‘Balance’ needed between remembering Anzacs and helping today’s veterans: ex-Army boss

Former Army chief Peter Leahy has said diverting funds from the Anzac Centenary Commemorative Grants towards veterans would help "ease the problems of suicide".

Key points:

  • Professor Leahy said veterans' mental health was an "enormous problem"
  • Malcolm Turnbull will open a $100 million museum in France next week
  • Professor Leahy said "balance" was needed between Anzac commemoration and veterans' support

The retired Lieutenant General told the ABC's National Wrap program that the government was yet to strike the right "balance between commemoration and looking after our veterans from recent wars".

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"There's still an enormous problem with suicides, with homelessness, with lives unfulfilled, problems with education and employment, family breakdowns and just people living in despair," Professor Leahy said.

"I think there's more that we can do, so let's see if we can balance that commemoration and support for our veterans."

A report last year from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that between 2001 and 2015, there were 325 certified suicide deaths among people with at least one day of Australian Defence Force service since 2001.

The retired senior official said while "it's right that we commemorate what happened in the first World War", he was concerned that too much money was being allotted to landmarks in Canberra and France.

"There's an enormous amount of money going into France, into Villers-Bretonneux, about $100 million. I also see recent reports that the [Australian] War Memorial is looking for upwards of $500 million," Professor Leahy said.

Photo of visitors walking beside Pool of Remembrance at Australian War Memorial.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will be at Villers-Bretonneux on Anzac Day for the opening of the Sir John Monash Centre, a $100 million museum dedicated to the stories of Australian soldiers who served on the Western Front.

"The Prime Minister said it himself in August 2016 — 'the best way to honour the veterans of 1916 is to look after the veterans of 2016' — well the same applies for 1918 and 2018," Professor Leahy said.

"There's more to be done at home."

Trump sent an 'unambiguous' message with Syria strikes

Professor Leahy said this weekend's air strikes on chemical weapons sites in Syria, led by the United States, Britain and France, were "a good start".

He said he believes the strikes were part of a "mission of deterrence", and that they clarified where the so-called "red line" on Syria sits for the United States under President Donald Trump.

"[Mr Trump's] gone up to that red line and he's painted more red paint on it," Professor Leahy said.

"He's said to the Syrians 'if you use chemical weapons this is what will happen, if you do it again, it will happen again.'

"In terms of deterrence … I think it's a good start. He's sent a very clear message, it's very unambiguous — 'don't use chemical weapons'."

Asked if he expected Australia to play a bigger role in the future in Syria following the missile strikes, Professor Leahy said while Australia has forces in the Middle East, they were not the type needed for those sorts of missions.

"I don't think we'll be called on early — if the mission enlarges, maybe," he said.

"But remember our mission there was about getting rid of [the Islamic State group] in Iraq and Syria, so I don't think there's a task for us just yet."

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