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:.

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Battle Of The Beasts – Update #2

It seems my updates are now a tri-weekly occurrence.   So three weeks after the inaugural Battle Of The Beasts Update.  I present to you Update #2.

The fundraising for Soldier On and raising awareness for veterans support services has been going quite well after a few hiccups.  I’ll be the first to admit I was a bit naive with my requests for industry and business support.  I had approached several Defence related companies and numerous local Canberra businesses for support and sponsorship. Because I believe in this cause so much and understand the good it does for so many I was incredibly dejected at the amount of rejections I was receiving.

Out of the sixteen requests I submitted I have received eleven rejections and five no replies.  I find it incredibly difficult to understand how a business which makes hundreds of millions of dollars from Defence contracts cannot donate money to charity.  I understand that I am one fundraiser, a very small cog in a very large machine, however some of these companies DO NOT DONATE ANY MONEY TO THE DEFENCE COMMUNITY.  OK rant over and I’ll move on!

I’m still hopeful of hearing back from some of the local Canberra businesses and have been given some advice from friends that have done this sort of thing before.  Social media is really helping especially friends sharing on Facebook and retweets on Twitter.  There are a lot of people out there that support our wounded veterans.

To date $1’665 has been raised thanks to some very generous friends.  I need to thank Craig Passante for his massive $500 donation.  Craig has been very supportive of my fundraising this year and last year and continues to be a very strong role model for young veterans like ourselves.

So with a little over three months to go before The Battle Of The Beasts, I’ve got a fair bit of work to do to reach my goal of $6’000.  I’ve got a few media stories and interviews in the works for newspapers, MTB magazines and hopefully TV & radio if things go to plan.

Some keen eyed readers would have noticed I’ve started a training regime working up to the BOTB in October.  Last year I rode the event not knowing what was ahead of me and to be honest I was overwhelmed physically and mentally by the enormity of the ride.  Since last years race I’ve been able to complete a couple of big endurance races with relative ease.

Through trial and error I have worked out with the right nutrition and hydration plan I am quite capable over long distances on the bike.  This year I aim to be fitter and better prepared for the challenges I will face during the climb-heavy race.  While I will never win a race of this magnitude I want to race against myself.  I have a few on course goals I want to achieve and a few people I really want to leave in my wake.

So I am juggling not only my home life, upcoming Wedding, work, fundraising and veteran’s advocacy; I am slowly working my body into what I need it to be to tackle the Namadgi ranges for a second time.  I will need to be better at endurance climbing and able to focus my mind on the ride and not on the pain and kilometres remaining in front of me.

So before the Battle Of The Beasts I have a few CORC XC races, countless commutes and training rides; and a couple of 3hr XC races to keep me honest.  And as always I will be proudly wearing not only my Soldier On jersey but also my team kit displaying my beloved The Berm name and logo.

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for me on and off the bike.  I’ve had a few big set backs with the fundraising and would like to acknowledge a couple of people that have been a huge help: Carly, Scotty, Nat P, Dylan H, Mel C, Argo, Ben H, Nigel J, Roger H and Pete A.  These are the people that have given me invaluable advice and kept me focused on the big picture.  Thank you!

CORC XC Rd 3 #01

Rocking my Soldier On jersey at Round 3 of the CORC XC Series

Standing In The Shadow Of The Green Giant

As more and more returned veterans put their hands up and ask for help the processes for support services are steadily improving.  Thanks to people like MAJGEN John Cantwell the stigma that is attached to persons with PTSD is slowly disappearing.  It takes a lot of courage to speak openly and honestly about an issue that often results in self-harm, substance abuse and even suicide.  For a high-ranking, high-profile ADF member to stand up and acknowledge that his service to his country has caused a mental illness is incredibly brave.  By shedding his uniform, rank, and medals; John Cantwell has empowered other returned veterans to admit that they too need assistance.

Recognising that there is an issue is the first of many steps towards recovery and rehabilitation.  The second step is often the most difficult and at times the point where a person in uniform will retreat and hide; raising your hand and asking for help.

The Australian Defence Force and Australian Army in particular are constantly in the media tackling varies issues such as sexual misconduct and gender equality.  While both are extremely important in their own regard, the spotlight rarely shines on another equally important issue; the culture towards members with PTSD and depression.

I’m not going to pretend I know about every single ADF member’s details about living with mental illness.  I know about my own experience and also others that were brave enough to share their stories with me.  I struggled for months before I put my hand up and asked for help.  As I’ve stated before I was rebuffed by the one person at my unit whose primary duty it is to look after Soldier’s welfare.  Being told to “Harden the fuck up” struck a huge blow to my confidence and I started to withdraw from those around me.

