When my husband first came home from Afghanistan, he couldn’t even sleep in a bed. He was based at a remote location and they often slept on the ground or stretchers, so a big soft mattress was a huge adjustment in itself.

There are also the noises that we get used to, such as a car backfiring or a balloon popping or a helicopter or plane flying over or a door banging. These noises make him jumpy and uncomfortable. Crowds of people would make him uncomfortable and he still cannot visit a shopping centre, festival, football stadium or any crowded venue … so in turn this makes life harder for not only the veterans, but their families because you start to avoid situations that can create stress or anxiety.

The army trains their infantry soldiers to have a high fight reaction to situations (fight or flight response) and this then creates a heightened aggressive behaviour. When you spend nine months living on edge and with this reaction to situations it is something that you cannot simply switch off when you return home. They train them to go overseas but do not train them how to adjust back to normal life.

These men are also exposed to horrendous traumas and experiences such as witnessing a comrade, enemy or even civilian shot, killed, maimed or blown to smithereens by an IED (improvised explosive device). They are not prepared to see children or women or their close mate killed in these ways and then they have to come home with these images trapped and repeating over and over in their heads as flashbacks.

They try to pretend that they are not affected because admitting you are not coping is a sure way to be discharged from the military and no matter what anyone says, there is still a huge stigma attached to it. Even though the Vietnam veterans went through terrible cases of post-traumatic stress disorder when they returned, the Australian Defence Force still has not learnt from the past and they do not understand the big picture. It is not just the veteran who is affected, it is also the families.

“He is a 26-year-old man who, when I met him, was happy, fit and confident to the point of being cocky. Now he is a broken shell of a man.”

I have a domestic violence order on my husband because he would get violent and then threaten suicide. We have two small children so the DVO was enforced by the police for the safety of me and our children. My husband has started smoking again — two packets a day. When he drinks he drinks to a point where he is incoherent and dangerously intoxicated. I have had to hide the keys to the cars and motorbike because he told me one day that he rode the bike as fast as he could hoping to kill himself and he is not sure how or why he managed to make it home.

We have only been married for five years, but we now sleep in different rooms because of the constant night terrors. He has unintentionally tried to attack me several times because of a nightmare. He flinches a lot and yells out loud but is sleeping. The medication only controls his anger: he is putting on weight, he now snores and it has also affected our s-x life. He is a 26-year-old man who, when I met him, was happy, fit and confident to the point of being cocky. Now he is a broken shell of a man. He has aged far too early and his outlook on the future is bleak. We try to do our best and take it one day at a time but it is hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel right now. I am seeking regular counselling and am on anti anxiety medications just to hold it together.

I worry for our marriage, for his health and for the impact this has our our children. It is such a hard task, but I made a commitment to this man when I married him and I took my commitment very seriously. Unfortunately it has been much harder than it should be, but this is not my husbands fault… it is the army.

I wish I could have the man that I married back, but I don’t think that this is a possibility. The trauma of war has taken its toll and like Major General John Cantwell explains in his book Exit Wounds the trauma he has witnessed is “like a splinter on the skin of his soul”. He will never be that carefree man again.

* Free, confidential counselling and support is available from the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service for Australian veterans, peacekeepers and their family members. VVCS can be contacted 24 hours a day on 1800 011 046. For non-military help or information visit beyondblue.org.au, call Lifeline on 131 114 or visit this page for a detailed list of support services.

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Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey