Trois Etapes 2014 – Part 1 – The Long Journey To France

My journey to France wasn’t as simple as three planes, two trains, a cab and countless hours spent on a bicycle.  My journey to France started on January 6, 2012; my last day as a soldier in the Australian Army.  Over the previous decade I had made many friends, shared countless experiences, served on foreign soil, and ultimately returned back home when others did not.
My decision to leave the Army was a culmination of differing opinions on what my career path should have been, the lack of ongoing and adequate support for my mental illness and not wanting to force my future wife to live in the shadow of a Australian Soldier.  Having spent my childhood as the quintessential ‘Army Brat’, I could not ask the woman who I would ultimately marry and have a child with, to follow me around Australia and put her own career aside.  So I left the one thing that had provided, up until my wedding and daughter’s birth, the most defining moments of my life; both good and bad.

In mid 2012 I started mountain biking, something that would ultimately serve to fill the huge void that had been left in my life when I hung up my uniform.  A tight-knit community of caring, encouraging and like-minded people enabled me to feel part of a team once again.  And in late 2012 I approached a the contemporary veterans group ‘Soldier On‘ and asked if I would be able to fund-raise in a mountain biking event called The Battle of the Beasts.  When the dust had settled and my aching body had calmed I had raised a substantial amount of money that would directly assist younger veterans like myself that were struggling with the visible and hidden scars incurred during our service in the Australian Defence Force.

.:Battle Of The Beasts 2012:.
2013 would see me design and commission a set of Soldier On cycling jerseys and participate in a full calendar of mountain bike events at which I would wear the Soldier On strip.  I would assist Soldier On at various veterans events and fundraisers and ultimately become a very vocal advocate and critic of contemporary veterans issues especially veteran suicide; an issue that has directly impacted my life and ongoing recovery living with depression and PTSD.
.:Racing with the mk1 Soldier On cycling jersey:.
Throughout earlier 2014 I continued to race and commute wearing the Soldier On colours.  For me wearing the Soldier On jersey was a way for the public to see Soldier On was active in the general community and to let other veterans know that they weren’t alone.  It was because of my somewhat visible presence across social, print and visual media that I was asked by Soldier On to participate in the 2014 Trois Etapes Pro-Am in France.  At first I was apprehensive as it would mean a change from my mountain bike to a road bike and many, many hours training.
First there was the Sydney to Canberra Remembrance Ride commemorating both ANZAC Day and the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Remembrance Driveway along the Hume and Federal highways.  This was soon followed by two training camps, one at Thredbo and then followed by the second at Tweed Heads; and a long-term training program to follow.  Of course life, work and injuries interfered with what could have been a relatively smooth timeline; but where would the fun be in that?!
Finally on Friday, 1 August 2014, after many months of training, preparation, stressing, emails and waiting… The time came for me to leave Canberra, Australia and travel to Lourdes, France.
I’ll spare you the intricate details of my trip, but rest assured 39 hours of travel is not an enjoyable experience.  Why 39 hours?  Well, as I mentioned before, there were the flights, the trains and the cab; and of course there was the the 30kg bag containing a bicycle and a very large amount of cycling related equipment and paraphernalia.  It is a fact an EVOC cycle bag is just not train, train station or train passenger friendly. Combine this with French people, a language barrier, jet lag and a person with an anxiety disorder and you have recipe for disaster.  Luckily nothing bad happened and we arrived at our hotel in the middle of the night.
After much stressing, a bad case of cankles and a long-awaited shower I finally went to bed knowing the next day I would be riding my bicycle in France!
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An Evening At The Australian War Memorial – Updated

ABC’s Big Ideas has released the Boys Don’t Cry program online for viewing.
The televised version is shorter by about 20 minutes and doesn’t include my speech at the end of the forum.  The online long version does.  I invite you to watch is however please be aware that some of the program is fairly confronting including what I have to say at the end.

Long version of the Boys Don’t Cry segment

Big Ideas Boys Don’t Cry segment

On Wednesday evening, 20 November 2013, I attended a panel discussion at the Australian War Memorial on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  The event was hosted by journalist/writer Paul Barclay on behalf of ABC TV and Radio National.

On the panel were former Chief of Army LTGEN Peter Leahy; author and Beyond Blue ambassador Allan Sparkes; Beyond Blue board member Professor Brett McDermott; and the wife of a former British Royal Marine, Emily.

I was asked about attending the panel a few days earlier by my friend Jason.  Originally I didn’t want to attend as I honestly thought it may be a trigger for an anxiety episode; so I declined.  It wasn’t until the night before that I decided to go along and hopefully have a chance to speak to whoever was on the panel.  I had no idea who was participating in the discussion other than LTGEN Peter Leahy and hadn’t really thought about what was going to be discussed.

In the afternoon prior to the start of the forum, I rode from work up to the Australian War Memorial.  As is the norm, I was wearing my Soldier On jersey and happened upon new Soldier On team member Tony; who many moons ago was my Troop Commander when I served in Iraq.  Jason arrived next and soon we were joined by Anna, Meredith and Dion from Soldier On.  After I got changed into something more appropriate than skin tight lycra, we went into the BAE Systems Theatre.

After the introductions Paul started the discussion with some questions about PTSD in the military for LTGEN Leahy.  The conversation and questions started to flow freely within the panel with some very emotional stories being shared by Emily and Allan.  Prof McDermott gave some very interesting insights on PTSD for not only military personnel; but also for emergency service persons and of course their families.

I wasn’t the only veteran in the crowd; but I was the youngest.  There were a few Vietnam Veterans present, family members of veterans with PTSD and a few senior Defence officers that were skulking around the back pews in civilian attire.

As the discussion progressed LTGEN Leahy was asked some questions about support services available to veterans.  I have a lot of respect for this man; he was an exceptional Chief of Army and has done a lot to help veterans with his current position as Chairman for Soldier On.  But there is a distinct level of detachment from what a high ranking officer is told and what happens on the ground.

