It’s sunup on a Friday morning and 10 early birds are working out in a basement gym in the inner-Brisbane suburb of Milton. Several, such as the square-jawed Kiel Goodman, train with the prowess of professional footballers. Others look tight and sore – as though they’d be better off on a physiotherapist’s table.
There is more happening here than meets the eye. “These sessions aren’t really about fitness,” the instructor, Brett Taylor, tells me.
What, then? Bringing the men together. Having them puff and banter as a group. Having them repair to a café up the road afterwards. Keeping them optimistic and mentally balanced. And, not to overdramatise, keeping them alive.
This is a space reserved for members of Mates4Mates, a support organisation for Australian Defence Force veterans who are injured or ill as a result of their service. Those guys who looked stiff doing lunges? One, Gary McMahon, served in Malaysia in the ’70s. His ankles, knees and back give him hell as a result of making roughly 6,000 parachute jumps. Another, Martin Turnbull, blew discs in his back and wrecked his knees lugging army equipment for 23 years, which included a deployment in 1979-80 to the hotspot we know now as Zimbabwe.
This Mates4Mates centre – and others like it in Townsville and Hobart – is a godsend considering Australia is in the grip of an emergency: upwards of 50 veterans killed themselves last year, according to military insiders, more than the 41 who died in combat in Afghanistan over 13 years.
“The time for simply talking about veterans’ mental health, of falling back on grand slogans of sacrifice, is over,” says John Bale, cofounder and CEO of another veterans support group, Soldier On. As this article goes to print, a Senate investigation is exploring not only what’s behind a phenomenon that is as complex as it is disturbing, but also what can be done to arrest it
New statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shine some light. They show that being in the military protects men from suicide for as long as they’re serving. Compared to civilians, fulltime servicemen are more than 50 per cent less likely to kill themselves. Being part of the reserve is almost as protective.
Suicide risk soars, however, in the years after leaving the armed forces. In this period, the average veteran is 13 per cent more likely than his civilian counterpart to end his life. Shockingly, the veteran aged 18-24 is twice as likely. Another spike occurs among ex servicemen in their forties.
The conclusion is counterintuitive but inescapable: actually living the horrors and deprivations of combat is somehow life-sustaining, at least in the short term. In contrast, being back in safe, predictable regular life can propel men into a downward spiral that too often leads to a violent, widow-making denouement.
What’s going on?
We Were Soldiers
Having cooled down from his workout, Roma-raised Goodman, 30, ushers me upstairs to the Mates4Mates rec room, where he recounts his descent from self-assured army gunner to drug-addled civilian – and the climb back.
On finishing school, Goodman followed his mum’s advice and joined the army – on Anzac Day, 2005. After basic training at Kapooka in NSW and gun school at Puckapunyal in Victoria, he began a seven-year posting in Darwin that included two tours in Afghanistan.
I ask Goodman whether, on reflection, those seven years were good years. His response illuminates one critical aspect of how serving can set up a man for despair once he mothballs his uniform.
“They were the best years,” says a smiling Goodman, suddenly wistful. “The best years. There are a lot of shit times in the army, to be honest. Heading out field, you’re eating rat packs, it’s pissing down rain. Whenever you’re out field it sucks, to be honest. But you’re with the best blokes. You get to know each other so quick. You’re pretty much living in each other’s pockets. The shitter the time the better it was, because you could always get a laugh out of it. No matter what went on, looking back now it’s all a positive to me.”
During his second tour in Afghanistan in 2010-11 there were two “incidents” that, in hindsight, were “pretty severe”, Goodman says. He will say nothing about the second one. In the first he drove a Bushmaster over an IED, knocking himself out and fracturing his neck.
These events might have planted the seed for the No. 1 psychological enemy for men (and women) in uniform: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Though he felt fine after coming home and starting a year’s leave, within a few months his world began to spin out of control.
To this day, he says, he can’t explain why exactly. “That’s the thing about mental illness – you don’t know what’s going on in your head.” But this much he knows: cashed up from his deployments, he was partying like a rock star, minus the joie de vivre. “I became so angry – at anything. My temper was ridiculous and I think that’s why I started drinking: to chill myself out,” he says. Sick and sorry on the mornings after, he’d used ice and speed to get himself going.
You could say he tried to kill himself. Or you could say he didn’t. It’s a moot point, he suggests. Over a period of two-to-three years he certainly overdosed more than once and was in and out of hospital. “I just didn’t care if I died,” Goodman says. I didn’t give a shit about anything. Or anyone.”
