The navy has launched a top-level inquiry into a cluster of suicides by past and serving sailors from Perth naval base HMAS Stirling, some linked to the drug ice.
Assistant defence minister Stuart Robert said he was extremely concerned and called navy chief Vice Admiral Tim Barrett and asked him to launch the investigation.
It will be conducted by a navy rear admiral and the navy’s senior warrant officer, who will examine the issues of suicide and allegations of rampant drug use at Stirling.
They’ll report back to Vice Admiral Barrett and the government.
“That’s a fairly significant review,” Mr Robert told ABC television.
He said Defence knew exactly how many serving members had taken their own lives – 106 in the past 15 years – but had little knowledge of those who had committed suicide after leaving the forces.
Mr Robert said Defence’s policy of mandatory drug testing meant 25 per cent of all sailors could expect to be tested without notice, which picks up around 11 sailors a year.
“We have certainly noticed that the drug of choice has slowly changed to ice,” he said.
Mr Robert said all evidence indicated the drug testing was rigorous and could not be gamed.
ABC reported on Tuesday that five serving and former sailors from HMAS Stirling had taken their own lives in the period 2011-12 while another died of a drug overdose.
All were associated with a culture of hard drinking and consumption of the drug ice.
ABC reported on Wednesday there had been at least nine suicides of Stirling sailors over the past four years.
The biggest dealer at Stirling was said to be a chief petty officer who purchased drugs cheaply while deployed in Asia.
One sailor named only as Brendan told the ABC drug use at Stirling was rampant and regarded as perfectly normal – “expected, almost”.
He said drugs such as ecstasy and amphetamines were popular because they didn’t remain in the body long enough to be detected in random drug tests.
“It’s not thought of from within as a rife or rampant culture – it’s just normal,” he said.
Another former sailor Paul Papalia, now a state Labor MP, said Western Australia had twice the national rate of methamphetamine use.
“HMAS Stirling is right in the middle of that,” he said.
“The figures of use of methamphetamine and subsequent suicides at HMAS Stirling are staggering and very disturbing.”
Mr Papalia said there needed to be an inquiry.
Despite the revelations, prime minister Tony Abbott said family members can trust Defence.
“I think everyone who has a family member in the military can be confident that their people are being as well looked after as possible,” Mr Abbott said on Wednesday.
* Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.