Some of his responses started to irk not only me, but a lot of the crowd listening to him.  There were more than a few audible scoffs at some comments about the Department of Veterans affairs doing their best to help all veterans.  One comment in particular drew a very audible “get fucked” from me.  The former Chief of Army said that when a Soldier asks for help, he or she will always receive it.  Paul mentioned the story of MAJGEN John Cantwell and LTGEN Leahy was in agreement.  Whilst MAJGEN Cantwell has done a lot to help break the stigma of PTSD in the ADF; it is also true that a very senior Officer is never going to be turned away when they ask for assistance.

Allan Sparkes shared his story of PTSD and depression from when he was a Police officer; and the ostracising that he experienced as a result.  His story was a very raw, no punches pulled recount of his darkest days and his termination from his employment without his knowledge.  His story was very reminiscent of many veterans from the Vietnam War up until today’s conflicts.

Emily’s story was one of amazing courage from both her and her husband Adrian.  She spoke of her time in the United Kingdom when Adrian returned from deployment in Afghanistan a changed man.  He had experienced traumatic events and as a result developed PTSD.  His struggles with mental health affected his wife and two daughters as they watched as their husband and father dealt with his issues now that he was back at home.  His eventual discharge from the Royal Marines was a result of a physical injury and just like the majority of occupationally injured Australian servicepersons; Adrian was soon pushed out the door with very little support and preparedness for his transition to civilian life.

As the forum was drawing to a close Paul invited Dr Brendan Nelson, director of the Australian War Memorial to speak and field some questions from the panel.  He spoke about the AWM’s role with supporting veterans of recent conflicts by having interactive exhibits and involving them with other projects the AWM is conducting.  As a former Minister for Defence he expressed his desire to see more support forthcoming as the Afghanistan War draws to a close.

As 7pm was quickly approaching a few of us in the audience were wondering if we would get a chance to ask questions of the panel.  Adrian was next to take the stage and he recounted some of his experiences post deployment and how support for veterans is extremely slow from the government in Britain.  He spoke of having his claim for assistance being rejected on the first submission; a trend very similar to that in Australia carried out by DVA.

Adrian expressed his concern for veterans being forgotten after the withdrawal from the Middle East and a strong desire for them to be able to access the support they deserve and not repeat the mistakes of the past.  He likened the struggles of today’s returned servicepersons to that of the Vietnam War era in the way that the fight for support continues even after the war on foreign soil has ended.

Adrian’s address to the panel and audience had clearly reached out to everyone with many of the Vietnam Veterans visibly moved by his honesty.  As he sat down Paul checked his watch and asked us sitting in the audience if anyone had anything questions or comments.  I had been sitting and fidgeting for the past 10 minutes waiting for this moment.  Several different introductions and talking points had gone through my head and all disappeared in the instant I raised my hand and Paul motioned for me to stand up.

I was shaking before I even started speaking; this was always going to be an emotionally charged interaction from me and I started by introducing myself.

“Hi I’m Chad, I separated from the Army early last year and have deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan.  I have been diagnosed with PTSD, depression and anxiety and I want to know why not enough is being done to help Australian veterans.”

I addressed LTGEN Leahy first and exclaimed to him that history was indeed repeating itself.

“I am a third generation Soldier, my Grandfather served in World War 2, my Father served in Vietnam and I have served in the Middle East.  I watch as my Father and his mates still struggle with PTSD with many Vietnam Veterans taking their own lives since the war ended.  I watch as my generation struggles with the same issues and now my mates, people I served with, are killing themselves because of PTSD and depression; and nothing is being done to stop this.  There are more people in the ground because of PTSD and depression than there are that are on the wall outside who were killed on operations.”

I spoke of my efforts to get help when the weight was becoming too much for me to bear and that the first two times I asked for assistance I was rebuffed by my unit RSM’s; a statement that clearly shocked LTGEN Leahy.  I was asked questions from both Allan Sparkes and Prof McDermott about my interactions with DVA and I recounted how I was told that my claim was going to be slow as my PTSD and depression ‘wasn’t that bad’.  I explained to them that is was at this point that I withdrew my claim and stopped interacting with DVA as I felt I was being accused of chasing money and that by not receiving financial assistance my criticism of their practices would hold more weight in a public forum.

I described my battles with depression and that very few people understood; and the simple act of asking for help effectively stalled my career in the Australian Army for a number of years.  The feeling of being ostracised and singled out was always present and that few people would support me when I asked for further help.  I explained that while MAGJEN Cantwell’s story is not an isolated one, the level of support and assistance he received was.  The average Digger in a unit has to contend with the ever present stigma of mental health issues and ignorance present within their chain of command and the probable persecution for not being able to fulfil their duties without restrictions.

I expressed astonishment that the very organisation founded to protect the rights of and provide assistance to veterans was failing in its primary role.  I emphatically asked how in the forty years since the end of the Vietnam War servicepersons are still not being afforded the support we fought for.  How it was possible that DVA can state they are still learning and getting better with a straight face as veterans from multiple deployments and generations kill themselves while waiting to access support services.

By this stage the room was silent and I had been speaking for around 20 minutes.  The panel while sometimes asking me questions and making statements had clearly been unprepared for such a raw and uncompromising speech from someone.  I had brought up some points with personal accounts of systematic failures from within the Australian Army, Australian Defence Force and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

There were some topics that I shared with a public forum that had only been discussed with medical professionals and not even shared with my wife and family.  As my speech drew to a close I expressed the hope that one day veterans would receive the appropriate support from the Government but that it was very unlikely to occur in my lifetime and that my children probably wouldn’t see it happen either.

As I finished speaking I apologised for hijacking the Q&A session; Paul started wrapping up the forum and I sat down nervously.  Jason patted me on the shoulder and most of the audience was either nodding in agreement or wiping away tears.  I sat shaking and started to feel quiet anxious from speaking to a mostly unknown audience about issues so personal and distressing that I had spent the last few years repressing and ignoring them.

The rest of the evening was spent talking with members of the audience and panel.  I received a great number of business cards and offers of assistance and opportunities to speak to other veterans and people with PTSD and depression.  I found the response surprising and was shocked when LTGEN Leahy approached me as he was leaving.  He handed me his business card and told me to email him.  He offered to take me to see the Minister of Veterans Affairs to discuss the issues I had brought up.

He told me that the Service Chiefs would be made aware of what I had spoken about and that I should continue speaking up.  Both he and Dr Nelson expressed the need for younger veterans to be the public faces and voices of our generation and that I should be one of them.  I was very humbled by this statement and thought a lot about it over the following days.

