Royal commission hears former soldier Gavin Tunstall loved army life until he saw children dead in Afghanistan

Royal commission hears former soldier Gavin Tunstall loved army life until he saw children dead in Afghanistan

Searching for a purpose in life, Gavin Tunstall joined the Australian Army in 2005 and quickly found one.

He threw himself into army life and loved every moment.

“It gave me a group of men to be around. I started to feel like I had a family,” he told the Royal Commission into Defense and Veterans’ Suicide, which is holding hearings in Hobart.

But things started to fall apart when he was deployed to Afghanistan a few years later and saw the bodies of two young boys killed in combat.

“It’s not usual for children to be fighting, it’s not usual for children to be firing a machine gun,” he told the commission.

“It is not usual for me to be inspecting their dead bodies. I expected men.”

Mr Tunstall said he struggled to cope with what he had seen, and his mental health declined significantly.

“If you haven’t been in that situation you have no clue until you’ve gone through it,” he said.

“You can’t be trained for that. You don’t know how you’re going to react.”

He went on his first lot of mental health leave but said he soon started hiding his symptoms to get back to work and progress through the ranks.

A series of physical injuries — shoulder and ankle reconstructions and a torn anterior cruciate ligament — derailed his career, and led to him drinking alcohol on top of a cocktail of pain medication.

He was placed on limited duties, which he said his colleagues struggled to understand, and his mental health spiraled to a point where he was admitted to hospital in 2019.

The lack of support for service personnel and veterans’ families has been a common theme of the royal commission.(ADF)

Change of medication ‘the start of everything’

Mr Tunstall was placed on medication and his mental health started to improve, but he said a new doctor and a change of medication meant things started to unravel again.

“That was the start of everything… I have no doubt what he did lead to what happened next,” he said.

“[I had] bad dreams, night terrors, started locking myself away in my room, started isolating myself from all my friends, anger, no tolerance of any noise.”

He was arrested on domestic violence charges in early 2020 and told the commission that the officer who arrested him was a member of the Army Reserves.

“He said he was tired of arresting veterans, and he had tears in his eyes,” he said.

Gavin Tunstall looks into the distance.
Mr Tunstall said he struggled to cope with what he saw in Afghanistan.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Mr Tunstall was immediately readmitted to hospital for three months and discharged from the army on mental health grounds later that year.

His criminal charges were later dropped on mental health grounds.

Having lost his family and feeling betrayed by the job he loved while he waited for his discharge to be processed, Mr Tunstall said he thought about taking his own life.

“I struggle every day with the pain of my physical injuries and the mental anguish of my service. My life will never be the same again,” he told the commission.

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Gavin Tunstall, with his arm in a sling, looks into the distance.
Mr Tunstall now works to help veterans like himself.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

With time and support in hospital, plus seeking psychological support, Mr Tunstall’s mental health gradually improved.

He said he was now working with a provider teaching veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder how to scuba dive, in a bid to ensure others do not go through what he did.

“I was a veteran in the dark, I’m now starting to get out of it,” he said.

“I want to offer that to other people like myself who are stuck. I don’t want any more [veterans] to take their own life.”

Gavin Tunstall looks at the camera.
Mr Tunstall said his family was getting no support.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Families ‘given no support’

But while Mr Tunstall is receiving support, he told the royal commission his family had been effectively abandoned.

“My family pretty much lost their provider. My kids lost their dad. My wife lost her husband,” he said.

“They are sitting down there… with no support, in government housing, my three children are living like poor people and there is no assistance.

“I’m getting help, but they are getting nothing and it’s a common story.”

A lack of support for the families of service personnel and veterans has been a common theme of the royal commission during its six public hearing blocks.

The Hobart hearings will conclude next week, with the commission to hand down its interim report on August 11.

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