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?

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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…”

 

Identity (…aka Letting Go & Moving Forward)

It has been over two years since I wrote two of my more reflective pieces about leaving the Australian Army.  Taking Off The Uniform was a brief post written on the eve of ANZAC Day 2013 and Standing In The Shadow Of The Green Giant followed a few months later in early July 2013.

The central themes of both posts were my pre-discharge months of being treated like a number and not a Soldier and the subsequent months post-discharge when I struggled to deal with no longer being a Soldier and adapting to life out of the uniform.  Since I wrote both pieces, a lot has changed in my life and I recognise that I have also changed.  I am now married to a beautiful Wife, I have a gorgeous Daughter who brightens up the darkest of days and our family will include another member in May next year.

I often think about whether or not this scenario would have been possible if I was still a serving member, and quite honestly I don’t think it would have been.  I grew up in a Military household; my Father was a career Soldier, who would often be away for many months at a time.  I am acutely aware of what it is like having a Father who was incredibly supportive and loving; but would also be away for Birthdays and other milestones in his children’s lives.  I see this realisation in my Father’s eyes today, when he spends time with his Grandchildren, he is living some of the events he missed out on with his own children; and this is something I never want to do.

In this regard, I know I made the right decision to leave the Australian Defence Force.  But this doesn’t stem the feelings of being out of place a lot of the time.  I struggled to put my finger on it for quite some time before I came to the conclusion that not only did I stop being a Soldier by hanging up my uniform; I also lost my identity.  It’s a throw-away line by most ADF members that life is a balancing act; you take the uniform off at the end of each day and you are instantly a different person.  The reality of this assumption is that you aren’t a different person out of uniform and the expectations placed upon you are very different from the vast majority of society.  There are months away from home on courses and exercises and months away from home, often in harms way, spent on foreign soil.  There is no other job that is like this and put simply, this is why most people are not suited to the ADF.

My transition back to being a civilian was not an easy one.  To this day, almost four years later, I still feel like had more to achieve and more to prove to myself and others.  The identity that I had forged as a Soldier is no longer mine and I have struggled to establish a new identity; to establish who I now am.  I have attempted to fill the huge void in my life by interacting with and assisting a Veterans’ support organisation; trying hard to keep the link to my previous identity.  But like many attempts at self-reinvention this was akin to trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.  My attempts to help others by speaking out for PTSD affected Veterans came at a huge personal cost.  Multiple relapses into depression that were harder to climb out of each time.  The very feelings of isolation and obsolescence I felt in the final months of my time in the Army were once again occurring.  Ironically, by trying to help others I was slowly but surely breaking myself apart.

Somewhere along this journey, my identity had changed to that of a quasi-Veterans’ advocate and I was not able to see that some activities were detrimental to my own mental health.  Due to opportunities afforded to me for my own recovery I felt I couldn’t say no and when asked if things were okay, I would lie and say they were.  History was once again repeating as I didn’t want to put my hand up for support in fear of seeming weak and letting others down.  Because of this willingness to keep putting myself out there I kept digging further and further into the darkness.

When the time came for me to try and get myself out of the hole, I was too far down and to be brutally honest the support often advertised, that I thought I had worked for and earned, just wasn’t tangible or there.  Once again anger and resentment joined forces with my depression and I was forced to withdrawal from something that was effectively keeping grip on the last thread to my identity as a Soldier.  I had to let go and I had to do it not only for myself, but for my Family.

In order to move forward I once again had to look backwards.  My journey up to this point had been difficult and if I stayed on the current course it wasn’t going to get any better.  It was time to let go of that final thread.  I had to accept that I was no longer and never would be an Australian Soldier again.  I wasn’t a voice for service affected contemporary Veterans.  I wasn’t a person that could inspire others with their recovery.  I will never forget the road I have travelled to get to here; and my past will always cast a shadow on my future but it isn’t who I am today, it is not my identity.

I am Chad; Husband, Father, Son, Brother, Uncle; a man who once wore a uniform and served his Nation.
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Reclamation (…aka Starting To Take Back Control)

Even during the darkest moments in life, lightness can and will shine through.  This is not an epiphany, nor is it an instant fix to all of your woes.  The most appropriate word to use when describing this evolution is lucidity.

