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:
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.
The time for the Battle Of The Beasts is almost here!
In just a few days I’ll be donning the lycra and Soldier On jersey and heading out to Caloola Farm for the 45km Flowing Beast on Saturday and the 72km Beast on the Sunday.
It’s been a hectic few weeks since my last update with a flurry of activity on the fundraising and raising awareness front with a couple of races thrown into the mix. As the weekend draws closer I find myself getting a little nervous and anxious about what the two rides will have in store for me. Last year’s Beast was an incredibly difficult ride for me both physically and mentally; and even though I’ve been training a hell of a lot more to be fit enough for this year I still wonder if I’ll have what it takes to cross the finish line.
I’ve learnt a lot since last year and have ridden over 5000km since then as well. I had only been riding a mountain bike off-road for about 3 months when I rode last years Beast and it was by far the hardest thing I had done physically that didn’t involve me in an Army uniform patrolling in the Middle East with 50kg of gear strapped to me.
So what has changed this year? Well, I’m fitter (by a lot), I know what this course has waiting for me (more mentally prepared) and I have a new lighter (better climbing) bike for this years race(s). I have nil intention to flat out race during the Flowing Beast on Saturday; this is more of a meet and greet with the organisers/Soldier On crew and others that are like minded about improving Veterans support services. The big test is the Beast on Sunday. I have been looking at last year’s times including my own fairly ordinary effort.
It took me a total of 7 hours and 14 minutes to cross the finish line with only 4 hours and 43 minutes of that spent on the bike. I spent 2 and a half hours not riding my bike last year; that was time spent catching my breath, resting at checkpoints and pushing my bike up hills so slowly my GPS stopped recording my movement.
I have a goal I want to attain this year; both for time and overall placing; but that is for me and me alone. Ultimately what this comes down to is me pushing myself to my limits knowing that many, many people have supported me in my endeavour to raise money and awareness for Soldier On.
With $4’500 raised so far and $5’702 raised from last year it is incredibly humbling to know that so many people share the same mindset about veterans support as I do. To know that I have raised over $10’000 in just under 12 months for Soldier On is what will get me over the line when my leg muscles cramp and my body starts to ache.
As I crossed the finished line next to my riding buddy Argonut, it felt like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I was a shell of the person who started the gruelling ride a little over 7 hours before. I was exhausted, physically, emotionally and mentally. Like many of the 119 riders that began that morning, I too had under-estimated the Namadgi National Park course.
In mid September I ran into an old friend at work and took some time out for a quick catch up over a coffee. I mentioned in a few weeks I was riding the Kowalski Classic and he told me about a charity called Soldier On that was teamed up with an upcoming mountain bike race… The seed had been planted in my head.
I had left the full-time Army earlier in the year and had begun actively supporting and advocating the rights of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in conjunction with my late Grandfather’s RSL and Legacy. In front of me were two things I had a vested interest in; mountain biking and veteran’s affairs.
I looked up Soldier On and the Beast-Worx Battle Of The Beasts and signed up not only to ride in the event but to raise money for Soldier On. It’s a sad fact that the Australian Government and Australian Defence Force does not do nearly enough for wounded returned servicemen, servicewomen and their families. The ADF has an appalling record for dealing with mental health issues and it’s often left to outside support agencies to seek and provide the help that they so desperately need. And this is exactly what Soldier On aims and succeeds at doing.
So I set out with two things in mind, raise a heap of money for Soldier On and train for this Beast of a ride on Saturday 24 November 2012.
I drove out to Caloola Farm at Namadgi National Park early in morning. I registered for the race, affixed the race plate to my trusty steed and prepared for the race. The event centre was well set up and the riders were getting excited. A comprehensive race brief was delivered and we rolled down to the start line. The inaugural Beast, Jeremy Ross, rolled off the ‘black carpet’ and the race was on. Five minutes later the chasing pack followed and a few minutes after, the remainder of the solo riders started. Argonut and I stayed together pacing ourselves early, after a few kilometres and a few creek crossings the pack started to spread out and groups of evenly matched riders started forming across the track. Everyone on the track was in a good mood; everyone was friendly and even though the morning was rapidly heating up the atmosphere of the event was very fun.
And then came the start of the climbs. I won’t lie; I seriously did not think this course would be as hard as it was. Yes it was almost completely comprised of fire trail, but some of them were so steep and deeply rutted I would have avoided them in a 4X4. We were only approximately 16km in with very wet feet when the sporadic hills were actually faster to walk and push the bike than it was to ride them. “Energy conservation” I kept telling myself as I would un-clip my shoes from my pedals get off the bike and begin the shuffle up another hill.
