordinating plans, programs, services and all efforts among government agencies, non-profit organisations, and community groups, including ESOs, to address the unique challenges faced by veterans and their families. By streamlining services and providing a unified approach, the hubs could enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of support programs offered by other government departments by promoting the interests of the veteran community.

These hubs are envisioned as safe spaces that foster camaraderie among veterans and their families and provide access to a comprehensive network of services, both within the veteran community and in the broader civilian context. By offering guidance, connections, and information, these hubs aim to mitigate the challenges veterans face in navigating the complex civilian support system.

The rationale behind these hubs lies in their potential to bridge the gap between military service and civilian life. Transitioning from the structured environment of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to civilian society is a significant and complex change that often leads to challenges in mental health, employment, social integration, and identity. The hubs would provide a much-needed continuum of support, starting from early engagement with serving members about future transition plans, guiding them through the transition process, and offering sustained support post-transition.

Every ex-serving veteran needs their family and friends, ADF and ex-ADF mates, civilian connections and work colleagues; they also need a job and, most importantly, a plan for their future that gives them something to look forward to. The veteran community hubs present an opportunity to reimagine the support that can be focused on veteran community members by being the single coordinating point on the civilian side of the transition bridge. 

In essence, implementing a network of Veteran Community Hubs has the potential to significantly enhance the wellbeing and quality of life for veterans and their families across Australia, reduce waste in government programs, and align other organisations wanting to help. DVA could effectively channel resources and create a supportive ecosystem that empowers veterans to lead fulfilling lives.

This model represents a crucial step towards honouring the commitment made to those who served the country and ensuring they receive the care and support they deserve.

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