Others have related the same kind of experiences to me with regards to their first encounters within the chain-of-command.  Some superiors ridiculed and some provided that much needed assistance.  It took several months for me to ask for assistance again.  Many around me were extremely supportive; there were a small group of supporters from the Army that fought tooth and nail to get me the help I desperately needed.  But there were others that seemed determined to prove that what I was living with was my fault and I should get over it. 

There were words spoken to me in private while I was at my lowest point which were delivered with such venom a day rarely goes by that I don’t hear his words in my head.  “You are a fucking lying soft cunt”.  These words were delivered at me as I lay in a hospital bed awaiting the arrival of my parents from interstate.  I had suffered an anxiety episode so severe I admitted myself to an Army hospital.  This would also be the moment where others further up in my chain-of-command became aware of what was happening and after almost 12 months of living with PTSD, anxiety and depression I was finally able to acknowledge I couldn’t continue without help.

While my story is not uncommon it is certainly not the norm.  Many ADF members ask for help and are looked after very well with counselling, rehabilitation services and flexible working arrangements.  One of the first things that occur once an ADF member seeks professional help for depression, anxiety or PTSD is the implementation of restrictions on their terms of service.  You are no longer allowed to do certain tasks that are deemed to be dangerous to yourself or others and your career and posting options are effectively stalled.  While many of these restrictions are incredibly important and beneficial, such as no access to weapons or limited field time, others such as removal from your normal job into an administrative role often causes more undue stress.

I had several restrictions placed upon me when I was posted to Brisbane.  No access to weapons, security clearance review, no promotion courses, regular drug testing, six month alcohol ban, weekly performance reviews, fortnightly counselling sessions and no field exercises among others.  At the time of my new posting I was incredibly fatigued, I was 10kg under my ‘ideal’ weight, insomnia plagued me, anxiety attacks were the norm and of course I was acutely depressed.  My new unit; in particular my Troop Commander and Troop Sergeant were incredibly supportive; and as I got to know the rest of the Squadron members I was able to continue my rehabilitation with very few interruptions.

My life was well and truly back on track and my symptoms had abated.  I had met and started a relationship with my future wife and I was enjoying the availability of time to spend with my family; in particular my Twin nieces.  But as with all things in the Army, resources were stretched thin and when my restrictions of service expired I was called upon to step up and take on extra responsibility.  I relished the opportunity to prove my worth and performed some very big tasks with very limited resources and manning.

When the time for the new posting cycle to be reviewed came about I was bounced back and forth between a heavily constrained Career Management cell and a senior Soldier that should never have been allowed to look after Soldier’s welfare and career issues.  In the end my career plan was completely discarded and the aspirations of another Soldier were forwarded to my Career Manager instead.  During this incredibly stressful period I spent the majority of April to August on exercise in Northern Queensland with very little consultation on my next posting.  By the time I was actually consulted about what locality I may have wanted I was given one option; Kapooka, home of the Army Recruit Training Centre.  It was decided that I was to become a Recruit Instructor.

During this time I was having depressive episodes and anxiety attacks.  However instead of shying away from the issues that were causing this; I tackled them head on.  I solicited the advise of family, friends and colleagues on the pros and cons of taking this unwanted posting or leaving the Army; my only two options.  Just as many people advised I accept the posting as those they suggested I discharge and find a new job.

Finally I gained employment outside of the Army and started my separation process.  This is usually a long and drawn out process, however as it was nearing the end of the year and I had to move interstate; my paperwork was rushed through the system.  My unit was incredibly helpful during this stage with many of my in-trade superiors expressing that I had made the right decision and that “The Army had changed”.  It was true; I no longer felt like an individual Soldier, instead I felt like a number that was being shuffled around a giant spreadsheet.

I left the Army without a farewell, without a discharge certificate being presented and without any ongoing assistance for my depression and anxiety.  Months later, after I was settled into my new home and job, did I start realising I was relapsing; I was missing my friends and previous life.

Without the support of the ADF I relied heavily on my family and friends for the ongoing support I needed.  I did reach out to the Department of Veterans Affairs after the death of my Grandfather and was placed on a six-week waiting list to see a councillor.  Two days before my appointment I was advised it had been cancelled and my rescheduled date was another four weeks away; I never turned up to it.  Instead I started talking about my issues with others and realised that many other Soldiers had been experiencing the same obstacles as me especially those that had separated from the ADF.

This is the reason I’m so passionate about the mental health of returned veterans.  The system is not yet good enough and so we rely on each other to be open and honest for ongoing support.  The Australian Army was built on courage and mateship.  Those that speak up about their battles with mental health issues and the lack of ongoing and adequate support services are continuing that tradition even if they no longer wear the uniform.