At the conclusion of a big night, I farewelled Jason and the Soldier On crew, thanked the others and started riding my bike back home.  The next 45 minutes were some of the most contemplative times of my life as I thought about what I had said and the inevitable shock-waves that they would create for my family and I when the ABC airs Boys Don’t Cry on Big Ideas in late 2013/early 2014.

The Silent War

Last year on Sunday 29 September, I sat down with Canberra Times Sunday Editor Scott Hannaford and photographer Melissa Adams to share my story about life with PTSD, depression and life after I hung up my uniform and packed away my boots.

Scott had seen this blog and contacted me via Twitter and asked if I wanted to take part in a story he was putting together on Veteran’s experiences with post traumatic stress disorder and life after deployment.

For a few hours we sat down and talked about my time in Iraq and Afghanistan and my fundraising/awareness raising for Soldier On.  On Sunday 13 October 2013, Scott published a story in the Canberra Times about my fundraising campaign leading up to the 2013 Battle Of The Beasts.

CanberraTimes Article.:Click here to read the original story at the Canberra Times:.

After months of hard work Scott’s story was published in all major Fairfax newspapers and online with a suite of interactive media including our interviews and photos from overseas.

Below is my interview from the Canberra Times website and video interview with Scott and Mel.

.:Click here to view my video interview:.

.:Click here to go the interactive website:.

IW 002 IW 003 IW 004 IW 005 IW 006 IW 007 IW 008 IW 009 IW 010

A Radical Change In Diet – Or How I Stopped Eating Meat & Became A Vegetarian

Six weeks ago I stopped eating meat.  Much to the chagrin of my Wife, bacon-obsessed cycling group and Mother (who firmly believes that fish and chicken don’t count as ‘real’ meat.).

There are several pros and cons to this change which I didn’t gradually lead into; I basically considered it privately for a few weeks, announced my intention to my Wife and then overnight proclaimed I wouldn’t eat meat anymore.

Why Stop Eating Meat?
The most logical and hardest question to answer.

First off, I’m not one of the ‘meat is murder’ crowd.  I have slaughtered and butchered some of God’s cute little creatures with my own hands, have visited an abattoir and have partaken in countless meat-filled BBQ’s over the years.  My choice to cut out meat is not one based on ethical concerns and I’m certainly not going to be ‘that’ person at a BBQ that asks for the plate to be cleaned before my veggie patties get cooked; oh and I despise tofu!

My decision to stop eating meat comes down to three major reasons:

#1: Mental Health
I live with a depressive and anxiety disorder that makes me prone to rapid mood swings, violent outbursts and irrational behaviour.  Couple this with a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and you get a person that can swing from jovial and on top of the world to a person that is best kept in a dark room away from other people and sharp objects.

A healthy diet plays a large part in maintaining mental wellbeing.  Consuming food is what keeps the body functioning and ultimately keeps you alive.  Prior to changing my diet I would consume a large amount of red meat and chicken.  It wasn’t uncommon for me to eat an entire roast chicken in one sitting and order a steak with a side of steak at Hog’s Breath. 

Diet plays a very large and understated part in balancing mental health.  Certain foods can evoke different mental and physiological reactions.  Chocolate and ice cream are well-known for being the comfort food of choice for emotional men and women.  I am lactose intolerant and love ice cream; ergo the pleasure I derive from consuming it is quickly overtaken as my body promptly reacts to the enzymes it cannot process.

In the way that eating certain types of food makes people happy, the digestive processes after eating red and white meat made me lethargic and as a result unhappy that I didn’t feel like doing anything afterwards.  Something as simple as not feeling like getting off the couch to go for a ride or a walk around the lake would compound itself into feelings of guilt, a distorted self body image and ultimately trigger a mental reaction that would lead to a depressive episode.

Basically, that wonderful meat hangover feeling most people get after eating a meat-heavy meal is absent for me; instead I feel sick, depressed and my body will rapidly purge the offending meal in a most violent way.

#2: Metabolism and Body Weight
I have a fast metabolism and it’s very difficult for me to maintain my body weight when exercising.  Ideally I sit between 75-80kg when riding to a training program.  This may seem like a large fluctuation, but in reality, it is mostly fluid retention and fluid loss during and after rides.

On average I will lose 3-5kg on a 50km mountain bike ride whilst my fluid intake will be upwards of 2-3 litres and calorie intake at close to 2000 calories via energy gels and muesli bars.  My recovery period after a medium to high intensity ride over 50km is close to 48 hours and I will constantly eat and drink to rebuild my energy reserves and gain the weight I lost.

As stated before, I feel sick after eating meat, I also feel full and won’t continue eating which in turn slows my recovery period and has an adverse effect on getting back on the bike and returning to optimal training ability in the shortest time possible.

#3: An (Not-So-Slowly) Aging Body
Everyone gets older and joints and muscles start to ache and some days it’s harder to get out of bed, right?  Wrong!  I’m 32 years old and I have constant pain in my left knee, discomfort in my hands and wrists; and restricted movement in my left shoulder.

I can credit my days in the Australian Army for most of my knee problems and my shoulder to a bike crash which tore my left pectoral muscle last year.  But the fingers, wrists and constant patella issues in my knee; well that is thanks to early onset of osteoarthritis.

There is a link between eating a meat rich diet and an increase in adverse arthritic symptoms.  This is due to the high fat content in non-lean meats and the obsession with meat-heavy meals in Western culture.  Can’t I just switch to lean meat?  I could but it doesn’t negate the two previous reasons I’ve stated and the fact that in just six weeks I’ve noticed improvement with my knee and joint pain and dexterity.

Looking Towards The Future
Will I continue my vegetarian diet indefinitely?

To be honest, probably not.  As I stated at the beginning this isn’t because of an animal ethics issue; this is because I wanted to feel healthy both in body and mind.

So far the basic goal of feeling better is definitely working for me.  I have more energy, I’m eating all the right foods to ensure I get the nutrients my body needs and ultimately I’m enjoying eating more diverse and natural foods.

On a side note if I was trapped on a deserted island and cannibalism was my only avenue of survival I wouldn’t hesitate to eat some human sirloin!

