Subject: SMH: East Timor scars rise to surface

The Sydney Morning Herald

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

East Timor scars rise to surface

Jonathan Pearlman, National Security Correspondent

AUSTRALIA'S role in securing independence for East Timor remains one of its most venerated military missions, but some scars of battle are only just beginning to emerge.

The first health study of veterans from East Timor, by the University of Queensland's centre for military and veterans' health, found that soldiers who served in the initial deployment in 1999, or soon after, operated in a war zone "characterised by high levels of uncertainty" and tended to have worse mental health.

While the East Timor intervention has not caused large-scale mental health effects, stress and other problems have been more commonly reported by those who served in the early and frequently riskier days of the deployment.

"Those in the earliest deployment group report worse perception of their general health, more symptoms, slightly more psychological distress, and slightly more symptoms relating to [post-traumatic stress disorder]," the study says.

Noel Petersen, who served with the 4RAR Commandos near Balibo in East Timor from April to October 2001, said he still had nightmares about "whether we did the right thing".

"We were on the border facing the Kopassus [Indonesian special forces]. We saw some things on the border and were being told that we didn't see them. We saw women and children being dragged off the border by the Indonesian soldiers.

"I wake up in the night crying. I wonder how the women and children are doing over there."

Mr Petersen, 43, who lives near Kilmore in Victoria with his wife and son, left the army with spinal and back injuries in 2006 and has been unable to work since. He said the army rejected his claims for post-traumatic stress disorder.

"We were given an exceptional job to do and we did it well. But sometimes it is not easy," Mr Petersen said.

Figures compiled by the Department of Veterans Affairs show that the number of East Timor veterans receiving pensions has risen rapidly in the past year. As of March, 1894 veterans were receiving disability pensions ­ an increase of more than 9 per cent ­ and 175 were receiving service pensions, an increase of almost 30 per cent.

The national president of the Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans Association, Paul Copeland, said the East Timor deployment was continuing to take a heavy toll on veterans, particularly those who served between 1999 and 2002.

"There were a lot of horrific sights that these people were exposed to," he said. "People were sent down wells to retrieve bodies that had decomposed.

"A lot of East Timor veterans have started to come to us with mental health issues. and have needed treatment."

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