The Silent War

Last year on Sunday 29 September, I sat down with Canberra Times Sunday Editor Scott Hannaford and photographer Melissa Adams to share my story about life with PTSD, depression and life after I hung up my uniform and packed away my boots.

Scott had seen this blog and contacted me via Twitter and asked if I wanted to take part in a story he was putting together on Veteran’s experiences with post traumatic stress disorder and life after deployment.

For a few hours we sat down and talked about my time in Iraq and Afghanistan and my fundraising/awareness raising for Soldier On.  On Sunday 13 October 2013, Scott published a story in the Canberra Times about my fundraising campaign leading up to the 2013 Battle Of The Beasts.

CanberraTimes Article.:Click here to read the original story at the Canberra Times:.

After months of hard work Scott’s story was published in all major Fairfax newspapers and online with a suite of interactive media including our interviews and photos from overseas.

Below is my interview from the Canberra Times website and video interview with Scott and Mel.

.:Click here to view my video interview:.

.:Click here to go the interactive website:.

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A Radical Change In Diet – Or How I Stopped Eating Meat & Became A Vegetarian

Six weeks ago I stopped eating meat.  Much to the chagrin of my Wife, bacon-obsessed cycling group and Mother (who firmly believes that fish and chicken don’t count as ‘real’ meat.).

There are several pros and cons to this change which I didn’t gradually lead into; I basically considered it privately for a few weeks, announced my intention to my Wife and then overnight proclaimed I wouldn’t eat meat anymore.

Why Stop Eating Meat?
The most logical and hardest question to answer.

First off, I’m not one of the ‘meat is murder’ crowd.  I have slaughtered and butchered some of God’s cute little creatures with my own hands, have visited an abattoir and have partaken in countless meat-filled BBQ’s over the years.  My choice to cut out meat is not one based on ethical concerns and I’m certainly not going to be ‘that’ person at a BBQ that asks for the plate to be cleaned before my veggie patties get cooked; oh and I despise tofu!

My decision to stop eating meat comes down to three major reasons:

#1: Mental Health
I live with a depressive and anxiety disorder that makes me prone to rapid mood swings, violent outbursts and irrational behaviour.  Couple this with a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and you get a person that can swing from jovial and on top of the world to a person that is best kept in a dark room away from other people and sharp objects.

A healthy diet plays a large part in maintaining mental wellbeing.  Consuming food is what keeps the body functioning and ultimately keeps you alive.  Prior to changing my diet I would consume a large amount of red meat and chicken.  It wasn’t uncommon for me to eat an entire roast chicken in one sitting and order a steak with a side of steak at Hog’s Breath. 

Diet plays a very large and understated part in balancing mental health.  Certain foods can evoke different mental and physiological reactions.  Chocolate and ice cream are well-known for being the comfort food of choice for emotional men and women.  I am lactose intolerant and love ice cream; ergo the pleasure I derive from consuming it is quickly overtaken as my body promptly reacts to the enzymes it cannot process.

In the way that eating certain types of food makes people happy, the digestive processes after eating red and white meat made me lethargic and as a result unhappy that I didn’t feel like doing anything afterwards.  Something as simple as not feeling like getting off the couch to go for a ride or a walk around the lake would compound itself into feelings of guilt, a distorted self body image and ultimately trigger a mental reaction that would lead to a depressive episode.

Basically, that wonderful meat hangover feeling most people get after eating a meat-heavy meal is absent for me; instead I feel sick, depressed and my body will rapidly purge the offending meal in a most violent way.

#2: Metabolism and Body Weight
I have a fast metabolism and it’s very difficult for me to maintain my body weight when exercising.  Ideally I sit between 75-80kg when riding to a training program.  This may seem like a large fluctuation, but in reality, it is mostly fluid retention and fluid loss during and after rides.

