Starting the conversationBy The Cove July 19, 2019
Shortly after returning home from my deployment the OC gathered our section together; he had some information that was important for us to know. He explained that our mate did not die while we were in Afghanistan, he is alive; this was a tactical move. He further explained the ramp ceremony was fake as it and needed to appear real to deceive the enemy... I opened my eyes. I was in shock, dripping in sweat, my heart pounding, disorientated from trying to decipher if it was real or a nightmare. This nightmare repeated for years.
Many of us have experienced traumatic events. This article will give an insight into my personal experiences, raw emotions and coping mechanisms. A lot of people deal with stress and anxiety alone and, sadly, quietly. Some do not even realise how much they are actually affected by it until their world feels like it is crumbling down around them and they feel like they have no-one to talk to or nowhere to go. By then it can be too late. I have written this for you to replace my story with yours (regardless if you have deployed). This article may also be a useful tool for someone you know; enabling you to find a way to relate with them. However, and I cannot stress this enough, I have not written my story for comparison. When I was approached to write an article about this topic I was apprehensive at first. I questioned whether I really have anything to share and whether anybody really cares about what I have been through. We are all dealing with our own battle, not to mention that I also value my privacy. The day after being approached I heard about the suicide rates rising in the military and thought maybe it was time to speak out. So please remember it is not about who has had it harder, or a call to toughen up, but rather an attempt to start the conversations that aren’t happening. To help our mates that are suffering in silence or even to recognise our own behaviours and find a way to help ourselves by knowing when it is time to seek help.
I deployed with an extraordinary crew almost eight years ago now. Most of us were young, super keen and excited to be doing our job. The pre-deployment training at times was invasive and there is always an uncertainty that something could happen or not everyone will return home. But we understood that is the nature of the job. During my pre-deployment leave I confided to my mate I had a nervous feeling something serious was going to happen and that someone in my team would not be coming home. I couldn’t explain it and I felt terrible saying it out loud. I explained it was a gut feeling but they shrugged me off and I started to think that maybe it was all in my head. I pushed that away, didn’t think about it any further, packed my bags and left.
Several months passed by and we are just past halfway through the trip; most members had been out and back. We attended numerous ramp ceremonies for all coalition forces. Watching the men escorting their mates onto the plane to send them back home to their loved ones was not only distressing but you prayed that no one would have to endure that again. Then it happened: life became unfair. I still remember the chopper in the sky taking him back to Tarin Kot; he had been shot and we waited in anticipation to see if he was going to make it. A couple of hours passed by and it felt like forever. The OC brought our section together, straight out he said it… he didn’t make it. Everyone’s reactions were different. I couldn’t do anything, I froze. I remembered that conversation I had before I left. Could I have stopped this? I stood there for a long time with guilt swirly through my body, I wanted to vomit, I hated myself. I watched my mates get angry and punch the walls, others cried and my corporal kept repeating, “It should have been me”. The guilt sunk further, a feeling that lived with me for a very long time. The next day, the news hit Australia. We all called home and then prepared for the ramp ceremony. At this stage I still hadn’t shed a tear and I was just numb. I felt like a monster, and at night when I couldn’t sleep the guilt came back into my mind and body.
The day of the ramp ceremony arrived. The gym had been adjusted, his photo was there and we made our way to the morgue. My heart felt like it was caving in. As I inhaled each breath became short and shallow. I looked around and saw an amazing team with sad red eyes, full of hurt and pain. We put him on the back of the vehicle and escorted him to the gym, placed him next to his photo and we got our last chance to have a private goodbye. We gathered around him and as my hand touched the Australian National Flag (ANF) on his casket my emotions slowly started to change. I wrapped my arm around my mate next to me and held him tight. I was speechless and the only thought that was running through my mind was that it was bullshit and he didn’t deserve it. We sat down and the ceremony began, my emotions were changing again and when it was my time to talk everything started to become overwhelming. While I managed to get through it without crying, I felt sick.