An Open Letter To The Minister For Veterans’ Affairs

An Open Letter to Senator the Honourable Michael Ronaldson, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Dear Senator Ronaldson,

On 12 November 2013 I sent both an email and a letter to you via your gazetted Ministerial Office contact details.  To date I have not received a reply nor have I received any acknowledgement that my correspondence was received by your office.  Although traditional mail does occasionally fail to arrive at its intended destination, an email with the correct recipient address does not.

My original letter to you was in regards to the comments made by your Department’s Mental Health Adviser, Doctor Stephanie Hodson, which were aired during a segment on Channel 7’s Today Tonight entitled Fighting A Mental War.  Dr Hodson’s comments were not only highly controversial, but also quite insulting to Australia’s Veterans.  To claim that a major part of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs inability to provide timely support to Veterans with mental health issues was in part the fault of the Veterans themselves is nothing short of victim blaming.

Did I, like many others ask to be haunted and troubled by the traumatic experiences from our deployments?
No, we did not.

Did I ask for help from within the Australian Army?
Yes I did and on numerous occasions I was told to “harden the fuck up”.

Did I ask your Department for assistance?
Yes I did, but instead of the support that I was entitled to, I was forced to jump through hoops and make my way through a maze of red tape.

Like many Veterans, I found the system that is supposed to provide us assistance and avenues of support was, in reality, creating more roadblocks on the long journey to recovery.  Roadblocks that ultimately resulted in me turning my back on DVA and finding the help I so desperately required from my family and friends.  To be honest I couldn’t help but assume this was a deliberate ploy by DVA; make it as difficult as possible for Veterans to access support services and they will eventually give up; saving the Department a large sum of money.

Unfortunately many Veterans do not have the type of support from family and friends that I do, and when the world is at its darkest, some will take their own lives.  This year alone more than twenty returned servicepersons have committed suicide.  I must stress that this number reflects only those that are clear cut cases of suicide and not single-vehicle accidents and incidences of drowning while intoxicated.

I was extremely fortunate to attend Paul Barclay’s Boys Don’t Cry forum at the Australian War Memorial on the evening of Thursday 21 November 2013.  During this forum members of the panel discussed various issues regarding PTSD and depression with a focus on the Australian Defence Force and withdraw from Afghanistan.  It would have been highly beneficial for a member of your Department or staff to have attended in an official capacity in order to answer some questions regarding the level of support offered by DVA.

LTGEN Peter Leahy was a member of the panel and spoke about returned servicepersons accessing support from within the ADF and DVA.  While I wholeheartedly agree that the ADF is getting better and that the stigma associated with PTSD and depression is slowly dissipating.  I found LTGEN Leahy’s claims that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is learning from the mistakes of the past a complete and utter fallacy.

This was an opinion that I shared with the panel and audience during the question time at the completion of the forum.  For almost 25 minutes I spoke about my struggles with PTSD, the systematic failures of the ADF and DVA when I was trying to access support services and my fears for Australian Veterans in the future.

The Department of Veterans Affairs exists for the sole purpose to provide assistance to Australian Veterans, whether they have experienced overseas service or not.  This is a role that DVA seems to fail at more often than not.

Senator Ronaldson you are quoted on the ABC’s World of Today webpage from a report by Lexi Metherell from Tuesday 10 December 2013 as saying:

MICHAEL RONALDSON: We cannot repeat the mistakes of post-Vietnam, where this country let down those men who were doing no more and no less than serving the nation at the nation’s request.

Senator Ronaldson I implore you to open your eyes to the facts.  The mistakes of “post-Vietnam” were the mistakes from post-World War 2 which was the legacy from the mistakes made post-World War 1.

I am a third generation Soldier; my Grandfather served in World War 2 and was stalwart for Veteran’s advocacy his entire life, my Father served in Vietnam and dedicated 42 years as a fulltime Soldier; and I have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  These mistakes you speak of, the mistakes of the past are in fact the Ghosts of the Past that continue to haunt us to this very day.

I watched as my Grandfather’s legacy and honour left with him as he passed away in a geriatrics ward; a man of such strong resolution, he dedicated the entirety of his post-war life to the Returned and Services League and spent a record 35 years as the President of the Corrimal RSL Sub-Branch.  The Department of Veterans’ Affairs bureaucracy come to forefront when matters concerning his palliative health care and DVA Gold Card became an issue in his final days.

I have witnessed my Father’s transition to civilian and retired life; not an easy feat after spending almost half a century serving this great Nation.  I watched as a child, my Father’s struggles with his past service in Vietnam and later as his friends died prematurely from illness brought on by exposure to hazardous materials and suicide brought on by depression and PTSD; long ignored and compounded by DVA’s ineptness and unwillingness to support struggling Vietnam Veterans.

To listen to spokespersons from the Government, Department of Veterans’ Affairs and even yourself; the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, speak of not having history repeat itself is insulting.

I have several friends with their names on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial; these are men now forever young that I mourn the loss of everyday.  A heavy weight that I and many others carry on our shoulders as we will not let their sacrifice for the people of Australia and Afghanistan be in vain.  Every loss is felt deeply within the Australian Defence community even if it becomes a just a distant memory for most.

I fear with the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Middle East almost complete, the spotlight will dim and the ongoing fight for support and assistance we have earned will not be forthcoming.  Many Veterans spend months waiting to see specialists and have claims processed.  Coupled with PTSD, depression, anxiety and the blasé attitude of some DVA staff this is a catalyst for self destructive and suicidal behaviour.

The number of Veterans who have taken their own lives now surpasses the brave 42 whose names are on display in our Nation’s capital.

Many of these Veterans have continued to fight long after their war in the Middle East ended.  Like a battle with the enemy this too is a fight for survival; and without DVA accepting responsibility and acting on its mistakes this too will cost the lives of Australians that once donned the uniform of a Soldier, Sailor or Airman.

I care not for excuses and the ongoing blame game of previous Governments.  I care only for you the current Minister for Veterans’ Affairs to stand up, acknowledge the mistakes of the past and find a way to move forward for the better.  I ask you Senator Ronaldson, to engage with us, those Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen that have fought against the bureaucracy of a Government Department that has learnt nothing over the past 100 years.