On average I will lose 3-5kg on a 50km mountain bike ride whilst my fluid intake will be upwards of 2-3 litres and calorie intake at close to 2000 calories via energy gels and muesli bars.  My recovery period after a medium to high intensity ride over 50km is close to 48 hours and I will constantly eat and drink to rebuild my energy reserves and gain the weight I lost.

As stated before, I feel sick after eating meat, I also feel full and won’t continue eating which in turn slows my recovery period and has an adverse effect on getting back on the bike and returning to optimal training ability in the shortest time possible.

#3: An (Not-So-Slowly) Aging Body
Everyone gets older and joints and muscles start to ache and some days it’s harder to get out of bed, right?  Wrong!  I’m 32 years old and I have constant pain in my left knee, discomfort in my hands and wrists; and restricted movement in my left shoulder.

I can credit my days in the Australian Army for most of my knee problems and my shoulder to a bike crash which tore my left pectoral muscle last year.  But the fingers, wrists and constant patella issues in my knee; well that is thanks to early onset of osteoarthritis.

There is a link between eating a meat rich diet and an increase in adverse arthritic symptoms.  This is due to the high fat content in non-lean meats and the obsession with meat-heavy meals in Western culture.  Can’t I just switch to lean meat?  I could but it doesn’t negate the two previous reasons I’ve stated and the fact that in just six weeks I’ve noticed improvement with my knee and joint pain and dexterity.

Looking Towards The Future
Will I continue my vegetarian diet indefinitely?

To be honest, probably not.  As I stated at the beginning this isn’t because of an animal ethics issue; this is because I wanted to feel healthy both in body and mind.

So far the basic goal of feeling better is definitely working for me.  I have more energy, I’m eating all the right foods to ensure I get the nutrients my body needs and ultimately I’m enjoying eating more diverse and natural foods.

On a side note if I was trapped on a deserted island and cannibalism was my only avenue of survival I wouldn’t hesitate to eat some human sirloin!

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.

…And The Beast Was Done

After 7 long months of fundraising and raising awareness for Soldier On, my fundraising page has closed and it’s time to just enjoy riding and enjoy some time with my Wife, family and friends during the Holiday season.

Just because I don’t have an active fundraising campaign running anymore doesn’t mean I won’t be raising awareness for Soldier On.  I still have a 3 hour cross-country race in 2013 and have already committed to several big races in early 2014 including the 100km Capital Punishment and The Mont 24 Hour.

At the end of the day, after the countless hours riding, training, fundraising, and banging the proverbial drum I am confident that I have helped raise the profile for Soldier On and the battle that young veterans like myself fight on a daily basis.

It is no secret that I ride to deal with PTSD and depression; but by being an ambassador for Soldier On, I have also developed more confidence in myself and found a voice that will speak on behalf of Australia’s young Veterans. Hopefully by putting myself out there I am encouraging other young Veterans to speak up and ask for help

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Although Riding For Soldier On was a mostly solo effort on the bike there were a lot of people who helped me throughout the year

Thank you to the following:
SOLDIER ON for their support throughout this year especially John, Anna, Meredith, Dion and Tony for their amazing support & patience.

Luke & Dan from BEAST-WORX for running such amazing events and allowing me to be a big part of it.

My amazingly supportive mountain biking group THE BERM.  Special thanks to Nathaniel, Jason, Nigel & Chris, Ben, Roger, Steve K, Alyssa, Melissa C, Brett, Matt & Sam, Kris, Tony H, Sonja, Andy & Adam.

My family & friends especially my Wife for putting up with my many hours away from home & allowing me to spend obscene amounts of money on bikes!

And last but not least… The people who supported me & donated money to SOLDIER ON so that wounded veterans can get the support they so desperately need & deserve.

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An Evening At The Australian War Memorial

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.

Battle Of The Beasts – Update #7

Last weekend the Canberra Times ran a story about my fundraising and motivation for riding cycling. I was somewhat apprehensive about sharing my story to a targeted audience. Blogging is a platform that I regard as a broadcasting medium…I type and post things and push it out to the internet for interested parties to stumble upon and look at. To have a quite personal story printed in the Canberra Times was a decision I made based solely on the positives I hoped would come of it.