It was time to take him to the plane. We slow marched all the way to the flight line. I saw the padre standing inside with the ANF behind him and that was my breaking point. This was fucking real: he was going home, and not with us and not alive. I cannot change this, I am never going to laugh and get up to mischief with him ever again. We put him down and this was the last time we were with him. I walked to the OC and handed him my mates belongings; he passed them off to the CSM and took me out the front to say goodbye as we watched the plane take-off. I could barely see, my eyes were full of tears, and I just could not control it. He turned to me and said he is safe and on his way home mate. I can still hear his voice in my head. Our team spent the rest of the evening remembering him telling funny stories and bonding. As the night finished we were reminded that there were still a few months left and we still had a job to do; this event was tragic but we are still in country. I just pushed what happened and my emotions aside and moved on with the deployment. If needed I could deal with this when I returned home. When I had the chance the boys and I just trained hard.
After eight months of Afghanistan I was finally home and experienced the ‘adjustment’ period I kept hearing about. It took at least three weeks to settle down. The nightmares were constant, any loud bangs at night would set me off in a panic, unsure of where I was or if I was safe. I hated being in public and the smallest things would annoy me such as people being on their phone rather than engaging with the human in front of them. This went on for several weeks, the nightmares would come in waves and sleeping patterns were disturbed. Until I could settle down I shut myself off to the world and stayed home.
The welcome home parade was coming up and I was also due for posting. My stress started to increase but I wasn’t aware exactly what state my stress was at. My body started responding in ways that I had never experienced before and I was constantly sick. At the welcome home parade our taskforce reunited and our fallen soldier’s family attended. It was nothing less than heartbreaking. Meeting his brother was the hardest part. They looked so similar and I avoided him all day. He me caught off guard and he introduced himself; it felt like I was talking to a dead man. Later that evening as I feel asleep the nightmares ramped up and it was as if I was reliving it all over again. I still keep in contact with his family and visit them when I can. The first years were difficult but we all grew together.
I moved to my new posting and settled in okay. However, a few months in I was still consistently sick and it was starting to exacerbate, so I accepted it was time to see the doctor. Several tests were conducted, all returning as normal but both the doctor and I were concerned as the symptoms were still present. I was then referred to another specialist. I described my symptoms and he explained that it was all caused from stress. Once I understood that, I was able to understand my current state and become aware of the stresses happening around me. From then on, and even now, the only way I can identify stress is when my body reacts in that same way.
We understand that terrible events occur in our life and some things are just uncontrollable, but it is also too easy to focus on all the negative things that are continuously happening to us. I had a bad run for a few years, both personal and work related. I was assaulted by six people on methamphetamines in my home. I lost job satisfaction and I found myself head butting with the chain of command when my main focus was trying to protect my diggers. This put me in the firing zone, leaving me with limited resources and no support outside my rank. My coping mechanisms were my achievements - long term and short term goals that kept me going through all the difficult times. I became so heavily focused on my goals that it helped black out everything else in the background. However because most of the goals were physical achievements I would wear myself out so much that I went home and just slept; the gym became my life, my only escape. I managed to escape that working environment and Corps transferred. Not long after arriving at my new posting I experienced a significant injury, and the short term recovery was four months. When I was back into the swing of things again I had my routine check-up and they found cancer; I went through the treatments alone because I didn’t want to place the burden on anyone else. It just felt like whenever life was starting to get good I was getting knocked back down. I have always drawn the positive from every bad event, but was that enough?
The breaking point for me was when I received a call about an investigation on an incident that occurred a few years before. I was to be a witness in the investigation of my previous workplace and this built up stress and nervousness for the interview and got to me. I was still recovering from my surgery and had limitations on the amount of impact I could put on my body. Because of this I couldn’t release my frustration through lifting and I just pushed it aside. One day it all became too much and I experienced a panic attack for the first time. I ran to the bathroom and sat by my locker until I was able to calm down. I was in absolute shock that my body had responded this way; I had never experienced this before. I had confided it my mate whom I knew was receiving help and he suggested to me to seek some myself. I was embarrassed and annoyed that he suggested it. It took him a while to convince me that there isn’t any shame of doing it. I respected him so much that I took his guidance on board but I couldn’t make the call. Every time I dialled the phone I would feel sick and ashamed, so I hung up. He made an appointment for me, I attended for a couple of months but didn’t feel I gained too much from it. What I did learn is that everyone deals with things in their own way, there is no right or wrong.