Upwards of 50 veterans killed themselves last year, according to military insiders; more than 41 who died in Afghanistan over 13 years
Casualties of Peace
The scourge of veteran suicide is neither new nor confined to Australia. Research into suicide in the years following World War I, for example, found returned servicemen from several Allied countries killed themselves at between two-to-four times the rate of men who hadn’t served. No one back then was diagnosed with PTSD, but everyone with a dad, uncle, granddad, nephew or mate who’d made it back from the front lines knew about battle fatigue or shellshock.
Today, earlier diagnosis of PTSD would doubtless reduce veteran suicides. But PTSD is not the sole cause of those. Not even close.
Many veterans who’ve felt adrift report that at the root of their troubles is not trauma but a hypercritical view of the society they’ve returned to. To understand how that comes about, you need to revisit their basic training, where the process of transforming them into entities useful to the task of fighting wars begins.
At a café in Sydney’s CBD I break bread with former soldier Lloyd (not his real name), now thriving in the corporate world. Like Goodman, Melbourne-raised Lloyd enlisted straight out of school and showed up at Kapooka green and keen.
“Essentially, what the military does is break you down,” he says. There’s the physical transformation: you discard the clothing and hairstyle that signal personal taste for the homogenising green or camouflage uniform and buzz cut. “At the same time the army instills absolute discipline. The values of the institution – teamwork, self-sacrifice, moral courage – are drummed into you.”
Which is all well and good. Until your warrior days are over and you have to become a regular guy again.
Lloyd crash-landed in a Melbourne university. “I found myself surrounded by people – anarchists, political activists, gay people – who seemed to be openly challenging the values I’d lived by,” he says. Disorientation gripped him. Was everything he’d absorbed while in the army still relevant? “Was <I>I<I> relevant?”
For 18 months civilian life felt too alien to bear, and Lloyd made two halfhearted attempts to reenlist. Only with the support of friends did he eventually resolve to stick it out as a civilian.
But not all ex servicemen can pull off the readjustment. Seemingly minor irritations – slow drivers; being blocked from using a piece of gym equipment by show-offs talking crap; people eating, speaking on the phone or using Facebook while someone in authority is addressing them; slovenly dress; imprecise language – can infuriate veterans steeped in self-discipline and efficiency.
“The fact these things are tolerated is very hard to compute when you’ve had years of a very clear standard,” says Heath Christie, the lead psychologist at Mates4Mates. “I work with Vietnam vets who are exactly as regimented as someone who’s been discharged for 12 months. Breaches make them frothing mad and it doesn’t change over time. That’s how effective the training is.”
Son, If It Was Up To Me…
Like John Rambo and the forlorn hero in Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Goodman couldn’t land work when he came home. “I was an awesome soldier,” he says, not with conceit but a sense of loss. “And I loved it. I got along with everyone. Everyone got along with me. I had a bit of respect in the place.”
A “ridiculous” number of applications yielded two interviews. “I couldn’t get a job on a council. I couldn’t get a job as a barman or in a gym. I couldn’t get a job doing anything.” The feeling of fading as a worthwhile being had a physical corollary: once a granite-like 90 kilograms, he shrunk to 74kg at his nadir. Rage. Anxiety. Depression. “I had it all. Big time.”
There was a time, says Soldier On’s Bale, when employers looked favourably upon returned servicemen. These days, however, a gulf has opened up between them and the rest of us that can leave veterans feeling discarded, like a spent cartridge.
“We don’t understand them. There’s a stigma that exists around them,” argues Bale, a former signal corps officer. Sometimes the obstacle to hiring is the ex serviceman’s fragile mental state. Just as often employers hold to some movie-fuelled conception of veterans “as stiff, rigid, authoritarian and not able to work within a business environment,” Bale says.
And is that always a misconception? Psychologist Christie says many veterans’ deplore the work habits of civilians: the coming in late and unshaven, the smokos and badmouthing of the boss. “These are all violations of the standards of military life, so they leave thinking, ‘There you go: these civvies don’t understand me’ – and they bounce from job to job.”
Among the hundreds of submissions to the Senate inquiry is a standout from Sarah Perkins, the wife of a “TPI” (totally and permanently incapacitated) veteran who served in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. “His experience as a highly competent, respected, contributing member of a team now serves only to remind him of what he is no longer,” Perkins wrote. “His skills are not easily transferable to civilian roles. His communication style is likely to cause offence. He feels useless. Having lived to serve, having risked death to serve, he can no longer be of service.”
