For the last week Crikey‘s Battle Scars series has examined mental health issues in younger veterans. We’ve heard from ex-soldiers and navy personnel still battling PTSD, the partners left to care for them, psychologists who’ve had to rewrite treatment programs for younger veterans and the Department of Defence, which manages their treatment and compensation after they leave the Defence Force. To end the series we wanted to publish the responses from different readers (some who we contacted, others who sought us out) sharing their own experiences with mental health and the military …

From the wife of a bomb disposal technician who served in Afghanistan in 2011 and left the army in 2012:

“It’s always strange initially when they get back. Even getting behind the wheel of a car gives him a sense of panic. He couldn’t go to supermarkets and shopping centres. Two months after he returned we were in JB Hi-Fi, when a balloon burst. He just hit the deck, he was on the floor. It took maybe six months for him to stop scanning people in the street. He’s constantly aware of his surroundings. ‘Did you notice that person? Did you see that thing they were doing?’ I’ve got no idea. Occasionally he’ll get anxiety and panic attacks when driving.

“But getting out isn’t an instant fix. It compounds things. He can’t find work. He’s battled Taliban insurgents, gone to war and not many people recognise that. A lot of Australians don’t see it as a real job. Even getting up in the morning, they don’t know what to do or even what to wear. In the military they had a title, a rank. Now they have to make decisions: where do I go, who am I?

“When he came back from Afghanistan, he talked to someone briefly about mental health, but my husband says you tell them what they want to hear. I don’t think he’d open up to anybody about it. There’s been just one time when he’s recognised that he’s depressed. Sometimes he jokes and says, ‘that’ll be good for my PTSD’.

“We used to have a big circle of friends. Now he doesn’t seem to connect with other people and is reluctant to hang out with defence families. He won’t make an effort. He distances himself and doesn’t participate. He will tell me his views but he won’t comment publicly. A lot of alcohol brings it all up again. I think for him, if he can stay active and stay off alcohol, he’ll stay on track. He would be a lot worse without me and the kids.”

An anonymous ex-navy officer writes (you can read his full response here):

“That is precisely why I encourage the use of drones and automation in our daily lives. It may not be the complete answer and will, I am sure, present its fair share of problems in the fullness of time but at least it might minimise the amount of human beings put in harm’s way for a few, and I emphasise, a few politicians and vested interests who bring on disgusting conflicts that see the stupid loss of life that happens on this planet daily from wars and conflict.

“I am burning with anger inside after having gone through their wash and spin cycle but there isn’t anything I can do other than, as I said, hope that one day, people kill other people a little more humanely via a camera mounted in a drones nose vice being killed at short range because whenever humans kill or see someone killed it affects them. Which is exactly why with the march of technology we now kill from further away.”

Fiona Wheeler writes: 

“Myself, my mother and most recently my sister have all been or still are, the fortunate recipients of care through the Veterans and Veterans’ Families Counselling Service. Naturally enough the veteran involved has never availed himself of the service. This is not an unusual situation. It is of course a common feature of those most in need, that they can see only that everyone else has the problem, or worse still, they know they are troubled but defiantly wear this identity like a shroud of colours.

“Years ago when the ‘Bringing Them Home’ parade was held, we collected enough money to allow my father to attend. He didn’t go, and it was, in hindsight, naive of us to contemplate he would, but families hope for years that things might be different.

“I am tired and heartbroken as I watch my sister join the club of those only just accessing the recesses of experience that is growing up in the suffocating breast of fear of your family. In her young family it now ‘pays’ forward on a new generation. My own family is just another statistic. I almost devoid of sympathy for our veteran, and alienated from the mother that dutifully stood by her man and kept us in such a family. It is wearing to hear her daily concerns and complaints regarding their continuing life together.

“If only the impacts of PTSD, alcoholism and social and interpersonal dysfunction were isolated to the sufferer.”

From someone who served in the navy for 14 years:

“When you are fit and training, the last thing to enter your mind is that you will be impacted by PTSD. You don’t think that, you are not trained for that, you are trained to do a job which is kill the other guys as quickly and neatly as possible.

“The ADF has an unspoken code of everyone in it is a warrior, for the ADF to now say, ‘OK you have PTSD, no problems, your career will be fine’, it’s bullshit.

“For a start, anyone who shows that they may be suffering PTSD in a combat related environment then two things happen. First the person concerned has additional psychological pressure placed on them by wondering if they will crack at a critical or wrong moment whilst engaging the enemy. Secondly the person’s mates, if they are aware of the issue, they too will be wondering whether X will crack at the wrong time.

“As for your career being safe, really how can that be when you need medical attention, you will be taken off whatever operational role you are doing and won’t be allowed back until you are fully fit. Even then the psychological impact is again felt, as a person will quite naturally question themselves, as will anyone with them (as everyone will know that they have been off work medical reasons).”

*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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