As we prepare to remember and mark the 100th Anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign; can you honestly say that today’s Veterans are receiving the appropriate level of support and assistance that our forefathers never got to experience; or like them will this fight become the legacy of my children when I am long gone from this world?

Respectfully yours,

Chad Dobbs
17 December 2013

This letter has been forwarded to Senator Ronaldson’s contact email address: officeoftheminister@dva.gov.au;
Tweeted to Senator Ronaldson’s Twitter page: @SenRonno;
Tweeted to DVA’s Twitter page: @DVAAus.

An Evening At The Australian War Memorial

On Wednesday evening, 20 November 2013, I attended a panel discussion at the Australian War Memorial on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  The event was hosted by journalist/writer Paul Barclay on behalf of ABC TV and Radio National.

On the panel were former Chief of Army LTGEN Peter Leahy; author and Beyond Blue ambassador Allan Sparkes; Beyond Blue board member Professor Brett McDermott; and the wife of a former British Royal Marine, Emily.

I was asked about attending the panel a few days earlier by my friend Jason.  Originally I didn’t want to attend as I honestly thought it may be a trigger for an anxiety episode; so I declined.  It wasn’t until the night before that I decided to go along and hopefully have a chance to speak to whoever was on the panel.  I had no idea who was participating in the discussion other than LTGEN Peter Leahy and hadn’t really thought about what was going to be discussed.

In the afternoon prior to the start of the forum, I rode from work up to the Australian War Memorial.  As is the norm, I was wearing my Soldier On jersey and happened upon new Soldier On team member Tony; who many moons ago was my Troop Commander when I served in Iraq.  Jason arrived next and soon we were joined by Anna, Meredith and Dion from Soldier On.  After I got changed into something more appropriate than skin tight lycra, we went into the BAE Systems Theatre.

After the introductions Paul started the discussion with some questions about PTSD in the military for LTGEN Leahy.  The conversation and questions started to flow freely within the panel with some very emotional stories being shared by Emily and Allan.  Prof McDermott gave some very interesting insights on PTSD for not only military personnel; but also for emergency service persons and of course their families.

I wasn’t the only veteran in the crowd; but I was the youngest.  There were a few Vietnam Veterans present, family members of veterans with PTSD and a few senior Defence officers that were skulking around the back pews in civilian attire.

As the discussion progressed LTGEN Leahy was asked some questions about support services available to veterans.  I have a lot of respect for this man; he was an exceptional Chief of Army and has done a lot to help veterans with his current position as Chairman for Soldier On.  But there is a distinct level of detachment from what a high ranking officer is told and what happens on the ground.

Some of his responses started to irk not only me, but a lot of the crowd listening to him.  There were more than a few audible scoffs at some comments about the Department of Veterans affairs doing their best to help all veterans.  One comment in particular drew a very audible “get fucked” from me.  The former Chief of Army said that when a Soldier asks for help, he or she will always receive it.  Paul mentioned the story of MAJGEN John Cantwell and LTGEN Leahy was in agreement.  Whilst MAJGEN Cantwell has done a lot to help break the stigma of PTSD in the ADF; it is also true that a very senior Officer is never going to be turned away when they ask for assistance.

Allan Sparkes shared his story of PTSD and depression from when he was a Police officer; and the ostracising that he experienced as a result.  His story was a very raw, no punches pulled recount of his darkest days and his termination from his employment without his knowledge.  His story was very reminiscent of many veterans from the Vietnam War up until today’s conflicts.

Emily’s story was one of amazing courage from both her and her husband Adrian.  She spoke of her time in the United Kingdom when Adrian returned from deployment in Afghanistan a changed man.  He had experienced traumatic events and as a result developed PTSD.  His struggles with mental health affected his wife and two daughters as they watched as their husband and father dealt with his issues now that he was back at home.  His eventual discharge from the Royal Marines was a result of a physical injury and just like the majority of occupationally injured Australian servicepersons; Adrian was soon pushed out the door with very little support and preparedness for his transition to civilian life.

As the forum was drawing to a close Paul invited Dr Brendan Nelson, director of the Australian War Memorial to speak and field some questions from the panel.  He spoke about the AWM’s role with supporting veterans of recent conflicts by having interactive exhibits and involving them with other projects the AWM is conducting.  As a former Minister for Defence he expressed his desire to see more support forthcoming as the Afghanistan War draws to a close.

As 7pm was quickly approaching a few of us in the audience were wondering if we would get a chance to ask questions of the panel.  Adrian was next to take the stage and he recounted some of his experiences post deployment and how support for veterans is extremely slow from the government in Britain.  He spoke of having his claim for assistance being rejected on the first submission; a trend very similar to that in Australia carried out by DVA.

Adrian expressed his concern for veterans being forgotten after the withdrawal from the Middle East and a strong desire for them to be able to access the support they deserve and not repeat the mistakes of the past.  He likened the struggles of today’s returned servicepersons to that of the Vietnam War era in the way that the fight for support continues even after the war on foreign soil has ended.

Adrian’s address to the panel and audience had clearly reached out to everyone with many of the Vietnam Veterans visibly moved by his honesty.  As he sat down Paul checked his watch and asked us sitting in the audience if anyone had anything questions or comments.  I had been sitting and fidgeting for the past 10 minutes waiting for this moment.  Several different introductions and talking points had gone through my head and all disappeared in the instant I raised my hand and Paul motioned for me to stand up.

I was shaking before I even started speaking; this was always going to be an emotionally charged interaction from me and I started by introducing myself.

“Hi I’m Chad, I separated from the Army early last year and have deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan.  I have been diagnosed with PTSD, depression and anxiety and I want to know why not enough is being done to help Australian veterans.”

I addressed LTGEN Leahy first and exclaimed to him that history was indeed repeating itself.

“I am a third generation Soldier, my Grandfather served in World War 2, my Father served in Vietnam and I have served in the Middle East.  I watch as my Father and his mates still struggle with PTSD with many Vietnam Veterans taking their own lives since the war ended.  I watch as my generation struggles with the same issues and now my mates, people I served with, are killing themselves because of PTSD and depression; and nothing is being done to stop this.  There are more people in the ground because of PTSD and depression than there are that are on the wall outside who were killed on operations.”

I spoke of my efforts to get help when the weight was becoming too much for me to bear and that the first two times I asked for assistance I was rebuffed by my unit RSM’s; a statement that clearly shocked LTGEN Leahy.  I was asked questions from both Allan Sparkes and Prof McDermott about my interactions with DVA and I recounted how I was told that my claim was going to be slow as my PTSD and depression ‘wasn’t that bad’.  I explained to them that is was at this point that I withdrew my claim and stopped interacting with DVA as I felt I was being accused of chasing money and that by not receiving financial assistance my criticism of their practices would hold more weight in a public forum.

I described my battles with depression and that very few people understood; and the simple act of asking for help effectively stalled my career in the Australian Army for a number of years.  The feeling of being ostracised and singled out was always present and that few people would support me when I asked for further help.  I explained that while MAGJEN Cantwell’s story is not an isolated one, the level of support and assistance he received was.  The average Digger in a unit has to contend with the ever present stigma of mental health issues and ignorance present within their chain of command and the probable persecution for not being able to fulfil their duties without restrictions.

I expressed astonishment that the very organisation founded to protect the rights of and provide assistance to veterans was failing in its primary role.  I emphatically asked how in the forty years since the end of the Vietnam War servicepersons are still not being afforded the support we fought for.  How it was possible that DVA can state they are still learning and getting better with a straight face as veterans from multiple deployments and generations kill themselves while waiting to access support services.

By this stage the room was silent and I had been speaking for around 20 minutes.  The panel while sometimes asking me questions and making statements had clearly been unprepared for such a raw and uncompromising speech from someone.  I had brought up some points with personal accounts of systematic failures from within the Australian Army, Australian Defence Force and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

There were some topics that I shared with a public forum that had only been discussed with medical professionals and not even shared with my wife and family.  As my speech drew to a close I expressed the hope that one day veterans would receive the appropriate support from the Government but that it was very unlikely to occur in my lifetime and that my children probably wouldn’t see it happen either.

As I finished speaking I apologised for hijacking the Q&A session; Paul started wrapping up the forum and I sat down nervously.  Jason patted me on the shoulder and most of the audience was either nodding in agreement or wiping away tears.  I sat shaking and started to feel quiet anxious from speaking to a mostly unknown audience about issues so personal and distressing that I had spent the last few years repressing and ignoring them.

The rest of the evening was spent talking with members of the audience and panel.  I received a great number of business cards and offers of assistance and opportunities to speak to other veterans and people with PTSD and depression.  I found the response surprising and was shocked when LTGEN Leahy approached me as he was leaving.  He handed me his business card and told me to email him.  He offered to take me to see the Minister of Veterans Affairs to discuss the issues I had brought up.

He told me that the Service Chiefs would be made aware of what I had spoken about and that I should continue speaking up.  Both he and Dr Nelson expressed the need for younger veterans to be the public faces and voices of our generation and that I should be one of them.  I was very humbled by this statement and thought a lot about it over the following days.

At the conclusion of a big night, I farewelled Jason and the Soldier On crew, thanked the others and started riding my bike back home.  The next 45 minutes were some of the most contemplative times of my life as I thought about what I had said and the inevitable shock-waves that they would create for my family and I when the ABC airs Boys Don’t Cry on Big Ideas in late 2013/early 2014.

The Central Point Of Failure – The Department Of Veterans Affairs

I wasn’t sure if I should write this post.  My last opinion piece about the Department of Veterans Affairs was received quite well by the veterans community and prompted DVA to contact me to discuss my and many other young veteran’s issues.  What has prompted this follow-up piece tentatively titled “You Ignorant Fucking Bureaucrats!”?…

On the evening of 11 November 2013, undoubtedly scheduled to coincide with Remembrance Day, Channel 7’s Today Tonight aired a story about young veterans and the ongoing struggle for support with PTSD and mental illness entitled Fighting A Mental War.

The story began as a fairly straight forward account detailing the struggles of those who have had the unfortunate distinction of dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs.  Frustration, anger and depression are some of the emotions one can feel when dealing with a Government Department seemingly intent on ignoring your calls for help and ensuring you don’t get access to quality support services and ultimately rejecting financial assistance for your national service at war.

This may seem like an extreme statement but when the person asking for support is a young service-person trying to access help for depression and/or assistance after experiencing a highly traumatic incident(s); being rebuffed by the very organization founded to help you only causes more stress and compounds an already volatile situation.  It is a fact that more young servicemen and servicewomen have taken their own lives post-deployment than have been killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ordinarily I would take a story broadcast on Today Tonight with a few dozen grains of salt.  But after watching Keith Payne VC fire up (a man I have had the pleasure of spending time with in both Afghanistan and Australia) and the pitiful response from DVA Mental Health Advisor Dr Stephanie Hodson I was poised to hurl my remote control at my TV in disgust.  I sat staring in disbelief, I wanted to break something, I could feel my pulse rising and my face getting hotter as my skin became flushed with rage.

Ultimately I calmed down but not before I fired off a steam of questions and statements to DVA via Twitter, Facebook and email.  Minister for Veterans Affairs Senator the Honourable Michael Ronaldson was also in my sights and received a highly sanitized and more eloquent email demanding answers about his representative’s insulting statements.

What did Dr Hodson say?  Below is the transcript from Today Tonight’s segment.

“Any suicide is tragic, and the department actively monitors suicide in veteran community,” Dr Hodson said.
“We actually do need to work on getting our staff more trained, but also about getting through these claims more quickly.”

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.

Dr Hodson claims part of the problem lies with the veterans themselves.

“The problem is that it’s not until someone is in crisis that they will actually start to look for the services,” Dr Hodson said. “The treatment is there for veterans; we just need them to come and put up their hand and get it.” 

The full video can be found here:
http://au.news.yahoo.com/today-tonight/lifestyle/article/-/19777434/veterans-with-post-traumatic-stress-disorder/
Dr Hodson’s comments on behalf of DVA start at approximately the 8 minute 15 second mark.

I want to stress I am not launching a personal attack on Dr Hodson; she is clearly a very competent and qualified medical professional.  She previously served 22 years in the ADF as a psychologist and has been with DVA for the past decade.  This is a woman who has dedicated the majority of her career helping service-persons with mental health issues.

