Every journalist encounters stories that break their heart. For me, it comes from interviewing soldiers. Big strapping men and clever, clever women who have devoted their lives to making the lives of others better.
Men and women who have farewelled their own partners and children to board planes to Afghanistan and East Timor and Iraq. Men and women who have missed Christmas with their children, and the funeral of their parents, because of their commitment to duty, and to keeping Australia safe.
A few years ago I wrote a report on how Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was killing our service men and women, and how we didn’t want to know about it.
We were happy to wave our soldiers off at the airport, but didn’t care too much once they returned home, broken, with vacant looks and changed personalities.
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And that’s when we should care most. That one story prompted more than 700 emails — emails I spent hours rereading yesterday, as Australia’s defence shame was revealed.
From wives like Lisa, whose husband had served in Afghanistan. “Twice our son went in to wake his father only to be strangled upon his father being startled. The second time, my son was up against the wall, his feet not even touching the ground. Both times, his father was still asleep, but demanding to know how he got past the guard.’’
Lisa, like others, explained the torture of an outing to the supermarket, where her husband was hyper-alert, how their children had to walk on eggshells — and how, even in his blackest moods, he loved them. The man she waved off, she said, was unlikely to ever return to normal.
“But I don’t give up hope. Hope is all we have left. I am still proud of him, proud of the man, proud of the soldier and proud of the father. He is MY HERO.’’
Lisa’s email was one of those 700, but it wasn’t exceptional in content. Broken marriages; funerals; alcoholism and drug addiction and explosive violence.
“It’s been four years and two suicide attempts since I left,” one soldier wrote. “I was originally told I suffered from adjustment disorder with chronic depression and put on pills. I stopped myself drinking, that didn’t stop the nightmares, I doubt anything ever will.”
“When my babies cried the noise made me go right back to my deployment where I heard horrifically injured babies cry all night long,” wrote another “Now they were in my house. I could see their faces. When my husband touches me I feel like I am being raped… when my children touch me I have to pretend… very hard…. and hug them back. I am a shell. My only escape is the glass of wine I drink. Even whilst writing this.’’
This column could run for pages, with heartbreaking stories from men and women who have served in uniform. They are the men and women we need to think about today, more than the 25 who are accused of heinous misconduct.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has an obligation to deal with the accused, using the full extent of the law. That’s what Afghanistan wants us to do, too.
He also has an obligation to provide moral leadership to a nation rightly shocked that the best of its best would conduct their affairs in this way.
But yesterday’s report also affords the prime minister an opportunity to recognise those other soldiers — the vast majority — who leave with the hopes of a nation on their shoulder. Many of them are returning with PTSD.
In the painful aftermath of this investigation, and the probes that will follow, we should remember what Afghan President Ashraf Ghani noted when contacted by Scott Morrison yesterday: that many Australians had served in Afghanistan with distinction.
He’s spot on. And there are so many more of them pulling on the uniform in Townsville and Melbourne and Sydney and far flung places elsewhere today because they believe in what they do.
For anyone seeking help, Lifeline is on 13 11 14, Open Arms Veterans & Families Counselling is on 1800 011 046, and the ADF All-hours Support Line is on 1800 628 036.
Do we show enough compassion to returned soldiers? Let us know your thoughts by writing to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.