When living with with a depressive illness; it is easy to dismiss the positives and dwell on the negatives.  Climbing out of the deepest, darkest holes in your mind is half the battle each day.  The other half is standing up and learning how to hold your head high.  Each and every day is a fight to keep the balance in your life.  Tipping one way brings the risk of depressive relapse, tipping the other brings momentary highs; but an inevitable slide back into the darkness.

I always use the term living with instead of suffering from, when describing life with depression and PTSD.  This is not an attempt to be politically correct, this is intentional on my part as a way to personalise and own a very dominating aspect of my life.  A person suffering from a mental illness rarely sees a reprieve in their life.  I shy away from this term as I see it as way to justify using depression as a crutch in your life.  Why try to live with and overcome when you can just settle with the issues and obstacles that litter your journey through life?

While many of us affected by our military service choose to hide and be deceptive about our illness and troubles, others choose to speak openly about what life was and is now like.  I have swayed between both; and both have had positive and negative effects on my life and my overall well-being.  My period of lucidity came mid-year when prolonged illness took hold and I was eventually diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.  For the first time in a very long time, I was able to regain control of a seemingly uncertain part of my life.  A change in diet, health and lifestyle was cathartic.  It also removed a deep rooted sense of doubt and negativity that had been plaguing me during days when fatigue was dominating my every waking minute.  I was relieved when I found out my symptoms weren’t psychosomatic and an unforeseen progression of my mental health illness.

A great weight had been lifted from my shoulders and I took that uncertain first step in deciding other areas in my life now needed to be addressed.  Changes to circumstances in life are quite often triggers for depressive relapses that can manifest into erratic and dangerous behaviour.  It is force fed during counselling and wellness sessions that routine and structure in life is key to living with and overcoming mental health illnesses.  I have also found this advice to be a roadblock in a number of key events in my life post my military career.  It’s akin to walking around your house in the dark and not knowing where your next step will take you despite the fact the you have trod this very ground a thousand times before.  It is true that this tentativeness in life can protect you, but it can also hinder.  Sometimes that next step into the darkness may actually be a step out into the light.

I have used this system of routine and structure for a number of years, but I have also deliberately allowed for the routine aspects of my life to be fluid; and myself accessible and open to change.  This doesn’t work all the time and I find myself becoming either defensive or aggressive in response to unplanned change.  This is quite evident when interacting with my family.  Not all things go to plan despite my and other people’s best efforts; but understanding my negative reaction to such disruptions does in fact inflame and often overshadow the actual issue is important to keep in mind.  Learning from one’s mistakes and (over)reactions may not help the next time life doesn’t go to plan, nor the time after, but eventually big issues don’t seem that big all and you can better control how you react to them.  There will of course be relapses, but knowing you can and have reacted more positively is very reassuring when the dust settles.

I am often guilty of living life through a negative and obstructionist point of view.  Surprisingly, in mid July this year, I came to the conclusion that my routine, my structure in life had in fact become askew and this negative way of seeing the world and living my life had become the norm.  My first step out of the darkness and into the light it would seem.  But what about my next step?  It was time for me to start owning my ongoing recovery and stop using other people and avenues of supposed support as aids to navigate through life.

It was time to take stock of where I had been, my journey to now and where I wanted to be in the future.  For probably the first time it was overtly apparent that my actions in life had a direct effect on my Wife and Daughter.  I was no longer a singularity, responsible for only myself.  I was and had been for quite sometime, responsible and accountable for other people.  This new moment of lucidity brought with it not uncertainty; but certainty.  It also came at an entirely unexpected and surprising moment; during a Death Cab For Cutie show at Canberra’s ANU Uni Bar.  I dare say I can credit Ben Gibbard performing Passenger Seat to an enthralled audience for being a catalyst for jump starting my recovery.

Over the next few weeks I felt as if I was sharing those days when the literal and metaphorical skies where blue and the sun was shining with the two people I love and cherish the most.  I wanted more days like this for not just myself; but for them.  I wanted my Daughter to grow up with a Father who would look after her and not the other way around.  It was time to drop some of the excess baggage in my life.  This is the next evolution in my recovery and something I can honestly saw I am looking forward to.

