Trapped in a never-ending cycle of back pain and locked in a compensation battle with a government department that had placed her under surveillance, Jacqui Lambie lost hope completely.
She wrote her sons a farewell letter each and tried to take her own life.
- Senator Lambie joined the Army as an 18-year-old and was eventually medically discharged after a back injury
- The discharge began a six-year battle with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs for compensation
- Senator Lambie has been a vocal critic of the department during her political career and a key campaigner for the establishment of the royal commission
“There was no point. There was nothing left of me after that. I had no fight left in me,” the independent senator told a Hobart hearing of the Royal Commission into Defense and Veteran Suicide.
But instead of ending her life, she said the suicide attempt played a role in restarting it, with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs finally giving her the intense psychological care she needed.
It began a slow journey of rehabilitation, and a desire to do what she could make the lives of veterans better, that eventually led to her being elected to Federal Parliament in 2014.
“I made a deal with God: if you’d just give me a second chance at life, I’d fight like hell for the veterans because I could understand what was going on and they weren’t getting a fair deal,” she said.
“From where I was to where I am today I’m very grateful that God has given me a second chance at life and that I have somehow been able to swing that around.”
Army ‘a life-saver’
Senator Lambie joined the Army as an 18-year-old in 1989.
Frequently in trouble, her family was supportive of her enlistment.
“I was seen to be around a bad group of people at that point of time who were bad influences, so for me, it was probably a life-saver that I had the opportunity to serve my country,” she said.
She told the commission she initially thrived in the environment, but it was not long before she was thrown a curveball.
Without the knowledge of her or her superiors, she was pregnant, with the Army pushing to end her military career before it even really began.
“What they wanted me to do was discharge immediately and get going, but I did not want to discharge because I didn’t want to end up back in public housing with a child,” she said.
With the help of a lawyer, the Army relented, and Senator Lambie completed her basic training.
Her career almost ended again eight years later when she was charged following an incident.
“Quite frankly, after I got charged for basically assault, I should have been thrown out of the military and they didn’t do that for me,” she said.
“They gave me a second chance and I will always be very, very grateful for having that second chance.”
‘I just couldn’t take it anymore’
She was sent on a compassionate posting to Devonport, in Tasmania’s north-west.
It was while she was based there, but on an infantry training course in Puckapunyal, that she suffered the first of what was to become a debilitating back injury.
“When I went to get out of bed, I could not get out of bed, I could not move,” she said.
It started a two-year cycle of physiotherapy, painkillers and hiding her pain.
Two days before she was set to fly out to East Timor on deployment, her back gave in.
“For me that was it, I just couldn’t take it anymore,” she said.
“I just ended up flat on the floor and then that was pretty much the end for me once that happened.”
She was medically downgraded and sent to specialists for a solution, but her back would not recover.
Eventually, she was medically discharged in 2000.
The discharge began a six-year battle with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs for compensation, as well as debilitating pain and depression.
“The pain itself was completely out of control and it set into a pattern that once that set in, I had just about given up,” she said.
She told the commission that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs initially deemed her not unfit enough to receive an allowance on top of her disability pension.
Government surveillance from bush behind her house
She engaged a lawyer after being defeated by the process and initially had a series of small victories before a visit to a shopping center changed her life.
Senator Lambie was spotted carrying two shopping bags walking out of a two-dollar shop.
She told the commission the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and Commonwealth Rehabilitation Services decided to put her under surveillance after suspicions she was faking her injuries.
Representatives from the rehabilitation service filmed from a bush near her back fence “with a camera lens coming over that fence”, watching her friends and children, she said.
They captured footage of Senator Lambie over several weeks, taking footage of her getting changed, and also interviewed people who knew her.
“There was an occasion where we were getting changed [inside her home] and I had my girlfriends there, we must have been trying on tops — they did film that,” she said.
“I found that terribly intrusive and quite frankly there was no reason to do that video surveillance.”
That resentment over the surveillance led to Senator Lambie failing to show up to a series of meetings with Commonwealth Rehabilitation Services and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and the cancellation of her benefits.
The fight for compensation eventually ended in 2006 after the department accepted Senator Lambie was entitled to compensation.
She accessed medical treatment and her back injury slowly improved, allowing her to work in the office of Tasmanian Labor senator Nick Sherry.
Life ‘spiralled out of control’
But she told the commission a setback proved devastating.
“Life completely and utterly spiralled out of control because I went back to pre-days where there was just so much pain and by then I’d lost all hope,” she said.
Senator Lambie said her mental health deteriorated to the point where she tried to take her own life.
“I found it difficult to be able to give a reason … to have reason to continue to live, even for the sake of my sons because I believed I was doing them more damage than good,” she said.
Senator Lambie finally received the psychological help she needed and started to rebuild her life, but said her “10 years of hell” took a huge toll on her family, especially her youngest son.
“He has really struggled during his life and … the reason that is because of what he had to go through with me,” she said.
Senator Lambie has been a vocal critic of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs during her political career, and a key campaigner for the establishment of the royal commission.
She paid tribute to the “peacemakers and peacekeepers” who helped make the commission happen, and hoped it would lead to lasting change for veterans.
“If you do not come forward now and tell your stories, even if you do not want to do it for yourselves, do it for your mates because there is nothing else if we do not fix it this time,” she said.
“I’m asking you to find the courage, whether you are serving, or whether you are not, you need to come forward because this is it.”