Don’t Mention The War

Another ANZAC Day has come and gone. As with previous years I donned a suit with my medals affixed and attended a Dawn Service. This year, however, something seemed different. From the moment I stepped foot onto the rain-sodden grass of Warrawee Park and walked towards the Oakleigh Cenotaph I felt like an interloper at an event that I should have felt at ease attending. As far as I could tell under the glare of the nearby street lights, I was the only Modern-Day Veteran in attendance.

As I do when I attend any Military commemoration service by myself, I circled the crowd looking at faces and chests to see if I could recognise a former colleague or identify someone who has deployed on the same campaigns as I have. For the first time, I spotted neither; in fact, the only medals that were being worn were those of the attending Victorian Police Officers for their service to VICPOL, descendants wearing World War One and World War Two medals, and the Vietnam era medals worn by the local RSL Sub-branch representatives. At this Dawn Service I was alone; and I felt alone

The Service was like most others, the requisite boxes were ticked and despite some technical glitches due to the wet weather, the Service was completed as intended. However, two things occurred that would ensure I will not be attending another Dawn Service at the Oakleigh Cenotaph. A man, more than old enough to know better, spent the entire Last Post, Minute’s Silence and the Reveille with his concentration focused firmly on the iPhone glowing brightly in his hands; something I very much doubt he will do ever again after some quiet words from me. The second incident highlighted a growing trend I have noticed over the past several months. I was approached by the representative of the local council to pose for a photo with the attending local member for Monash Council. There was no request for my name, service details or any other personable interaction, I was requested to act as a prop in a photo opportunity to make a politician seem like he cared about ANZAC Day

Due to my previous volunteer work for Soldier On, I am no stranger to standing in front of a camera and playing the part of the modern-day Veteran for a cause or fundraising event. In the few short years since my participation with Australia’s highest profile ESO and subsequent withdrawal from Veteran Support Organisations and media engagements, I have seen an increase in the number of modern-day Veterans step in front of the camera and share their experiences with the community. A Veteran’s experiences on deployment are very personal and something that isn’t easily shared with others; especially strangers. When speaking to the media I would have a pre-prepared script in my head that I would follow. Even the details that I would share that seemed extremely personal were details that I had censored or had omitted entire events from to protect friends, family and myself.

In an age where so many rely on social media and smart devices for their news and real time information it should be no surprise that many Politicians, businesses and ESO’s have embraced a more arguably aggressive media campaign leading up to and on ANZAC Day. From my vantage point at the back of the crowd during the Oakleigh Dawn Service it was easy to spot the dozen or so camera flashes each time a local Politician or business owner laid a wreath at the base of the Cenotaph. A brief check of two of the attending member’s social media accounts the day after the Service indicated that the photos taken during were posted online less than an hour after the actual wreath laying. Such instances are not rare, in fact, during the Dawn Service itself I could see multiple groups of younger persons taking selfies with either the congregation or Cenotaph in the background. The same was clearly evident during the day when television news programs reported on the various Capital City Dawn Services; it was a sea of smart phones glowing brightly, replacing what used to be candles providing a sombre atmosphere.

A concerning emergence this ANZAC Day was the promotion of the ‘Struggling Modern-Day Veteran’ identity by various media outlets and some ESO’s. It’s a very fine line to tread at the best of times, but on the one day of the year when patriotism, jingoism and emotions can become blurred, some media reporting and ESO social media posts/promotions were seen by some people as being in bad taste.

On one side of the coin is an article published by the ABC and written by Jane Cowan regarding Australian Veteran Chris May’s experiences during and after his deployments to Afghanistan. As co-founder of ESO Young Veterans, Chris is at the forefront of Veteran advocacy and often speaks of his personal experiences as way to engage, educate and de-stigmatise the issues many Veterans face regarding mental health and suicide. As someone who has done this previously and quite openly, I applaud his stance and candour on these issues and without a doubt the decision by both Chris and the ABC to publish this article on ANZAC Day was one that was not made without careful consideration. In this instance it was an article that was published with an aim to inform and educate; and not push an agenda or promotional angle.

On the other side of the coin was a text message I and many thousands of others received in the afternoon on ANZAC Day from ESO Soldier On.

Without being too critical of an organisation I once supported and represented, the timing and wording of the text message leaves a lot to be desired. I openly question the aggressive tone of the message, especially considering the audience receiving it would be primarily made up of Veterans and Veteran’s families. Have we not served and sacrificed for our country? Do I really need to honour the memory of my dead friends, men killed in action on foreign soil, by sending $25 to Soldier On now?