Redemption (…Or What Happens After A Relapse)

It’s difficult overcoming obstacles in life and a lot more difficult overcoming obstacles that you set up in your mind.  Depression is a mental illness that can, and often will, manifest into the physical form.  I have experienced anxiety attacks, rapid weight loss, nausea, migraines and of course self harming behaviour.  A lot of people describe living with depression as living with the Black Dog.  A silent companion that is always following you, lurking in the shadows, waiting to bark and bite.

For me a depressive episode is like being alone in the ocean.  One minute it’s sunny and calm and the next, it’s stormy with waves crashing down upon me.  It’s a struggle between trying to stay afloat in between holding my breath and being dunked under; and just accepting my fate and sinking down to the bottom.  But what happens when I sink to the bottom is hard for most people to understand.  Imagine the contrast between the rough seas and the struggle above you, and now the calmness and introspective nature of looking upwards to all of that.  But of course this moment is fleeting, while you may no longer be exposed to the what is adversely affecting you; you will eventually drown from being underneath it.  The battle to swim back to the top and fight against the waves is what ultimately calms the ocean once again.

For me the end of last year was spent fighting the waves in between sinking to the bottom.  For the first time in a number of years I spent a lot of time on that bottom looking up at the crashing waves.  This was my Relapse.

An important part of Recovery is what happens next; and that is what I call the Redemption Moment.  It is the moment you realise your Relapse has finally let go of you.  My Redemption Moment occurred when my daughter Celeste smiled at me when I went to get her out of bed one morning.  In that one moment I knew everything I have experienced, everything I have done meant nothing to this little girl who wanted only for her Father to cuddle her and protect her.

For so long I have felt my life and who I am has been defined by the years I spent wearing the uniform of an Australian Soldier.  Now, as I move forward with my life post Army, I’m becoming more aware that what I have done in the last few years, is how my friends and family see and think of me.  It’s a difficult transition for me to come to terms with.  The events and experiences, the choices and decisions, the good and the bad; and of course the darkest day of my life can be attributed to my military service.  But slowly, as the years pass, I’m able to stop looking in the mirror and seeing a Chad wearing an Army uniform that no longer exists.

Late last year, I was extremely fortunate to have been surprised with portrait of myself by renowned Australian artist Caroline McGregor; gifted to me by my very good friends Jason, Sarah and wife Carly.  Caroline is well-known for her portraits depicting Australian Soldiers and capturing the person behind the uniform.  My portrait was a different direction for Caroline, who usually depicts the subject on operations.  A number of photos were submitted to her of me including some from Iraq and Afghanistan, with background information about me over the past few years.  The one photo that struck a cord with Caroline was of me in my Soldier On Cycling kit during last years Remembrance Ride.  The photo was taken by SO Cycling photographer Matt Connors on the first day of the ride; when I was acting like a fool with the other riders, some of whom I would later travel to France and ride in the Trois Etapes with.

Caroline chose a photo of me, doing what has been integral to my recovery with PTSD and depression; riding a bike, representing Soldier On, building my confidence and connecting with others that have been affected by their service.

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.:Matt’s original photo:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography
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.:Caroline’s Portrait:. https://www.facebook.com/CarolineMcGregorArt http://www.carolinemcgregorart.com/

 

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

Trois Etapes 2014 – Part 6 – Expectation vs Reality

Like all good things, this Blog series must also come to an end.  For those of you diligent enough to read through the preceding five posts, I give to you, the final part in this series.

