Sailors traumatised by death toll

Dealing with asylum seekers’ deaths at sea is taking an emotional toll on navy sailors, Australia’s border protection commander has said, amid concerns that deaths will continue because of the steady stream of boats.

Rear Admiral David Johnston, the head of Border Protection Command, said a ”dreadful feeling in the stomach” accompanied any alert of a boat in trouble. He was speaking following the deaths of four asylum seekers after a boat capsized in rough seas north of Christmas Island on Tuesday night.

”Dealing with deaths is particularly difficult – physically difficult in terms of the environment in which they’re working, and emotionally very difficult for all of us,” Admiral Johnston said.

”It is a dreadful feeling in the stomach when we hear that a vessel has capsized or that it’s in some difficulty and then we are responding to try to ensure we are bringing as many people as we can to safety.”

Figures released last year by the Defence Department showed that 7.7 per cent of sailors posted on border protection duties reported post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms – about the same as that for military personnel on other deployments, including Afghanistan.

The navy introduced a program of mental health support in July 2011 especially for sailors deployed to Operation Resolute – the border protection operation – citing the ”unique stressors” associated with the work.

Admiral Johnston paid tribute to the ”extraordinary work” of the navy personnel involved in the rescue of the other 144 passengers aboard the asylum-seeker boat.

”It happened very quickly . . . the way they sequenced it to make sure they were recovering people, particularly out of the water, as quickly as they could in rough weather conditions,” he said.

”My praise for them is unlimited because of what they have achieved.”

Christmas Island administrator Jon Stanhope said people across the Island, both within the border protection services and the community, were dealing with the trauma and tragedies that are occurring.

”It does affect the Island. I can’t speak for others it certainly affects me. I think of it regularly . . . It’s very sombre and it’s sad and it’s recurring,” he told Fairfax Media’s Breaking Politics program.

Referring to two boat disasters in the past week and a search and rescue that was under way on Wednesday evening, he said:  ”It’s the same crews, it’s the same group of young Australian men and women in our services [who are conducting the search and rescues]. And it’s the same people here on the Island that are receiving the bodies that are actually dealing with asylum seekers, dealing with the enormous trauma and the grief.”

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The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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