I still struggle to understand when I am anxious. Maybe we are trained too well at hiding it or we simply do not recognise it. We often hear statements such as “harden up”, “I had it worse”, “you’ll be right” or “move on”. There are many things that I could have covered in this article but somehow I didn’t feel them to be relevant or I didn’t know how to approach the subject. Experiences such as seeing limbs detached from bodies or holding dead infants and how these affect me for example, but why didn’t I include these? Is it because we are trained in preparation for seeing that? Or is it the culture of our work? Do I even have the right to be upset by everything I mentioned? I know for a long time I felt like I didn’t have the right to let these things affect me as they did; knowing many people whose stories are nothing short of unbelievable, distressing and life changing.
Our tolerance to situations differs and so does the way it can affect us, but the biggest question we need to ask ourselves is what our coping mechanisms are? Are we aware of them? Do they actually work or are they really just a distraction? What if we could no longer do them? Should we try something new?
Like I mentioned before, I used to destroy myself at the gym, and this became a coping mechanism. While I didn’t consciously use it with that intention, when I lost it I crumbled. I would go to the gym for hours to chew up time and inflict pain on myself so I was too tired to feel or deal with anything else. I ended up overtraining and that’s where my injury developed. I had a year of rehabilitation where I couldn’t load up the bar and just squat something heavy and max out until I couldn’t walk. I was no longer able to do sprint work to get out my frustration which ended up building rage later. I had to find other avenues; I was lost. I used to enjoy reading but as I would read I would become distracted by thoughts and so I stopped. I tried meditation and that was just a joke!
One day I attended a presentation delivered by a close friend and he spoke about his failures and how he overcame them. One thing he spoke about was constant learning so I read further into this and the importance of feeding the brain. The human brain needs to stay active so we are able perform better. My first step was listening to podcasts; this allowed me to start activating my brain again and from there I could open myself up to other paths.
I got back into training but my injury would flare from not stretching afterwards, so I gave yoga a go… WOW once I pushed through the hippy side of it I felt amazing, even got a nap at the end (they say meditation, I say nap time!). Over time I was able to utilise the ‘nap time’ for meditation and reflection. I felt I had a lot of breakthroughs. I dealt with whatever was troubling me at the time and the nightmares slowly backed off. I find when I am not practising meditation the nightmares come back, so I actively try to mediate daily even if it is just for 5 minutes. Any form of physical exercise is the first place we should start to cope with stress. However, if you are already achieving that there are many things we can do that will calm and relax us, therefore putting us in a meditative state of mind. Such as walking in nature without head phones, going to the beach listening to the waves, reading a book in the sunlight or jigsaw puzzles. It doesn’t matter what we do but it is important to find several methods.
Lastly, we need to ensure we are not gas-lighting ourselves, our mates or employees. It’s hard enough accepting that this is happening to us especially when our bodies react in certain ways. This could be as simple as crying, which is a valid and natural reaction to stress, trauma or tension. A natural reaction that could happen to anyone.
IT IS OKAY NOT TO BE OKAY. Please seek help from someone you trust, no one needs to suffer alone. Thank you for staying with me until the end. I hope this has helped you in one way or another. Take care of yourself and your mates.
Last but not least, thank you to everyone who supported and encouraged me within writing this article.
The Cove does not usually publish anonymous articles but in this case, having spoken extensively with the author during the writing process, we believe that this case warrants an exception. If this article has raised concerns you may have about how either you or a mate are coping, please - start the conversation. There are a number of avenues to seek help. You can speak to your unit Chaplain or a medical professional at your local health centre. Alternatively, if you want to talk to someone outside the ADF, you can contact Open Arms on 1800 011046, who provide free and confidential counselling to veterans and their families. This includes serving personnel.