It’s difficult to sum up an experience like the Trois Etapes into a short form Blog series.  There are many factors that come into play when choosing what to include, what photos to use and how to balance the narrative so that it doesn’t sway too far into what I like to call “too-much-Chad” territory.  There were certain events, photos and details that I had to exclude.  Not due to any lewd behaviour, but because some members of the team are still serving in ADF and most importantly, it is not my place to tell their stories no matter how inspirational and confronting they may be.
As previously mentioned in Part 1, this was a long journey for me; and now that it’s over I find things have definitely changed for me.  I’ve always been brutally honest on this Blog and that is something I set out to do from the start.  I chose the name “Blogged Down By Life” for a reason.  Many days I wake up and feel like I am bogged down by what my life has become.
I live with what is clearly defined and diagnosed as a mental illness; I live with a form of PTSD and I live with a sometimes debilitating depressive disorder.  But despite this I do not suffer from anything.  I have made choices in recent years that have defined the person I now am; some were good choices, some were not.  It is difficult to find a balance between the two when your outlook of life is immediately tainted with a pessimistic view and defeatist attitude.  The highs I experience in life are exhilarating and the lows, well, sometimes the black dog gets the best of me.
During the lead up to the Trois Etapes I experienced many highs and lows; and more often than not I let frustration get the better of me.  Dealing with a charity like Soldier On is a unique experience.  A small number of dedicated staff, a heavy workload and an increasing number of requests for support, mean that details were often late in being disseminated to the team.  Things that often frustrated me were frustrating the staff even more as they were the ones spending hours of their own time trying to fix potentially catastrophic issues.  Differing opinions, stubborn people on both sides of the fence and a constant stream of minor issues arising, threatened to derail this massive undertaking before we even left Australia.
Do I wish some-things had occurred differently?  The simple answer to that is yes.  It was an unfortunate fact that due to so many competing events and the juggling of several prominent people’s schedules that the event launch our trip deserved did not happen.  The majority of the promotion for this event was on Soldier On’s Facebook page and my team-mates saturating social media with the details.
I am a more prominent advocate and supporter of Solider On and this is often a slippery path to navigate.  Through my early interaction and fundraising I essentially planted the seed that would grow to become Soldier On Cycling; a community of like-minded people and veterans that were using cycling a means to recovery and also to raise awareness for the charity itself.  This is something I am extremely proud of and elated to see what the idea has now grown into; different chapters in several different cities and of course the Soldier On cycling kit.  But what this meant for me, on a personal level, was that I had quite suddenly became a face and a voice for Soldier On; not something I was prepared for.
This quite suddenly came to a head earlier this year when an older Blog post about my interaction with the RSL went somewhat viral across ADF and veteran aligned social media groups.  I received an enormous amount of responses to that post and subsequently many others I had made.  The majority were people agreeing and supporting my stance; however the negative comments ranged from differing opinions to abuse to outright death threats.  This was my first taste of what my outspoken views on veterans issues would attract.
As the year progressed and Soldier On Cycling promoted and conducted the Remembrance Ride I chose to heavily promote the event on this Blog, my personal social media accounts and in the local and national media; something I do not regret doing.  While the Remembrance Ride achieved a great many things, most notably through a heavy saturation in the media; I had been left wondering if Soldier On’s participation in the Trois Etapes achieved the same level of achievement.  Over the last few days interacting with various people through social media, both friends and strangers, the overwhelming opinion is that we either didn’t achieve what we set out to do or we simply went on a holiday to France.
Do I agree with this?  No.  I do believe there were some missed opportunities leading up to the event that were out of our’s and Soldier On’s control which left more than a few people asking what was going on.  One point that I do take issue with though; is that the seven of us went to France on a holiday.
Each rider was chosen to participate for various reasons.  Either because of their tireless efforts in raising the profile of Soldier On, or by being affected by their service in the ADF; mentally or physically.  Like myself, many of the team has a devoted a great deal of their own time and funds to promote Soldier On and the issues younger veterans face on a daily basis.
Did I see the trip to France as a reward for this?  No.  I honestly saw it as an opportunity to promote Soldier On and Soldier On Cycling to a potential new global audience; and this is something we, as a team managed to do.  But, this is something that was not relayed back to our’s and Soldier On’s supporters and critics back in Australia.  There is no finger of blame to point for this, it was something that just did not occur.
The most important achievement by the seven of us travelling to France and racing in a cycling Pro-Am was the personal growth that occurred in each of us.  I shared personal accounts of survival, loss, hope and desperation with a group of men that I will never forget.  I saw men breakdown physically, mentally and emotionally after successfully riding up a mountain.  Why?  Because this was about breaking down barriers and rebuilding our lives with hope and self-confidence.  At some point during the event we all conquered something that was holding us back in our lives.  For several of us this was the most physically and mentally demanding thing we had done since taking off the uniform.
My story was not dissimilar from many of the others and since I have returned I have received emails and messages asking me why fundraising money was spent on sending us to France.  It should also be remembered that I am not an employee or ambassador for Soldier On.  I don’t know the breakdown of the budget for Soldier On; but I do know that the vast majority of the Trois Etapes trip was funded by private sponsorship from Defence industry partners.  It should also be noted that both our photographer Matt and driver Bruce paid their own way for the entire trip!  Also, each of us that participated spent a large sum of money leading up to and during the event to fund various travelling expenses.
This post was supposed to be a wrap-of our final week in France.  Where we as a team made up of young Australian Veterans, toured the Belgium Battlefields of World War One, paid our respects at the graves of long dead Australian servicemen and visited the Menin Gate and saw the tens of thousands of forever young Australian men’s names etched in stone.  Instead I wrote a post defending Soldier On, my team-mates and myself.  I try to not let the negativity get the best of me, but when I am forced into a corner by dozens of abusive emails and messages I will defend myself and the others.
Chad
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.:WWI Cemetery:.
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.:WWI Cemetery:.
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.:WWI 100th Anniversary:.
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.:Team Soldier On and coach Scott Sunderland & co:.