I am however attacking the Department of Veterans Affairs for the systematic failure of the past 40 years.  I’ve watched as my Father’s generation has been let down by DVA and his mates have been driven to suicide.  Decades later the same thing is happening to my generation.

By Dr Hodson’s own account, DVA needs to do more work; but also claims that the Department’s failure to plan ahead is not to blame.  So to Dr Stephanie Hodson and Minister for Veteran’s Affairs Sen the Hon Michael Ronaldson I put this to you:

The last Australians withdrew from Vietnam on Anzac Day 1975.  That was 38 years, 6 months and 18 days ago; and yet Australian Servicemen and Servicewomen are still not getting the support that we deserve and have fought for.

To have not learnt from the past and continuing to ignore the Department’s ongoing mistakes is akin to giving a Soldier with PTSD a noose and pointing him or her in the direction of the closet tree with a strong branch.

Battle Of The Beasts 2013 – Wrap Up Video

A brief video of my journey through the Battle of the Beasts so far.

Battle Of The Beasts 2013 Wrap Up

The lead up to this years Battle of the Beasts was an enormous challenge for me.  My primary aim was about raising awareness and fundraising for Soldier On; of which I increased my efforts ten-fold from last year.  I spent a good 6 months fundraising and helping to raise the profile of Soldier On before I even thought about how I was going to tackle a huge weekend of riding.

The Fundraising
I’ve written at length about why I ride for Soldier On, so I’ll skip that part.  In early April this year I approached Soldier On about producing a cycling jersey that I could wear while commuting, training and racing.

BOTB 13 035.:Soldier On at the Battle of the Beasts 2013:.

While Soldier On had a fairly comprehensive list of merchandise the one thing they didn’t have was a cycling jersey; and I figured the running shirt I wore last year wasn’t going to cut it for comfort and practicality.  So with the help of Meredith and John from Soldier On we came up with a design and had a set of jerseys made by On The Go Sports.

SG020.:Soldier On Jersey at the Scott 25hr:.

In just a few weeks of wearing the jersey in Canberra I had drummed up enough interest about my riding and Soldier On that it was time to start a Facebook page to get the word out to a wider audience.  So suddenly I was a mediocre mountain biker representing a charity whose mission it is to better the lives of wounded servicemen, servicewomen and their families.

It took me quite a while to realise that I was in fact one of these Soldiers that Soldier On aims to help.  And each and every-time I put on the jersey I was showing the public and other veterans that you can empower yourself with something as simple as riding a bike.

When it came time to register for the Battle of the Beasts, I signed up for both days of riding; the 42km Flowing Beast and the 72km The Beast.  The decision to ride both races was an easy one; I rode one race last year, so this year it was only natural that I would ride two races.  With the ongoing support from Luke and Dan from Beast-Worx, and John, Meredith and Anna from Soldier On; I started my 2013 fundraising campaign.

Regular updates on this Blog, Facebook, my fundraising page and Twitter became the norm.  Soon I was attracting “likes” and “followers” from as far away as the USA and slowly the donations started to trickle in.

I wanted to branch out more this year so I contacted a number of Defence-aligned companies and local Canberra businesses.  Out of the 27 companies/businesses I contacted only stepped up and helped out.  Pushys Bike Warehouse at Fyshwick supported me by providing awesome deals on products in store that kept my bike rolling.

Of the other companies/businesses only 6 replied; with 2 of the replies bordering on offensive to not only my request for support but to all Veterans of Australia.

The Lead Up Training
From the moment I decided to ride The Beast again I knew I would have to actually train for this years race.  Last year I lost almost 7kg through sweating, vomiting and post race bleeding from the kidneys (clearly my hydration/nutrition plan was a failure).

BOTB 048.:Post Beast 2012:.

Despite riding to work and racing quite regularly I knew I would have to put more kilometres of dirt under the tyres with more emphasis on climbing.  So I started a 4 month training regime; and posted my weekly training updates on this blog.  As the weeks turned to days and then to hours before the first race of the Battle of the Beasts weekend; I knew I was fitter and more mentally prepared for this years event.

The Preparation
My prep was simple; working bike, working body and enough fuel to keep that body going.  I had spent a lot of time working out what was the best way for me to keep hydrated and fuelled through a lot of trial and error.  I sat down the day before the Flowing Beast and mapped out a plan for both days of riding; and I’m very happy to say I stuck to the plan for The Beast.

The Flowing Beast on the other hand…well I’ll get to that soon.

The Flowing Beast – Saturday 19 October 2013
First of all I didn’t intend to actually race the 42km course.  With the Beast the next day and being fairly warm and sunny; I thought it best if I just pedalled around the course for two laps and saved my legs for the next day.

BOTB 13 047.:Drumming on the bars waiting for the race start:.

BOTB 13 052.:And we’re off for the Flowing Beast:.

Well the original plan went out the window as soon as I found myself passing the majority of the field on the first fire-road climb.  Somehow I was in the lead pack just behind the Dynamic Motivation crew.   As we entered the first lot of singletrack I back off a bit and let a few riders pass; but I soon chased them back down as we entered the second half of the 21km course.

BOTB 13 057.:Brettski was out taking photos on the course… Pushing up the hill lap 1:.

As I headed through transition and swapped out bottles I found myself alone as I started the climbs of the first half of the course.  I kept looking behind me and anticipated the inevitable call of “track” signalling a faster rider was bearing down on me.  For the first time in a race ever, this didn’t happen.  In fact I started passing more and more riders as the end of the race drew closer.

BOTB 13 065.:Brettski was out taking photos on the course… A little more pain this time on lap 2:.

I knew I wasn’t going to catch the elite riders but I also knew I was going to post a good time so I pushed on and ended up catching the race sweep before changing to the big ring and powering up the final climb and towards the finish line.

BOTB 13 060 BOTB 13 062.Crossing the finish line:.

By the end of the race I had ridden 44.2km in 2hr39min.  An effort I was very happy with; but something I would undoubtedly regret the next day when my legs would start screaming at me.

Something I’ve been doing lately is taking before and after race photos.  Below is my before and afters of the Flowing Beast; I lost 2.7kg during the days riding.

BOTB 13 045.:Before the race:.

