Who are veterans?

The term ‘veteran’ traditionally described former Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel who were deployed to serve in war or war-like environments. Veterans are now considered people who have any experience in the ADF including current, reserve, and former (ex-serving) personnel (Tehan 2017).

The unique nature of ADF service can enhance a person’s health and wellbeing; a phenomenon known as the 'healthy soldier effect'. Military personnel are generally physically and mentally fit, receive regular medical assessments, and have access to comprehensive medical and dental treatment as a condition of service. However, ADF service increases the likelihood of exposure to trauma (either directly or indirectly) and affects support networks, for example, separation from family during deployment (Daraganova et al. 2018; Lawrence-Wood et al. 2019).

Research as part of the Transition and Wellbeing Research Programme (TWRP) indicates that Australia’s veterans may experience health needs, outcomes and challenges that are different from the rest of the Australian population, including increased risks of mental illnesses and poorer physical health following transition out of regular ADF service (Van Hooff et al. 2019).

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) is responsible for developing and providing a range of services, programs of care, compensation, income support, and commemoration for the veteran and defence force communities and their families (DVA 2021a). DVA provides support, services and information to various people including veterans and their dependents, serving (permanent or reserve) and ex-serving ADF members, and war widow/ers. DVA clients are typically an older population who are in need of financial, health, mental and physical support. These individuals may be likely to have physical, mental, and behavioural conditions needing them to engage in greater health service use compared with non–DVA clients and those who have never served.

The analysis presented in this report uses a range of data and different populations of ADF members, DVA clients, non-DVA clients and those who have never served.

Definitions of veterans used in this web report

There are many different sources of information on veterans. This can include information resulting from data linkage activities involving the use of administration data from the Department of Defence (Defence) to identify a particular cohort of veterans such as those who have served from 2001, or served from 1985, or from surveys where respondents have self-reported they are a veteran. It is not clear whether all people who have any experience in the ADF would necessarily report themselves as a veteran as their perception could be driven by whether a person’s military experience involved combat or war-like deployments, whether a person served in permanent or reserve service, or how a person separated from military service. This may lead to a person incorrectly believing and consequently self-reporting themselves as not being a veteran (Metraux 2014).

Different sections of this report use different definitions of veterans depending on the available data. Tables 1 and 2 describe the possible options.

Table 1: Definitions of veterans in administrative data sources
Population Definition
Permanent or reserve ADF members ADF members who are currently serving in the permanent or reserve service and are based on data from the current and historical ADF personnel systems. In previous reports, permanent and reserve ADF members were referred to as serving – there has however been no methodological change and this term is comparable to previous reports.
Ex-serving ADF members ADF members who have had at least one day of permanent or reserve service who have since separated from the ADF. There are two subpopulations available for analysis being the post-2001 cohort and the post-1985 cohort. The post-2001 cohort represent those who served at least one day of service since 1 January 2001 and the post-1985 cohort represent those who served at least one day of service since 1 January 1985. These subpopulations have been used in previous AIHW reports on veterans and are based on data from the current and historical ADF personnel systems.
Clients of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) Veterans and their families who are clients of the DVA and are in receipt of support by DVA. DVA clients may receive a range of entitlements depending on personal circumstances, such as compensation payments, means-tested pensions, and subsidised health treatments. This subpopulation is based on data from the DVA client system and is not representative of a specific ADF serving cohort. This definition is used in the Health expenditure section of this report.
Defence or DVA compensable patient A patient whose cost of care was claimable by the hospital from Defence or DVA. This definition is used to define hospitalisations funded by Defence and DVA, with data presented in the Hospitalisations section of this report.
Table 2: Definitions of veterans in self-reported survey data sources
Population Definition
Ever served in the ADF Persons who self-reported as having ever served in the ADF. This sub-population includes respondents who answered “Yes” when asked “Have you ever served in the Australian Defence Force?” in the 2020–21 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) National Health Survey (NHS) and may include permanent, reserve and/or ex-serving ADF members.
Never served in the ADF Persons who self-reported to have never served in the ADF. This sub-population includes respondents who answered “No” when asked ‘Have you ever served in the Australian Defence Force?” in the 2020–21 NHS. This cohort may include dependants and spouses of serving and ex-serving ADF members.
Self-reported DVA Clients Veterans and their families who perceive themselves to be DVA Clients and respond as such in surveys like the 2020–21 NHS. This sub-population includes respondents who answered “Yes” when asked “Are you a client of the Department of Veterans' Affairs or have you ever received a benefit or support from the Department of Veterans' Affairs?’ in the 2020–21 NHS. The self-reported DVA Client status may not align with DVA’s definition of a client. Some individuals may not interpret themselves as a DVA client if they do not consider their involvement with DVA to be a client relationship. Those who responded “No” when asked the above question are considered to be non-DVA Clients.

Veteran Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) clients

Persons who self-reported as a current or former ADF member in the Specialist Homelessness Services Collection (SHSC). This does not include SHS clients who may have served in non-Australian defence forces, reservists who have never served as a permanent ADF member, or clients under the age of 18. This self-reported indicator may not align with the definition of a veteran based on administration data from Defence or DVA. This definition is used in the Homelessness section of this report.


Data considerations

Within this report, each section references findings from a variety of data sources that use different definitions of veterans. This means that subpopulations of veterans will often differ between sections, depending on the data source used. As such, findings across different sections of this report should not be compared.

For some sections of this report, data are only presented for males due to female population sizes being too small to report. Data on families of ADF members are also very limited and included where possible.

The age profile of the veteran population

The age profile is different amongst the different populations presented in this report, and as such some data comparisons should be used as a guide only.

As at 31 December 2019, the median age for permanent ADF members was 31 and for reserve ADF members was 37, whereas the majority of ex-serving members (79%) were aged 40 years and over (AIHW 2021).

In the 2020–21 National Health Survey (NHS), those who self-reported having ever served in the ADF were generally older, with almost half (47%) of males who had ever served in the ADF being aged 65 years or older, compared with 18% of males who had never served (AIHW analysis of ABS 2022b). Among those who had ever served, DVA clients were generally younger, with around #42%1 aged 65 years or older compared with 49% of non-DVA clients (AIHW analysis of ABS 2022b). Within the DVA 2020-21 Annual Report however, around 53% of DVA clients were aged 65 years and over. For more information see How many Australian veterans are there?

The impact of COVID-19 on the health of veterans

Measures put in place as part of government responses to COVID-19 during 2020 and 2021 (including closing of international borders, travel bans/restrictions, lockdowns, quarantine requirements, limitations on non-urgent face-to-face work, resource reallocations and the temporary suspension of non-urgent elective surgery) may have affected the health of veterans during 2019–20 and 2020–21.

The short- and long-term impacts of COVID-19 on veteran health are still unknown. Such effects may become apparent in veterans’ data in future years.

1 Proportions marked with a hash (#) have a high margin of error (MoE) and should be interpreted with caution. A high MoE is considered as greater than 10%.