Thank you to my Wife, daughter, family and friends.  Without your support I wouldn’t be here today, let alone have made over the French Pyrenees.
Thank you to my team-mates: Andy, Justin, Shane, Matt, Dan and Adam.  Hopefully you all know how much your support and encouragement meant to me.
Thank you to Scott, Bruce, Matt, Jodie, Kate and Jenine – none of this would have happened without your help and tireless efforts in supporting us.
Thank you to Soldier On for their incredible work and support: Pearl, Clare, Dion, Carlie, John, Danielle, Meredith, Anna and especially Tony – (for being a friend, a mentor and being you).

Why The RSL Must Look To The Future

In the past few days there has been a lot of coverage in the news and on social media about the RSL NSW office dictating what will and won’t be allowed during the Sydney ANZAC Day march. To say this has caused a wave of emotion to boil-over various Defence affiliated social media groups is an understatement. The sentiment most being expressed is one of Veterans being fed up with the attitude of the RSL and their efforts to control the very thing that is central to our identity; the ANZAC legend.

I have been critical of the RSL previously and have even participated in some of the online debates about what my opinion is of the current issue surrounding Veterans and marching with their unit banners. As with most discussions regarding the RSL and Veterans opinions and experiences; sadly the negative seems to far out-way the positive. In the midst of a robust discussion about the relevancy of the RSL in these modern times; I posted a rough opinion piece that I have fine tuned and censored for this blog post.

Many of the negative experiences Veterans are facing today aren’t from the club side of the RSL. We are literally being told to “go away” by sub-branches. I don’t give a rats arse about the bar, bistro and pokies side of the RSL; my concern is with the Veterans support side turning away my generation because of perceived differences.

In the past 18 months we have seen more than twenty suicides of Veterans under 40 years of age! While every suicide is both concerning and a tragedy; I’ve now buried more friends to suicide than have been lost in war. We are on the edge of an epidemic spilling over and the sad fact is that Veteran suicide is the new Elephant In The Room for Australia and Australia’s Veteran community. The simple reason for this is because the support isn’t there when it is needed and that support certainly isn’t coming from the RSL anytime soon!

We all wore a uniform and we all served Australia, but to a very small minority in positions of authority in the RSL National, RSL State and RSL sub-branches, this means nothing. In the months after I left the Army I tried to reach out to the RSL, the same sub-branch my Grandfather was President of for 40+ years and was told by the new President “fuck off, we don’t want young blokes with tatts”.

The RSL needs to realise there are other Veterans support groups, social groups and avenues of support available to the Veteran community aside from them. The Vietnam War era soldiers didn’t have the support of the RSL when they needed it but eventually the tide turned and now a lot of Vietnam Veterans are running the sub-branches. The Vietnam Veterans went through decades of lobbying and some still won’t walk inside an RSL. Unfortunately they didn’t have the groups and support networks we have available to us today.

Put simply we have other support and social mechanisms in play that won’t ostracise us and turn us away. Until the RSL at the State and National level fully understands that they are no longer relevant in their current form and start listening to what ALL Veterans want (WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda, Somalia, East Timor, Solomon Islands, Foreign Aid/Relief, Border Security and Middle East) they are going to see a continuation in the already rapid decline in numbers and attendance.

There are many sub-branches that are doing exceptional things in the Veteran community but their good deeds are being overshadowed by a leadership that won’t look towards the future.

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.