BOTB 13 063.:After the race:.

The Beast – Sunday 20 October 2013
Fizz from The Berm said of last years race: “there are those that have done the Beast event, and those that have not“.  To be honest he is right.

Many riders complained before last years race that 72km on a fire-road was too easy.  Well considering the number of DNF’s for the race was in double figures I wasn’t surprised to hear the same people complain that it was too hard by the end of race day.

I wasn’t physically or mentally prepared for last years race but I finished and that was something I was incredibly proud of.  Along with finishing the race I raised $5’702 for Soldier On; which made the blood, sweat and tears worth it.  As I detailed in my 2012 wrap up it was the hardest thing I had done physically outside of the Army.

The day started with the long drive out to Caloola Farm and re-registration.  I had left my race plate on my bike from the previous day and considering it was attached to the roof of my car; it didn’t survive the drive home.

I attached the new race plate to Kate and set out to mingle with some of the other riders and the Soldier On crew.

With the bike ready, knicks and jersey on it was time for the pre-race brief from Beast-Worx Luke.  Along with the obligatory course info and safety brief; Luke called me out in front of the other riders and explained about Soldier On and introduced me and spoke briefly about my fundraising efforts.

BOTB 13 072.:Out the front with Luke:.

Minutes later we were lined up near the start point.  Last years Beast’s Jeremy Ross and Anne Broadbent soon headed off with the elite pack chasing a few minutes later.

BOTB 13 077.:The start line:.

After the elites had crossed the first creek the rest of the pack headed off.  I had a plan committed to memory; I had broken the course down to 15km sections with an average speed and time-frame to achieve.

BOTB 13 084 BOTB 13 085.:I started with Adam “Rocket” Rolls before he powered off into the distance:.

Even after riding the Flowing Beast the day before I felt somewhat fresh and watched as the kilometres started increasing on my GPS.  With a different bike, sans Camelback and with a lower temperature and cloud cover this year; I was soon reaching checkpoint after checkpoint and riding up climbs I walked the year before.  On the steep climbs I did walk; I only dismounted when my speed dropped lower than I could walk pushing the bike.

With just two bottles on board I monitored my fluid intake carefully.  Despite the lower temperatures I kept to my plan and consumed food and water to plan and stopped at each checkpoint to refill my water.  While riding with last years riding-buddy Argo; I was making good time and resisted the temptation to push out.

Last year Argo took the lead and I followed him; without his encouragement I doubt I would have finished.  But this year I had to tackle this course on my own; I needed to tame The Beast solo and soon I found myself climbing the steep inclines and braving the steep declines by myself.

I was methodical in sticking with my riding plan and didn’t alter from it until the final 8km of the course.  After getting up Mt Soldier On by jogging to each water bar, resting for a count of ten and then repeating.  I was soon on the way to the finish line.  I had a moment of pure elation when I rode on the track named after me, “Dobbsie’s Run”, and screamed out a “F**k yeah!” for all the valley to hear.

I sped down the hill to the final checkpoint and refilled both of my bottles with the intention of throwing my riding plan to the wayside.  I had a time-frame I wanted to finish in and I was nearing the start of that bracket.  So I zipped up my jersey, changed into the big ring and started pushing to the end.

For the next 7km I didn’t see or hear another rider.  I ignored my GPS and pushed past my intended speed and soon I could see the main fire-road that would take me back to the event centre and the finish line.  Soon the last few kilometres disappeared, I hit the grass and rode under the finish line banner to end The Battle Of The Beasts for 2013.

BOTB 13 088 BOTB 13 089 BOTB 13 090.:And just like that, it was over:.

It was a good feeling to finish and an even better feeling to know I wasn’t completely spent and had shaved off over an hour off of my time from the previous year.

image.:Before the Beast:.

image.:After the Beast:.

image.:After the first bit of real feed post race:.

The Wrap Up
I’ve read a few race reviews and wrap ups from other riders since the race finished. While most riders get the point of the race some others don’t seem to. It is not designed to be a test of endurance to rival the harsh conditions that servicemen and servicewomen face on deployment. If that was the case there would be the ever present risk of improvised explosive devices, indirect fire, small arms fire and multitude of other dangers that are thrown at our men and women in uniform. And believe me; no one that has ever experienced this would like to see others subjected to it.

The is a race designed to test you both physically and mentally by giving you an opportunity to tackle an incredibly difficult ride and raise much needed funds for Solider On. By completing The Beast you achieve what many others won’t attempt; you tame Your Beast. This race is designed to try and break you mentally, this race wants you to fail, and this race puts climbs in front of you that many people wouldn’t even consider riding. But by crossing that finish line you achieve what the Beast-Worx team wanted you to experience; you found that little something deep within that you rarely let out; you pushed through the pain and emotion and achieved your goal.

This is why we choose to ride The Beast; not because it is easy; but because it is difficult and because we need to test ourselves to be better.

Battle Of The Beasts – Update #7

Last weekend the Canberra Times ran a story about my fundraising and motivation for riding cycling. I was somewhat apprehensive about sharing my story to a targeted audience. Blogging is a platform that I regard as a broadcasting medium…I type and post things and push it out to the internet for interested parties to stumble upon and look at. To have a quite personal story printed in the Canberra Times was a decision I made based solely on the positives I hoped would come of it.

Many returned veterans don’t speak out about their issues; especially those living with PTSD, depression and anxiety. Everyone has different reasons for wanting or not wanting to speak out. The fact of the matter is that I was not looked after by the Australian Army when I asked for help. That help eventually came from the Army; but only after a Navy doctor stepped in.  This lead to me closing up and not talking about the underlining issues for my depressive episodes.

I was embarrassed about my behaviour and the stress it placed upon my family and friends; and only after a couple of years did I realise I wasn’t alone in my experiences.

Hopefully by me speaking out about my experiences living with (I hate the terms suffering and battling) PTSD and depression it will empower others to put their hands up and ask for help and hopefully one day share their experiences with the wider world and inspire others to do the same.

Thank you very much to Canberra Times Sunday Editor Scott Hannaford and Photographer Mellissa Adams for spending a quiet Sunday afternoon at my house and listening to my story.

…Link to the original story…

CanberraTimes Article

…Click on the image to enlarge and read the article…