The Killing Fields
Fighting wars in the 21st century would frazzle William Wallace. While they’ve always been nightmarish, there was a time when at least you knew who your enemy was. They wore a uniform. They were also bound by the rules of engagement. Now any civilian might have a bomb strapped to their chest, and any street, mall, building or patch of dirt could be rigged with IEDs.
The result: unrelenting stress. Its effect: when it comes to developing PTSD or not, “everyone’s bucket is a different size,” says Bale. “You and I could go through the exact same experience and I’m fine and you’re a mess . . . if not now, then five years on.”
Typical of veterans – and of men generally – Goodman waited too long to seek help.
“I didn’t want to be one of those people,” he says.
One of those people?
“People that need a hand. Who come back from overseas screwed up.”
There’s also the shock of betrayal. Generally speaking, veterans tend to expect that in return for having risked death for their country, their government will thereafter treat them compassionately, especially if their service has left physical or mental scars. Often, however, they feel the opposite is true: that the state plays the role of adversary in veterans’ claims for support. To ex servicemen, betrayal may also take the form of attempts from within the defence force to change military culture – to de-masculinise it in the misguided pursuit of greater diversity.
Once the will to live is gone, what’s left to prevent the suicidal act except squeamishness? But oftentimes that doesn’t apply to fighting men. “The veteran has become inured to blood and gore,” argues Sarah Perkins. “He has been immersed in a culture where death must be viewed without fear.”
It’s around 9am and Iraq veteran Ben Whiley is standing in a paddock in Canungra, a short drive west from the Gold Coast. An old, brown thoroughbred called Foxy trots over to him. She’s had a hard life and is always in pain. Over several weeks, man and beast form a bond. Sometimes Foxy cheers him up; other times he soothes her.
That was two years ago, when Whiley’s PTSD had the better of him. For treatment, Mates4Mates steered him towards its equine program, which could be one small part of the solution to veteran suicide.
“Horses are incredibly intuitive,” explains psychologist Christie. “They’re also a flight animal. If you’re angry, demanding, anxious, the horse picks that up and won’t have anything to do with you. It forces you to look at your internal state.” Once you’ve found calmness and acceptance, he says, you deepen your connection with the horse. It’s a metaphor for reconciliation with the civilian world.
Back in Brisbane, training beside Goodman is his girlfriend, Jess. “If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here,” he says. “Not a chance. She’s been my carer for three or four years.”
Jess and her family nudged Goodman towards Mates4Mates, where ex servicemen and their families can access services including acupuncture, massage and psychology. His sessions with Christie were crucial to his recovery, Goodman says, as was the social component: the post-workout catch-ups over coffee, the barbecues, fishing days and movie nights. It’s the therapeutic power of being around people who understand you. “You can relate to people in this building without really saying anything,” says Goodman.
“Gym’s the perfect therapy,” he adds. “Just to smash a session. That’s why I train hard: you just blow everything away.”
It’s not as though the ADF wipes its hands of departing members. ADF Transition Centres are dotted around the country. Goodman recalls attending a transition seminar, though he describes it “as hanging out in an auditorium for two days”.
Many veterans believe that preparation for transition needs to start earlier – back in basic training. “Recruits are taught how to kill, how not to be killed, how to obey orders and how not to catch VD,” Kenneth E. Park, a former professional Army officer, told the Senate investigation. “They are not taught how to deal with the trauma of actually killing another human, of seeing a mate blown to pieces. Today most youths have never even killed a chook.” The answer? “Some form of desensitising training has to precede battlefield exposure.”
I ask Goodman whether part of the challenge for the ex serviceman is persuading himself that civilian life is merely different to life in the military and not inferior?
“Exactly right! Exactly right, man,” he says. “It took me a long time to get over that.”
He still has bad days. Life can be humming along and then, bang! “You wake up a different person. It hits you and you feel like you’re back to where you were.”
But he’s so much better than he was. The drugs and booze are behind him. He eats like a nutritionist, trains like an athlete and works as a liaison officer for Mates4Mates. And he has Jess. “There’s no choice,” he says simply. “You have to start being a normal person again.”
Beyond Blue: www.beyondblue.org.au
Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14
Soldier On: www.soldieron.org.au