War widow Gwen Cherne's pledge to support families and carers
Following the loss of her beloved husband, Gwen Cherne became a leading advocate for the increased role of families and carers in the treatment and recovery of veterans.
Sergeant Peter Jon Café of Second Commando Regiment took his own life in February 2017 following a career that saw him deployed to war zones in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The couple met in Afghanistan, where American-born Gwen was working in international development, and moved to Australia to marry and start a family.
Peter had a stroke while in Iraq in 2012 and struggled with mental health issues during his recovery at home.
But he hid his struggles from the Army, afraid he might lose his job if his superiors knew about his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety.
Since Peter’s devastating suicide, Gwen has channelled her grief into advocating for the rights of veterans’ families and carers.
Gwen says she would have been more able to help Peter access the help he needed had she known more about his condition and the services available to veterans.
Veterans are typically unlikely to seek help for mental health issues because of the stigma attached. And in Peter’s case, much of his work in Special
Forces was confidential, and being unable to discuss his experiences caused tension and feelings of loneliness, Gwen said.
Now a member-director of the War Widows Guild of NSW, Gwen is determined to inform other families of their rights and entitlements during a service member’s deployment, as well as post-deployment, a particularly difficult time for many veterans.
“How can we make sure we’re supporting the veteran if we’re not including the family?” Gwen said.
“The family is ultimately going to be the one caring for the veteran so the family needs to know what they’re dealing with.
“And on the other hand, the Defence Force needs to understand the family dynamic, and if you don’t engage with the family, you can’t fully grasp where the support is needed.”
As an Invictus Games Sydney 2018 Clubs NSW Ambassador, Gwen spoke publicly of her determination to raise awareness of mental health among veterans and their families.
She made worldwide headlines when she was enveloped in a warm hug by Prince Harry atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Harry, the Duke of Sussex, had asked Gwen about Peter, and they talked for some time about the reality facing veterans and their families when service men and women transition back to civilian life.
Some people asked why, as a war widow, she wanted to be involved in the Games, but for Gwen, she will always consider her family to be a military family.
Peter’s eldest son Tom who is in his twenties is a private in the Australian Army and is currently stationed in Townsville. Tom and Prince Harry spoke about suicide prevention during a reception hosted by the Prime Minister at Kirribilli House during the Royal tour.
Gwen is raising their youngest children Emily and Lachlan as a single mother while taking on the role of Widows, Veterans and Families Advisor to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
Gwen said by including families in the care planning and treatment, the National Centre for Veterans’ Healthcare at Concord Hospital will fill an important gap in the treatment and recovery of veterans.
“It’s absolutely wonderful that we’re starting to recognise that the family must be included.”
Photo Credit: Salty Dingo, Invictus Games 2018
If you or someone you know needs help, contact these numbers:
Open Arms, Veterans and Families Counselling: 1800 011 046 or www.vvcs.gov.au
ADF All-hours Support Line: 1800 628 036
Mental Health Triage Line: 1800 011 511
Lifeline P: 13 11 14: lifeline.org.au
Beyondblue Support Service: 1300 224 363 or www.beyondblue.org.au
Domestic Violence Line: 1800 656 463
Alcohol and Drug Information Service 02 9361 8000 or FREE CALL: 1800 422 599