ONLY one in four Australian soldiers wounded during the war in Afghanistan have been able to return to full duty, and soldiers fighting there face the possibility of developing mental disorders earlier than other Australians, according to the military's top medical officer.
Defence's incoming Surgeon-General, Rear-Admiral Robyn Walker, also confirmed the military was undertaking a review of health services, partly in order to be able to deal with the new injuries caused by improvised explosive devices, a staple of the decade-long fight in Afghanistan.
''We do recognise that for a long time we weren't at war, and over the last 10 years we have been, and we need to make sure that all our support mechanisms are in place,'' Admiral Walker said.
She also referred to recent Defence research which found an increased incidence of ''affective mood disorders'', often triggered by depressive episodes, in soldiers aged between 28 and 37.
While Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showed that 19 per cent of Australian males of that age had a mental disorder, about 26 per cent of similarly aged men within Defence suffered from a similar illness.
The research also found that members of Defence were twice as likely to suffer from depressive episodes than the general public - 6.4 per cent compared to 3.1 per cent.
''Life-threatening incidents, or seeing your colleagues exposed to them, they do affected you psychologically,'' Admiral Walker said.
About 220 soldiers have been wounded since the beginning of the Afghan War in 2001, ranging from minor lacerations to loss of limbs and traumatic brain injuries.
According to Admiral Walker, only 54, about one-quarter, of those soldiers have been able to return to full duty.
Full duty means being able to return to the role they were performing when they were injured, which is most commonly as a front-line soldier.
Of those 54, 11 were categorised as very seriously or seriously wounded. Five of those soldiers returned to Afghanistan last year to their former role.
''Others will have returned to some duty … but may not yet be deployable and some may not yet have returned to work and may be part of some rehabilitation program,'' Admiral Walker said.
She has previously overseen medical operations for Australian campaigns in Iraq and East Timor.
The review into Defence health services is aimed at streamlining access as well as improving rehabilitation services for the most severely wounded, she said.
That was ''to make sure that we provide the best that we can to getting them either back serving in the military or if they are not able to, to reassimilate them back into the community''.
Part of the need for a review has been the increasing use of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, throughout the Afghan war. ''The injuries from IEDs can be quite significant. So it is a different injury pattern which are likely to be more serious,'' Admiral Walker said.
''So yes … IEDs have the potential to affect a greater part of the body, and therefore injuries are more significant.''
But she cautioned that soldiers hit by small arms or automatic weapons fire can also have devastating injuries.
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