The Veteran ESO network is particularly vast in Australia with some organisations focusing on providing support and support programs tailored to a specific activity or operating within a small geographical area. Other, larger ESO’s, aim to engage with and provide support to a larger community of Veterans across many states and sometimes nationally by providing a multitude of support programs, activities and fundraising opportunities. It is via these fundraising opportunities that many ESO’s engage with the broader community and raise the necessary funds to continue to provide support services to Veterans and their families.

It is often through this engagement via a fundraising platform that the wider community, without any direct connections to a wounded or service-affected Veteran, learns of the issues facing those of us that reach out to an ESO for assistance. Our experiences enter the public domain, with the aim of helping others; we share details that are often very personal and sometimes tragic. As I have written about before, some ESO’s are competing over finite sources of funding while simultaneously exploiting the experiences of Veterans and maintaining their focus on a what is a predominately negative narrative.

Of course there will always be articles and social media posts written about the negative experiences of Veterans. Whilst we await the provision of adequate Government provided support services and wade through the quagmire that is interacting with the Australian Defence Force and the Department of Veterans Affairs; Veterans will continue to express their frustration and anger to a wider audience. We will continue to reach out to ESO’s for support and they will continue to reach out to the Australian public to open their ears, hearts and wallets to fill the gaping hole left by failure of the Government and DVA to provide timely, tailored and adequate support for Australia’s Veterans. But must they do this by continually presenting the Modern-Day Veteran as a victim?

Those of us that live with physical and mental injuries deserve the best chance at a positive recovery. Each day is treated as a new step on a long journey to better our lives and the lives of those people we call friends and family. Our relatively new identity as an Australian Veteran is not and should not be treated as a burden. We are told to focus on the positives in our lives as we continue with our recovery. Should not those organisations purporting to assist us do the same?

What Does ANZAC Day Mean To You?

It is the question that gets asked every year; What does ANZAC Day mean to you?  The quick, neat and politically correct answer is: “honouring the brave men and women who have served our nation in war and remembering those that died doing so”.  But is that what the day really means to people?

As a child, I remember waking early and attending the Dawn Service with my Father at his various Units.  I knew my Father was in the Army and I knew he had been a Soldier since long before I was born.  The many medals he wore on his uniform reflected a lifetime spent serving his Nation; the same uniform and medals he would meticulously set up and layout the night before each Dawn Service.

Growing up, my Father rarely spoke of his time in Vietnam; there was never any depth or emotion to what he would tell my sister and I.  Each year as ANZAC Day approached, my Father, a very quiet yet authoriative man, would become withdrawn and focused.  To me this wasn’t unusual, this was just something my Father did prior to ANZAC Day; the one day of the year he would go drinking with his friends.
I look back to those years and I wonder if my Father and his brothers experienced the same with their Father; a Veteran of World War Two.

I have spent previous ANZAC Days attending the Dawn Service, have taken part in and commanded Catafalque Parties, have marched through a number of Capital and rural cities and have stood on foreign soil and listened to a bugler play The Last Post.  This year I will once again take a set of medals from a box deep within my wardrobe, pin them onto a suit jacket and attend a Dawn Service close to my home.  This will be the sixth ANZAC Day out of uniform since leaving the Australian Army.  Not long into the day I will take off my jacket, un-pin my medals and place them in their box and back into the wardrobe to await the long year until they next see the light of day.

But why do I and so many others wake up early, put on clothes that often make this one day of the year our best dressed, and attend the various commemoration activities?  If you listen to the media, various football codes and the RSL, it’s about remembering the men that landed at ANZAC Cove more than one hundred years ago; an act that helped to forge our National identity of a small yet determined Nation.  Even as a child I found this a hard concept to understand.  Unlike my Grandparents and Parents, I wasn’t born after a World War; there had not been a major conflict involving Australia since the Vietnam War and Australia was more than a decade away from participating in major Peace Keeping operations in Cambodia, Rwanda and later; East Timor.  My generation was born into relative peace time, we weren’t baby boomers, we weren’t exposed to the hardships and austerity measures of our parents’ childhoods and we were long removed from those few left that had fought at Gallipoli.

