Defence Chief General Angus Campbell apologises to John Armfield

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Australian Defence Force chief Angus Campbell has personally apologised to a Navy hero who lost his brother to suicide and then allegedly suffered mistreatment at the hands of senior officers.

The apology to diver John Armfield followed Mr Armfield’s testimony before the Royal Commission Into Defence and Veteran Suicide about the death of his brother RAAF Leading Aircraftman Andrew Armfield.

Mr Armfield, an Afghanistan veteran and military recruiter, alleged serious failures in the ADF’s treatment of his brother and spoke about a hostile culture as he grappled with the circumstances of Andrew’s death.

Andrew took his life in October 2011 but Mr Armfield only found out about the existence of an internal report into his brother’s death 10 years after the traumatic event.

When the report was made available to him, he told the commission how he drove to the post office to pick it up without any support in place to help him process the findings, which he said revealed serious failures in his brother’s care.

“I was sitting in my car, broken,” he said.

“I’d loyally served my nation and this is how they’d given me the report on my little brother’s death.

“I sat there and sobbed. I couldn’t take it home to my family.”

He said he had not been informed about the report’s existence or its outcome, which he found out about through the commission.

He said he had “struggled” to get hold of the report, and said he felt “angry” about the bureaucratic obstacles he had faced to get to the truth about what happened to his brother.

Mr Armfield also told the commission he confronted a hostile culture when he flagged concerns about his brother’s care to his superiors.

In his March 18 letter to Mr Armfield, which was delivered in person to him on the Gold Coast by Warrant Officer of the Navy Andrew Bertoncin, General Campbell said he had watched some of the diver’s testimony.

“I wanted to commend you for your courage, clarity and dignity in detailing your lived experience around both the tragic loss of your brother, Andrew, and the events you encountered post that time,” General Campbell writes.

“I sincerely and fulsomely apologise for the experiences you have had and the traumatic impact those actions had on you.

“The Royal Commission is an important opportunity for Defence to further understand the complex issue of suicide.

“Thank you for sharing your account and for your continued support to the Royal Commission’s final report and recommendations.”

But Mr Armfield, speaking to NCA NewsWire on Wednesday, said the letter was vague and lacked any kind of “accountability”.

“It doesn’t outline what he is apologising for,” he said.

“Is it medical negligence, defamation, is it the breach of Australian privacy principles, loss of career and loss of earnings?

“Nowhere does he identify what he is apologising for.”

Mr Armfield raised concerns with the commission about potential privacy breaches within the ADF.

During his service he discovered files on his brother’s death on an internal defence storage system.

“All this was sitting on Objective (the storage system) and accessible to me,” he told the commission.

“I was very torn and emotional that this was there.”

When he raised concerns about possible privacy breaches to his commanding officers, he said he was threatened with potential criminal charges for illegally accessing the system.

Mr Armfield was cleared of any wrongdoing but only after nine months of what he called stress and hardship.

He faced the possibility of a criminal proceeding, telling his wife at one point that if he was arrested, he wanted her to film it and send it to the media.

The diver left the military in 2023 after 20 years of service and he is now writing a book about his experiences.

Titled Leadership Failure, Mr Armfield said he wanted the book to highlight what he sees as a “two-tiered” culture within the military, with one set of rules for officers and another set for enlisted soldiers, sailors and airmen.

“We all have an agenda in life and mine is to honour my brother,” he told NCA NewsWire.

“And to make my father proud and to fix the military.”

General Campbell is scheduled to testify on the final hearing day of the commission on Thursday.

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