Reporter: Neil Doorley

"It's not on that, in reality, the Defence Force and DVA is committing murder because they're not looking after that soldier", said Keith Payne.

Keith is one Australia's greatest heroes, earning the Victoria Cross -- the military's highest decoration for valour -- when he singlehandedly rescued 40 of his men, under heavy fire, in the Vietnam War.

He killed his enemies and was shot at more times than he can remember but somehow the Army thought that would have no effect on him. "Nobody can understand war unless you've bloody been to war", Keith said.

When he came home, his war didn't end -- he had to keep fighting for recognition that he wasn't well because he was suffering what was then called 'battle fatigue'. "It just went on and on and the cost to the Department, sending me to specialists here, specialists there, transport aircraft -- what were they trying to prove?" Keith said.

It's now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. "I was really, really angry and I kept saying to my wife, if this is what they are doing to me, what are they doing to my soldiers", Keith said.

It's a battle he's continued to wage since leaving the Army in 1975 after 23 years' service. "What I didn't realise and a lot of young veterans today won't realise -- they'll say okay, I'm getting out of the military saying we'll medically discharge you -- that's the easy way out, the very, very easy way out for the military to do that. They've done it in the past, and they'll do it until it's stopped", Keith said.

Keith Payne's counselled other sufferers of post traumatic stress and believes through neglect, the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs are effectively condemning some to death. "This is where he gets depressed; he tries to get a job, because of his PTSD he ends up doing his narna with somebody. He gets disenchanted with his employment and now trying to look after a family, so everything is building up on him, and building up. Some of them go down the suicide lane -- it's wrong, it is dead wrong", Keith said.

33-year-old Leif Edwards served in East Timor and Afghanistan -- he was a high tech, modern warrior forced to fight his own emotions while on the battlefield. "I was having panic attacks -- fear of dying and fear of helplessness", Leif said.

He came home in 2010 and two years later was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. "I went straight to hospital and asked for help to see psychologists and psychiatrist because I knew something wasn't right", Leif said.

Leif took out his anger and frustration on wife Amy. "I'm anxious, I'm on edge all the time. I physically hurt my wife, verbally as well", Leif said.

"I never thought I'd be married to someone that would treat me the way Leif does when he's having an incident, you know, have a mood or has been triggered by something", Amy said.

Amy says she feared for him while he was away -- now, she just fears him. "I'm gutted -- it's not me, I don't know who it is", Leif said.

Leif has been discharged medically unfit, but Veterans Affairs rejected his compensation claim ruling his condition wasn't caused by his tours of duty. "He passed all his medical and mental health checks to deploy and when he got back he's not fit to serve in the Army, so only thing that happened to him between those two points was Army service", Amy said.

James Staples was in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. "You come back and start noticing all the small things -- you become anxious, depressed", James said.

A corporal in the Infantry, he was deemed unfit for duty in October, 2011 but was forced to wait another 17 months before being discharged with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. "It was torture -- it's like house arrest", James said.

He's now struggling to survive on about a third of his old pay. He believes he's entitled to better compensation. "If we get the help we need and the help we deserve and shorten this whole way go about this, it wouldn't be so horrendous", James said.

The Department of Veterans Affairs argues James can still work. "Working in a service station, art framing, and for some reason they put security guard which I've never done which wouldn't be appropriate for me, a person with PTSD to carry a firearm around civilians --it just baffles me how they can come up with that conclusion", James said.

Veterans Affairs figures reveal more than 1500 veterans are suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder since troops were deployed in East Timor, which tops the list with 777; followed by Afghanistan with 438 and Iraq - 347. That's on top of the 17,764 Vietnam War veterans.

It's the hidden toll of war which continues to grow, and includes combat engineer David Wood. "My most enduring memory was when we followed the coffin back out of tent, the huge number of World War 2, Viet vets, with their medals on their suits and that made me think of Anzac Day", said his grandfather, Roger.

The peace and quiet of the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales is a world away from the battlefields of Afghanistan, but the horrors of war were never far from the thoughts of David Wood. The 22 year old returned home from his second tour of duty last December and his family says he was a changed man, who was battling his own private demons -- including severe depression.

"He told me a little girl died in his arms and I believe when that girl died in his arms, that was the end of David, that was the beginning of the end, the Taliban had got him then and there", said Roger.

David knew he needed help and started seeing a psychiatrist and while he was making progress, his family immediately feared the worst when he simply vanished on the 22nd of May. "He took off his dog tags and his dog tags also had a St Christopher medal -- he took them and laid them on the bed and that was probably the last thing he did before leaving his house", said Roger

David's disappearance sparked a large search involving members of his family, and soldiers from his old Army unit. About a week later, his body was found -- there were no suspicious circumstances. Sapper David Wood had taken his own life.

"It's heartbreaking to even think about it. He wrote a note saying he just wanted to go away for a while and be on his own", Roger said.

Roger believes his grandson should be classified a casualty of war. "So that in a 100 years' time, my descendants can say that was my uncle, that was David Wood and he's on that honour roll", he said.

"He came home with more than scars, open wounds that we couldn't see. Underneath his shirt, he was bleeding", Roger said.

He argues more must be done to help veterans' families read the warning signs.

The death toll is mounting as well in the United States where it's estimated 22 military veterans are committing suicide every day -- that's almost one an hour. "If you look at American statistics, statistics from the US, that suicide rates tend to outstrip rates of those killed in action", said psychiatrist Andrew Khoo.

Dr Khoo runs one of the few specialist Post Traumatic Stress Disorder clinics in Australia at Brisbane's Toowong Private Hospital. "Suicide unfortunately is the most tragic outcome of untreated mental illness", Dr Khoo said.

Dr Khoo says the process of making claims has become a bureaucratic maze. "Many of the patients have their symptoms exacerbated by the process of getting their compensation through", he said.

With almost 70,000 Australian troops deployed since East Timor in 1999, the sad reality is nearly one in five may develop a mental health problem when they come home. That's about 14,000. "The Government will never baulk at spending money on submarines or the huge logistical exercises sending people overseas, so they shouldn't similarly be baulking at fairly compensating these guys -- we knew a significant proportion were going to be injured", Dr Khoo said.

"Any suicide is tragic and the Department actively monitors suicide in veteran community", said The Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Advisor Doctor Stephanie Hodson.

"We actually do need to work on getting our staff more trained, but also about getting through these claims more quickly", Dr Hodson said.

A former Army psychologist, Dr Hodson denies the Department's failure to plan ahead is resulting in long delays leaving claims -- and lives -- in limbo. "The Department is processing claims as quickly as possible but we acknowledge that some claims can take longer than we want", she said.

Incredibly, Doctor Hodson says part of the problem lies with the veterans themselves. "The problem is that it's not till someone is in crisis that they will actually start to look for the services. The treatment is there for veterans, we just need them to come and put up their hand and come and get it", Dr Hodson said.

For further information:

Mental health information and resources for veterans and their families can be found on the Department of Veterans Affairs At-Ease website