Fighting the good fight for veterans

Terry O’Connor comes from a large Irish Catholic family, brimming with lawyers and military servicemen. His father, a labourer, the youngest of 13 children, served in World War II and, despite only primary school education, spent many years as a welfare officer for the Returned and Services League, preparing and lodging claims. Terry’s older brother was killed in Vietnam. After Terry spent three years serving in the Royal Australian Air Force, he began his civilian law career, specialising in family law, but also transferred to the Air Force Legal Reserve as part of No. 23 (City of Brisbane) Squadron at RAAF Base Amberley, reaching the rank of wing commander.

As an Australian Defence Force lawyer, Terry specialised in the administration law area, using his legal skills, his experience and his dogged persistence to ensure that serving members were treated fairly. When he talks, his eyes light up. He gestures wildly. Occasionally his voice breaks as he recounts individual stories. For 20 years, he has advocated for the rights of service personnel to access their lawful entitlements, including the sought-after Gold Card, which grants unlimited access to medical services, or to gain compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Terry calls this system he works in “a dog’s breakfast”. He says, “It makes the Tax Act look simple. Cases are complex jigsaws, requiring the chasing down of witnesses, detective work and knowledge of military history, and can take years to appeal from the date of the original primary decision.”

Due to the complex structure of entitlements for physical and psychological ailments, they are allocated according to where and when the person served, and when they were injured. In 1972, the Whitlam government changed the law to recognise not only operational deployments but all defence service. This was not made retrospective, however, and subsequent changes have simply added complications.

“The legislation is disjointed and there’s a lack of empathy by those who administer it, those who’ve never had bullets whizzing past their ears,” he says. “It’s morally offensive. And it shouldn’t be this hard.”

Each case is moving. Each is unique. A bomber pilot with liver damage after years of self-medication with alcohol. An officer with severe paranoia after witnessing the murder of a fellow soldier during World War II, his PTSD a causative factor in the development of vascular dementia. Multiple cancers in technicians in their 30s exposed to toxic chemicals during maintenance of F-111s. Hypertension, a common consequence of tropical salt addiction. A soldier injured 50 years ago by a grenade during a training exercise, his health still suffering. A conscripted navy stoker – then an 18-year-old – who served on a World War II aircraft carrier and suffered trauma from constant confinement in unbearably hot, noisy and cramped conditions, and whose stress-related drinking and smoking habits inexorably led to his death. As the man’s traumatic experiences occurred prior to 1972, however, his widow must prove that his use of alcohol and tobacco arose out of the operational part of his service. His case would be treated differently if he had served after 1972.

Veterans are often unable to speak of the horrors they witnessed or the brutality they endured, either during World War II or more recent conflict zones, such as Vietnam or Afghanistan. Sometimes the only family member they trust with their memories is another serving soldier. And it is a question of trust, of knowing who will understand.

“Of all the work I do, Legacy is the most rewarding,” Terry says. “Calling the widows to tell them we’ve been successful.” Many are in their 90s and have spent their lives caring for a partner in poor physical health or with long-term emotional distress as a result of military service. Towards the end of their lives, often with deteriorating health themselves, they are required in court to prove the link between their spouse’s condition and his service.

In Terry’s downtime, he relaxes with his family – his wife, Chris, and five adult children. He is a keen rugby union supporter. He sings in a community choir. And he walks. Every second year since 2002 he has taken part in the International Four Days Marches of Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. He’s one of only a handful of Australians among thousands of military personnel and up to 50,000 civilians who walk 30 to 55 kilometres a day over four days in the largest multiple-day marching event in the world. It has run every July since 1909, with some cessations during wartime. Hundreds of thousands of onlookers cheer the finishers and throw gladioli, symbolic of victory.

The camaraderie, focus and determination amid the gruelling physical conditions of the march remind him of what he is fighting for back home: peace of mind and security for those who risk the ultimate sacrifice to protect us all.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 25, 2017 as "The good fight".

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