Argonut and I kept a good rhythm and pace but the climbs, the creek crossings and the increasing heat were beginning to take their toll on most riders. A hill that would normally be tackled with bit of extra effort and some heavy breathing was replaced by a single file of riders walking. My cramps began around the 25km mark, my calves as always, and they were quickly followed by cramps in my quads and triceps. I was hurting but with just under 50km to go I knew I had to push on.
We saw riders starting to fall back and slow right down, we pushed on as best we could but more and more hills stopped being ridden and started being walked. Solo riders and teams were helping each other, although we were all hurting the aim was the same; to finish this race.
At the 33km checkpoint we stopped for some food and refill the water. My other half was there and passed on some words of encouragement. Other volunteers muttered words about the course being “all downhill” from here. Now let’s get one thing straight; it was not downhill, yes there were some downhill sections but after spending the last couple of hours steadily climbing almost 900m I was in no mood to climb anymore.
We pushed on and some things were said about life, mountain bikes and the race. There was a little bit of swearing as we weaved through the next half of the course, relishing the tiny downhill sections and hating the ever present short but steep climbs. I kept telling myself I had been through worse than this, and yes it was very true, but I was younger, a hell of lot more fitter and too be honest in that moment I would rather have been back patrolling in Afghanistan in 40degrees than riding that track. I was starting to make “woo” sounds whenever something annoyed me… There’s another hill “woo”, kangaroos “woo”, I just fell over “woo”. Maybe it was the heat, but to be honest, I was starting to realise like most other riders, we did in fact underestimate the challenge of this race.
But we pushed on and it strangely became easier, I was tired, hurting, but I felt strangely okay. I wasn’t going to let this course beat me. We passed the checkpoint of 58km and met the asphalt. As soon as I saw the hill my legs cramped in response. I rode a little bit of it, but like everyone else around, I too succumbed to the ‘easier’ option of walking my bike. It didn’t seem to end, but eventually it did and there was another checkpoint. Argonut was waiting for me, chatting to the volunteers; if he was hurting he was really good at hiding it. We pushed on and were met with a very tricky and fast downhill section of loose rocks and potential death. And then it appeared. I’m not sure if the Beast-Worx guys named that particular hill, but I sure came up with a few that aren’t fit for publication. For a family friendly named I’ve settled on is “Death Legs”.
I didn’t even attempt to ride any of it. It was heartbreaking, it was demoralising and it was right in front of me taunting me to get to the top. I started walking, and then I would stop and catch my breath and walk some more. I cramped in every muscle in my legs and lower back. Surely this hill would end soon; but step after step I couldn’t see the end. Argonut was in front pushing on, saying words of encouragement to me, they were helping, but my stints of walking became shorter and my stints of rest became longer. Finally we got to the top and we rested for a few minutes, I felt nauseous and was exhausted but I knew we still had 10km to go, and thinking back to the course profile I knew it was in fact almost all downhill from here.
We began the last section of the track to the finish line. Argonut pushed forward in front of me, the steep downhills burned the arms and I’m sure the brakes were glowing red. There were a few short climbs but most of it I was able to roll up with my momentum from the downhills; 29ers just keep rolling I said to myself in my head.
I cramped up around 3km from the end and stopped to stretch. Then we pushed on to the finish. We came down a screaming downhill, across a little creek and could see the farmhouse. Argonut called me up so we could cross the finish line together and suddenly I felt no pain, the legs were fresh and we sprinted to the finish. And after a little over 7 hours the inaugural Battle Of The Beasts was over for me.
I was exhausted and found a nice spot in the shade and lay down. I was spent, I was happy, but there was not a lot left in the tank, so trying my hardest not to throw up seemed like a good idea. Other riders finished and I went and had a cheeky spew and instantly felt a lot better. Around 16:30 the presentations began. Jeremy Ross won the race in an incredible 3 hours and 12 minutes. Awards were given, but most of the recipients had long departed for various and some incredibly more important reasons. I was called out to the front and given a gift voucher for raising $5’637 for Soldier On. Goodbyes were said and we were on our way home for pizza and a goodnights rest. It was a very well run event, made possible by volunteers and the incredible Beast-Worx team.
This morning I woke up feeling a little sore, but surprisingly able to walk with ease, unlike after the Kowalski Classic when I was unable to negotiate stairs for almost a week. I have cleaned the bike, washed the clothes and sorted the photos.
And that ladies and gentlemen was the 2012 Battle Of The Beasts for this rider.