Australian artist Ben Quilty is backing the call for a Royal Commission into shocking rates of suicide among war veterans.
Australian artist Ben Quilty is backing the call for a Royal Commission into shocking rates of suicide among war veterans.

Artist’s anger over war veteran suicides

Ben Quilty's first night in Afghanistan as an official Australian war artist started with a bang - three bangs, to be exact. Quilty lay terrified as three rockets exploded inside the Kandahar military base where he unsuccessfully was trying to sleep.

The commotion and the fear that night caused the artist to wonder why he had ever accepted the Australian War Memorial's invitation to live with ADF forces deployed in the war against terror. It also led to his body of work in which he would challenge the way the armed forces treated veterans with mental health issues, and ultimately led him this week to back calls for a Royal Commission into shockingly high rates of veterans' suicides.

It was 2011 when Quilty spent four weeks in Afghanistan. Months earlier, Quilty had won the Archibald Prize. He was living with his young family in the bucolic Southern Highlands.

"Within a few days of me being (in Afghanistan) I realised the story, for me, wasn't about the logistics of war, it was about the effect on those men and women who served," Quilty said this week.

Ben Quilty in 2015 with paintings of Trooper Daniel Spain which formed part of his exhibition, After Afghanistan. Picture: Evan Morgan
Ben Quilty in 2015 with paintings of Trooper Daniel Spain which formed part of his exhibition, After Afghanistan. Picture: Evan Morgan

Without any kind of defined front line, soldiers could never retreat and relax. Danger was everywhere and there was nowhere to hide. The stress was unrelenting, and the soldiers endured it day after day for nine months of their tour of duty. "It was so obvious that that was going to be an ongoing issue and was causing, very directly, really serious trauma in the men and women who were trying to do their job there," Quilty said.

The artist felt it himself. Returning from Afghanistan to his home and studio, wondering how he would cope with what he'd witnessed, Quilty did what he always does. He started painting. But he had a very unusual idea. Quilty invited returned service personnel - some he had met in Afghanistan, some he had not - to come to his Robertson studio and sit for a nude portrait. Let's just emphasise that: nude.

To soldiers, it must have sounded like an odd request. But they trusted Quilty, and they did it. As they shared a beer and posed for him, the soldiers confided their stories in Quilty as he listened and painted. The nudity was because Quilty wanted to strip away the surface bravura and see the soul.

Captain S, After Afghanistan, by Ben Quilty.
Captain S, After Afghanistan, by Ben Quilty.

His paintings hit the spot. When they went on view in Quilty's exhibition, After Afghanistan, at Sydney's National Art School, they sparked a national conversation about returned service personnel and the state of their mental health. Quilty's paintings showed contorted figures writhing on his studio floor, doing battle with their horrific memories. Many of the portrayed soldiers turned up to support Quilty at the After Afghanistan exhibition opening. One sitter, Air Commodore John Oddie, told Quilty his portrait was "confronting". "You've made me look exactly the way I feel," Oddie said. For Quilty, it was major affirmation.

Quilty came to know the shame felt by soldiers who had been discharged on mental health grounds, as well as the frustration they faced in accessing help. One soldier suggested that Quilty go on the Department of Veterans Affairs website, pretending to be a suicidal soldier looking for help. Quilty did it.

"It was unbelievably complicated," Quilty said. "It made me furious. And then to get on the phone and to be kept on hold, and it was impossible. There was no support for veterans, and particularly if you'd been diagnosed with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) you were really left to your own devices."

Ben Quilty and Air Commodore John Oddie at the National Art School Gallery in 2013. Quilty’s paintings of Oddie hang on the wall behind.
Ben Quilty and Air Commodore John Oddie at the National Art School Gallery in 2013. Quilty’s paintings of Oddie hang on the wall behind.

Similar stories - real life ones - have been uncovered by the Daily Telegraph's Save Our Heroes campaign which is backing calls for a Royal Commission into high suicide rates among veterans. It's a call Quilty supports wholeheartedly.

"The fact that (the DVA) have lost track of how many people have suicided, in my opinion that's absolutely enough reason to call for a Royal Commission," Quilty said. "They are suicide victims of a war we sent them to. They are our collective responsibility, and if the DVA seriously can't get it together to care for these people, or at least have the dignity to know who has suicided and to respect their passing, that is just a national disgrace."

Quilty said the notion of protected identity among many active soldiers is problematic in relation to mental health, because these men and women often believe the contract they signed prevents them from sharing their mental burden.

When he looked at the contracts, however, he told the soldiers: "There's nothing in here to talk about you not talking about your depression. No one can stop you talking about how you feel."

"(Soldiers) are so reticent to talk about anything (and) I was like, 'guys, you are taking so much risk with your mental health if you keep all this stuff bottled up, and they felt they'd signed contracts to bottle it up," Quilty said. "Then it's no surprise that suicide is so incredibly high."

The Suicide Call Back service is on 1300 659 467.

Troy Park, After Afghanistan, by Ben Quilty.
Troy Park, After Afghanistan, by Ben Quilty.
Ben Quilty with artist Margaret Olley at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2011. Quilty won the Archibald Prize with his portrait of his friend and fellow artist. Picture: News Corp
Ben Quilty with artist Margaret Olley at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2011. Quilty won the Archibald Prize with his portrait of his friend and fellow artist. Picture: News Corp