22 Push-Ups For A Much Bigger Issue

I have been asked a number of times to participate in and also what my opinion is of the current viral trend of the 22 Push-Ups In 22 Days Challenge.

When this first started appearing on social media I was in two minds about it.  Sure, it’s raising awareness for Veteran Suicide but…
My first issue was that it stated US Servicepersons Suicide statistics and not Australian.
Secondly, it often stopped being about the cause and more about the individual/group in a lot of instances.

When I’m watching people bust out one-handed push-ups or advertising some supplement while doing so; I am watching that person steer a serious issue towards a ramp getting ready to jump the shark.
The actual shark jumping occurred when various Defence groups, specifically the Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force, started producing slick videos as part of pseudo-recruiting initiatives.  Pardon the language, but, kindly go fuck yourself with a big garden rake.

One of the biggest contributing factors of suicide amongst Australian service people is the stigma and bullying that often comes with asking for assistance for mental health issues.  Many a person has teetered on the edge, reached back for something to hold onto and found an uncaring SNCO/WO or Officer with their arms folded.  Sure they didn’t push, but they sure as hell didn’t try to hold them back.

Over 240 Australian Veterans have died due to suicide in the past decade.  Eight good men I served with in Iraq and Afghanistan are amongst that number.  I was almost one of them.

I have campaigned on this issue for a number of years.  I have stood before strangers in an auditorium sharing my story in the hope it would help others, implored Service Chief’s for fundamental changes to mental health support in the ADF, petitioned MP’s and Senators, and even spoken openly with a Prime Minister.

I can honestly say that in that time I have not seen a campaign that has rallied the Government into action.  Getting the public’s attention is the only way the Government will enact change for the better.  The simple fact is if dead Veterans, shattered families and constant pressure won’t change attitudes, 22 Push-Ups will not be the turning point in a battle that has spanned generations of Australian Veterans and countless armed conflicts and wars.

But it will be another vital piece in an incredibly big and complex puzzle.  Many people have set up fundraising pages to coincide with their Push-Up Challenge and I applaud them for that.  I would also recommend that anyone doing the Challenge take a few minutes and post their reasons for doing so on the Facebook Page of Hon Dan Tehan MP – Minister for Veterans Affairs.

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.

Riding For Soldier On – Australian Army News

A short article about my fundraising for Soldier On for this year’s upcoming Battle Of The Beasts Mountain Bike Enduro has been published in the 18 July 2013 issue of the Australian Army News.

Army News Jpeg

Army News Article PDF Version

18 July 2013 Army News Edition 1309 PDF Version

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.