Many returned veterans don’t speak out about their issues; especially those living with PTSD, depression and anxiety. Everyone has different reasons for wanting or not wanting to speak out. The fact of the matter is that I was not looked after by the Australian Army when I asked for help. That help eventually came from the Army; but only after a Navy doctor stepped in.  This lead to me closing up and not talking about the underlining issues for my depressive episodes.

I was embarrassed about my behaviour and the stress it placed upon my family and friends; and only after a couple of years did I realise I wasn’t alone in my experiences.

Hopefully by me speaking out about my experiences living with (I hate the terms suffering and battling) PTSD and depression it will empower others to put their hands up and ask for help and hopefully one day share their experiences with the wider world and inspire others to do the same.

Thank you very much to Canberra Times Sunday Editor Scott Hannaford and Photographer Mellissa Adams for spending a quiet Sunday afternoon at my house and listening to my story.

…Link to the original story…

CanberraTimes Article

…Click on the image to enlarge and read the article…

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.

The Way Forward – Education & Improvement

When serving in the Australian Defence Force, in particular the Australian Army, it is well known that speaking up and asking for help with any form of mental illness; be it depression, PTSD or anxiety is frowned upon.  While the ADF will openly claim in the media it is supportive of all struggling servicemen and servicewomen the truth is: asking for help is a guaranteed way to stall or even end your career in uniform.  There are exceptions to this and that involves extremely supportive units that have a long history with dealing with members that have been wounded or are living with a mental illness.

I’ve written about my depression and anxiety previously on my blog.  For years I hid the truth from all but my family and closest friends; and even then I wasn’t completely forthcoming.  One of the reasons I chose to be so open about my experiences, difficulties and struggles was so that others would know that they are not alone.

On two occasions in two different units I approached the senior Soldier and asked for help.  Both times I was rebutted and told to “harden the fuck up” and “get out if you can’t handle it” respectively.  The main role of this position is Soldier’s welfare.  These two members failed me and numerous others that approached them for assistance in their time of need.  I still harbour a great deal of resentment to these people and while my career stalled for a period of time; theirs flourished and my protests over their inaction fell on deaf ears.

The ADF was going through a period of transition with it’s mental health initiatives and sadly I and others from this time fell through the cracks and decided that separation from the ADF was the best way to escape the increasing bureaucracy and feeling of helplessness.  My experience with this issue is not uncommon, but the system and processes in place are getting better.

It is for this reason I am so passionate about the welfare of this new generation of veterans that have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.  This week the Department of Veterans Affairs contacted me after my my post regarding my experiences with them started trending on Twitter.  They admit things need to improve and they are working on it and need people who are willing to speak up about the problems in order to identify the shortfalls and improve the current processes.

If things don’t rapidly improve Australia will start experiencing what the USA is currently dealing with; the increase of returned veterans committing suicide.  In just over six months, seventeen returned Australian veterans have killed themselves.  I served with three of these young soldiers and that saddens and angers me greatly.  I ponder over what drove them to such despair and helplessness that to them the only solution was the most final.

Blame for these deaths cannot be placed on any one person, Unit, Service or Government Department.  I would like nothing more than to point the finger at someone and scream that they have blood on their hands.  But this will not happen.  There is however a solution; and it is a very simple one.  Education and Improvement.

Education of not only the support services available to returned veterans but also education for the wider public that these people need their support and that there is no shame attached to mental illness.

Improvement is needed in both the attitude of the people of Australia and Government Departments and improvement in the services available to returned veterans.

Time is needed for these changes to occur but with the Afghanistan campaign drawing to a close and more than a decade passing since Australians in uniform first stepped foot in the Middle East; time is running out.  Action is needed sooner rather than later to stem the leak before the dam wall breaks and the already struggling system cannot cope with the flood of demand.