For many of us that joined the Australian Defence Force in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s we were quickly thrust into an operational cycle that would see many service-people deployed to East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan.  For the first time in decades, Australia was sending men and women to fight for their country on a large-scale.  During these deployments we lost friends, young men, who’s names now join the more than one hundred thousand others on the walls within the Australian War Memorial.

In the years since our withdrawal and subsequent redeployment to the Middle East, we have continued to lose more and more service-people to suicide, yet this is not something that is spoken about widely in the lead up to ANZAC Day.  We continue to hear about those that fought in Wars and Battles from the last century.  Our elected Politicians will wear a memorial pin for the day, and of course, a few modern-day Veteran’s will be thrust in front of the camera at sporting events across the country and used as a prop to sell a false kinship between professional sportspeople representing a team and someone who has represented and served a Nation.

To some Australians, ANZAC Day is, and will always be about the original ANZAC legend; the subsequent generations that have served Australia are little more than another contingent of Veterans marching down the main street of their town or city.  For others the day is an opportunity to enact a misguided interpretation of jingoism by starting their drinking early and displaying various patriotic symbols and emblems.

The disconnect between the general population, media, Veteran community and Veteran Support Organisations has grown over time.  The days of the stereotypical Australian Veteran – the cocky and stoic Digger – are far behind us; yet the legacy of that era still remains.  This ideology has been so ingrained into the Australian psyche that is comes as shock to many that Veteran suicide, substance abuse, homelessness and unemployment are so rife.  The RSL and some ESO’s use ANZAC Day as a foundation for their fundraising efforts, the shock value behind the struggles of many modern-day Veterans is used in the same way the AFL and NRL use the ANZAC legacy to sell tickets and make money.

The individual Veteran is once again being replaced by what the Department of Veterans Affairs, the RSL/ESO’s and media believe the archetype should be presented as.
Instead of Australian men and women standing tall, side by side and sharing with other Australians their experiences in uniform in faraway lands, we are experiencing a degradation of our collective Veteran Identity.

That is the foundation on what ANZAC Day is built upon.  Veterans supporting Veterans and entrusting our legacy, stories and experiences to a Nation that will undoubtedly provide more generations that will go to war; continuing a cycle that has existed for more than a century.

For me ANZAC Day is about the days and nights I spent in uniform, both in Australia and overseas.  The men and women I shared good and bad times with.  The men I called friends who spilled their blood on foreign soil and didn’t come home alive.  The men and women I knew – and those I never met – who took their own lives long after their feet touched Australian soil again.  We each have a story and it is up to us with who we share that story with.

One ANZAC Day a few years from now I will sit down with my children and begin with… “I was once an Australian Soldier…”

 

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.

Have Veteran ESO’s Lost Their Way?

In an age where it seems a new External Support Organisation (ESO) starts up every few months, it would appear that there is an abundance of choice of support service provider available for a struggling Veteran to choose from.  In reality it’s difficult for an affected or wounded Veteran to find an organisation that is best suited to support them and their families.  As I’ve discussed before, there are geographical constraints in place, some ESO’s don’t provide a certain service and increasingly it seems word of mouth travels quickly.  For both good and bad reasons.

One of the key reasons why Veteran ESO’s are continually relied upon so heavily is due to the issues many of us face when dealing with the ADF upon discharging.  Stories of supportive transitions from the ADF into the civilian world are becoming increasingly rare; with many long-term servicepeople claiming (insert service) has changed.  Couple this with often frustrating interactions with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the RSL; it should come as no surprise many Veterans seek out an independent entity for support.

With so many Australian Veterans putting their hands up and asking for help more than ever, I, and many others, expect a more collaborative environment between ESO’s, Veterans and the ADF.  Sadly it seems to be the norm that no open dialogue exists in this realm.  Instead it seems increasingly more common for ESO’s to align themselves with and become more entrenched with the ADF way of thinking.

For many, including myself, this is moving away from what makes interacting and engaging with an ESO a more valid, positive and crucial experience; we crave and need separation between the ADF for a chance at a positive recovery from injuries both physical and mental.

What we need more than ever is not to have our collective voices heard but to have our individual stories listened to.  In the past few years actively supporting, and being supported by ESO’s, it has become very clear that a shift across most organisations has occurred with charities set up to support Veterans transforming into an organisation competing for a bigger profile and more funding.  In order to achieve this new goal and fight over finite sources of funding, Veterans’ experiences and stories are constantly being mined and treated as a commodity in order to achieve that new goal.

