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.
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.
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.
During the week numerous media outlets across Australia ran an article about the Department of Veterans Affairs and its inability and ineptness at not being able to deal with the increase of servicemen and servicewomen calling out for help.
Firstly, let me say that I have dealt with DVA on more than one occasion and not just for my own personal circumstances. Secondly, I would rather smash my face against a brick wall than have to relive those initial experiences ever again. To claim a person’s anxiety and depression is “not severe enough” is not only insulting it is downright dangerous. It is a fact that returned veterans have taken their own lives in recent times as a direct result from the helplessness they feel from having to deal with the bureaucracy of DVA.
There is a huge increase in returned veterans asking for help and submitting claims to DVA. It is also very true that DVA is understaffed, underfunded and undertrained. However, to not be prepared for this increase in workload is preposterous. What the hell did the Government, ADF, and DVA expect when you send men and women overseas to war and not provide them with adequate support services upon return to Australia?
It is true that many veterans do not experience what some would define as “the horror of war”, however this does not lessen the negative impact on mental health that being away from your family and friends for up to ten months can have. Combine this stress with being wounded or having your brothers-in-arms injured or killed and you have a person that is walking time bomb.
Now imagine you now have to prove to a Government Department that you are struggling to cope and you need help. Put aside the compensation claims that DVA receives; the process to access support services is appalling. For veterans in uniform you can wait up to six weeks to see a Defence psychologist. You can of course call a counselling call centre, but this in reality is only a bandaid solution for a very real and long term problem.
For veterans that have left the ADF this process is even more difficult. To put it into perspective I stopped attempting to access support services through DVA as it was becoming more common to have appointments cancelled at the last minute after waiting six weeks for the date to actually arrive. I am one of the lucky ones; I have the support of my family and friends; in particular from my Vietnam Veteran Father.
Usually I try to keep my posts about such subject matter more objective; however this is an issue that is literally killing returned veterans! The Department of Veterans Affairs has not learned from the past and its legacy of incompetence in providing adequate support services and streamlined processes continues. To claim that they are improving is not even remotely good enough. The Vietnam War ended almost forty years ago and this inept Government Department is still making the very same mistakes it made back then.