This is the second part of a series. Read part one here.
I was terrified when I first entered the Ward 17 psychiatric unit in Melbourne for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) treatment.
I’d crossed a line.
I didn’t know anyone who’d been in a psych ward. It wasn’t something you put on social media (though now I do without hesitation, to break down stigma).
The first patients I saw were veterans: big-bearded blokes wearing track pants and T-shirts waiting for lunch in the Ward 17 dining area. Tattoos covered their arms. All had dark bags under their eyes. The same as mine.
“I’m not worthy. I bet those guys saw real action. They earned their place. I was never shot at or blown up,” I thought to myself that morning of August 11, 2016.
Ward 17 in Melbourne’s Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital is mainly for veterans and first responders with PTSD but it admits the odd civilian. Including a journalist like me who covered war, bomb attacks and natural disasters overseas.
The ward, which has treated veterans who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, used to resemble a military barracks. It’s now in the Coral-Balmoral Building, named after Australia’s largest battle of the Vietnam War. Veterans of that controversial conflict still feel the pain of indifference of successive governments.
After a nurse showed me to my room, took my anti-depressants, razors and nail clippers and checked my suitcases for prohibited items such as alcohol, she told me to have lunch in the dining area. That’s where the vets were.
“I hadn’t thought about this moment. Do I introduce myself? What will they think when they know I’m a journalist, or was? Will they be suspicious? Will they think I belong here?”
Those thoughts ran through my head as I found a place to sit alone to eat some soup.
The veterans soon made me feel welcome. They accepted me as one of their own, though they thought I was mad for working in Baghdad without carrying a gun.
We all had similar symptoms — nightmares, flashbacks, numbness, anger, agitation, depression. PTSD is a severe and debilitating illness. It ruins relationships and families. I was suicidal at one point. The illness nearly broke my marriage. Many of the veterans had made suicide attempts. Many marriages had busted.
I was admitted three times between 2016 and 2018 for a total of 77 days.
I met soldiers who fought in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Others had been to East Timor, or taken part in a failed peacekeeping mission in Somalia in the early 1990s. Some had been involved in training accidents at home.
One veteran told me he couldn’t stop living in 1968, the year he fought in Vietnam.
A veteran from Afghanistan blamed himself for an incident in which the Taliban killed children in a hospital.
Another veteran said he would never erase from his memory being lowered into a well in East Timor to retrieve what he thought would be a woman’s body. Halfway up, a limb came loose, causing him to drop the body. When he was lowered back down, he saw a small hand poking up through the water. There were five to six children down there too.
A younger veteran who went to Iraq in the mid-2000s said he’d only been there a few weeks before he said to himself: “What the fuck am I doing here?”
Another veteran had been on the drug ice for five years.
A wound to the soul
It’s not just PTSD that ails many veterans. They can also suffer a moral injury.
Moral injury is a wound to the soul, the damage done to a person’s conscience or moral compass from something they did, failed to prevent or witnessed that deeply violates their moral and ethical values. It can also come from betrayal by a trusted figure, such as a military leader.
I’ve wondered if moral injury might be afflict some special forces soldiers who have deployed multiple times to Afghanistan. We have to talk publicly — and now — about the mental health impact on those soldiers.
Leaders also need to acknowledge the moral injury of conflicts from Afghanistan to Vietnam, and what our soldiers — such as David Finney — have experienced. If we trivialise their pain and the burdens they carry, we make things worse.
For broad healing to occur, leaders on all sides of politics need to acknowledge that the Iraq War was built on lies, and that the mission in Afghanistan went off course. The East Timor intervention was honourable, but what soldiers encountered there was evil. Vietnam… well, we all know what happened in Vietnam.
I was amazed at how much veterans wanted to talk to me about their experiences. I concluded it was because no one listens. As a country, we need to hear their stories. It’s called communalising trauma.
I felt their deep sense of abandonment because they could no longer serve as solders. I saw how a loss of identity had crushed their self-esteem.
Veterans, coppers and ambos, we all talked.
We could have dealt with what the job threw at us, we reckoned. What we couldn’t cope with was betrayal from organisations that saw us as damaged goods, that abandoned us and left us to rot.
Dean Yates was a journalist with Reuters, the world’s largest news provider, for 26 years until early 2020.
For anyone seeking help, Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue is 1300 22 4636. Open Arms — Veterans & Families Counselling is on 1800 011 046, and the ADF Mental Health All-hours Support Line is 1800 628 036.