I’m aware that this opinion will evoke a large amount of criticism.  But I counter with my own experiences with ESO’s over the past four years.  The shadow cast by expectation of both the ESO and yourself to keep providing your time and representing Veterans is a cold darkness that is hard to escape from.  It makes those critical steps to recovery much harder to scale without a beacon to guide us.  With the commercialisation of the modern Veteran, we are rapidly losing our identity under the guise of supporting others like us.

The recent appointment of former CDF and current NSW Governor, GEN The Hon. David Hurley AC DSC, as Patron in Chief of arguably Australia’s largest and most well-known Veteran ESO, Soldier On, is indicative of a larger culture change in ESO’s from supporting Veterans to expanding profile.

As another ANZAC Day approaches and emotions come to the fore, many Veterans who have been quietly fighting their own internal battles choose this time to open up to their mates and family and ask for help.  Many harbour feelings of resentment and sadness from their treatment in the ADF and towards the upper echelons of rank of their respective service.  Was it really the best decision to appointment a previous Chief of Defence Force, especially one so divisive with his attitude in-regards to PTSD and Veteran Suicide, as the new Patron In Chief and most public representative of Soldier On?

Blogged Down On Twitter #VeteranSuicide

I’m a somewhat prolific (ab)user of Twitter.  It’s a place where I am able to engage with a much wider audience about Australian veteran issues than I can on Facebook and other social and traditional media channels.  It is also a good place to complain about iiNet’s appalling service in Canberra.

Over the past several days I have had times where the black dog has started barking behind me.  I’ve resisted the urge to acknowledge it’s reappearance in my life, but with it being Mental Health Awareness Week, this has been quite difficult.  I have spent a lot of time trying to articulate my feelings, opinions and thoughts on veteran mental health support and veteran suicide into a single blog post.

The plan was to address the serious concerns I and many others have regarding the Australian Defence Force’s mental health support policies and the support avenues available to servicepersons once they discharge and begin re-integration into civilian society and life.  I found I was unable to focus enough to write anything close be being coherent with a clear narrative.  Instead after my Wife and child were fast asleep last night; I was able to communicate what I wanted to share via Twitter in 140 characters or less – give or take 16 tweets.

For those that want to read my SMS sized (over)share, here it is…


https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520163159173107712

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520163823383113728

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520164311004499968

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520164843970502657

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520165343935741952

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520165955503022080

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520166418495463424

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520167165345804288

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520167852989362177

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520168708224737280

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/520169354181111808

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.

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.

Why I Ride For Soldier On

During my time in the Australian Army I served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2009 after returning from 9 1/2 months in Afghanistan I knew something wasn’t right. I was aggressive to most people, wary of crowds, couldn’t sleep, had sleeping issues and started drinking heavily. Like most Soldiers, I didn’t want to talk about my issues in case I was seen as being weak and God knows there were others that were worse off than me. So I kept quiet and not surprisingly, things got worse. I didn’t want to spend time with other people and I started thinking this world would be better off without me.

After several days of no sleep, heavy drinking and almost wrapping my car around a pole on purpose, I approached and asked the Senior Soldier at my unit for assistance. Instead of the words of encouragement and avenues of support I expected from a person of that rank, I was met with “harden the f*** up and get over it”. In that one moment I felt defeated, I was dismissed by the one person who is solely responsible for the welfare of the Soldiers subordinate to them. If this person wouldn’t help me and I could no longer help myself then what was next?

Luckily for me I posted into a new unit and found the support I so desperately needed from my new workmates. After a while I finally found the courage to tell my family I needed help. Road blocks were set up by another Senior Soldier and my desperation grew greater until I hit rock bottom; I attempted to end my own life. It was only when my life was at its darkest did professional help eventually appear; it was provided by a civilian agency and organised by a very kind Navy doctor.

With only the bare-minimum of support coming from within the ADF I relied heavily on my family and friends for the ongoing support I needed. After having all support services cut off after I left the Army and the near-impossibility to secure an appointment to see a DVA accredited councillor; I started talking about my issues with others and realised that many other Soldiers had been experiencing the same obstacles; especially those that had separated from the ADF.

This is the reason I am so passionate about the provision of mental health care for returned veterans. The system is not yet good enough and so we rely on each other to be open and honest for ongoing support.

Soldier On helps by providing something other support services do not. They provide hope, confidence and a hand up – not a hand out.

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.