The unseen war casualties.
People often experience trauma during war.
Over time, this can develop into a condition we now recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Sufferers can experience severe anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia and anger, amongst other symptoms.
It has a long history.
Cases of PTSD have been identified from descriptions in ancient Greek history of people experiencing persistent nightmares.
Other symptoms, such as feeling anxious and constantly on edge, were described as “soldier’s heart” during the American Civil War.
But this history took a sharp turn a hundred years ago, during World War I, when the prevalence of what was then known as “shell-shock” meant that a formal treatment for psychological trauma was needed.
Psychological trauma experienced during the war had an unprecedented toll on veterans, many of whom suffered symptoms for the rest of their lives.
These ranged from distressing memories that veterans found difficult to forget, to extreme episodes of catatonia and terror when reminded of their trauma.
The sheer scale of veterans experiencing such symptoms after World War I led to the definition of “combat stress reaction”, informing our modern concept of PTSD.
These men and women often secluded or withdrew themselves from society .
Many turned to alcohol , drugs, homelessness or become recluse or even abusive to those they loved.
The public perception of PTSD is still rooted in this past, and some of the problems discovered during World War I regarding psychological trauma have not yet been answered.
In our opinion still not enough is being done to ease our diggers suffering.
Though much has changed, many principles and challenges of PTSD treatment were first identified during World War I.
If we are to learn lessons from the war and better acknowledge the sacrifices of those who served, we must also acknowledge the impact of psychological trauma, both then and now.
Not so long ago, young Australians questioned the value of Anzac Day.
In 1971, anti-Vietnam protesters daubed the word “PEACE” on the columns of the Shrine of Remembrance.
In the early 1980s, young feminists called out “Shame” to the diggers marching down Swanston Street, and demanded that women who had been raped in war be recognised, too.
Then the nation’s sensibilities reversed, and a new generation made Gallipoli a pilgrimage site.
Even those who remained anti-war expressed compassion for soldiers and their sufferings – on the front and back at home.
What changed? There was a belated recognition that the peace movement had marginalised traumatised Vietnam vets, and with that came a desire to make amends.
The stories and images of the last WWI survivors also played a part. These fragile old men recalled their vulnerability as recruits, their fear in the trenches.
They stripped away the bravado that had once burnished the Anzac myth.
Monash Professor of History Christina Twomey identifies another turning point. In 1980, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, was officially recognised as a psychiatric condition.
“Prior to that, the assumption that had held sway in the psychiatric literature was that if someone had become neurotic, or what we would now call traumatised, as a consequence of their experiences in wartime, it was because they carried some inherent frailty or mental weakness, some predisposition,” she says.
The new classification recognised that PTSD was triggered when a person saw or took part in events that were outside the scope of everyday experience. Anyone who had gone to war was potentially vulnerable.
Professor Twomey’s particular interest is in prisoners of war who were captives of the Japanese, and how Australian attitudes towards them has changed since the first survivors came home, emaciated and barely alive, in 1945.
These men didn’t fit into mainstream Australian ideas of what it meant to be a returned soldier.
“It goes to the heart of how Anzac has been constructed in our culture,” Professor Twomey explains. “From very early on, Anzac symbolised bravery, courage, strength under fire, a good fighter, a very masculine representative of the race, a tall, well-built kind of guy.
“And if you think of that image of an Anzac, and then contrast that with the mental image of a prisoner of war – probably the most famous one is the Japanese prisoner of war who is in a loin cloth, emaciated, photographed lying down because he’s too weak to stand up.”
Some of the returned prisoners were nurses, who had also been held by the Japanese.
On their return to Australia, these women received a great deal of attention and sympathy, “and that directed attention away from the masculinity of the soldiers who had been taken prisoner and been defeated”, Professor Twomey says. These remarkable women have been almost forgotten today.
The returned prisoners campaigned for years to be compensated for their suffering.
“First, they had a three-shillings-a-day campaign, which was what they said it would have cost the government to feed and clothe them if they had been active soldiers,” she says.
That claim was twice refused by the Labor government, and then refused again by the Menzies Liberal government after an inquiry was held.
Why was such a modest claim refused? “In 1950, a government committee said we won’t compensate these people, because if we do, that will mean that in a future war they’ll have a disincentive to fight on, because they know they might get some money.”
Read more: Hope for thousands with PTSD
Eventually the POWs were allowed to apply for compensation from the Prisoner of War Trust Fund.
The money came from the sale of Japanese-held assets in Australia, and from the peace treaty with Japan.
Professor Twomey’s recent book, The Battle Within: POWs in postwar Australia, is largely based on the letters thousands of POWs wrote to the fund, setting out their case for compensation.
Altogether, the fund distributed the equivalent of $1 million to 200,000 people. The maximum amount that could be awarded was $500 (or £250), which, in today’s terms, was “not enough for a car, but enough for a washing machine.
It might contribute something to the family exchequer, but it couldn’t transform your life,” Professor Twomey says.
“Even though there’s a recognition that participating in war, and peacekeeping missions, can have a psychological impact, there’s still not a proper way of responding to that.”
In their letters to the fund, the men described “struggles with anxiety and depression, substance abuse problems, fractured family relationships – all the kind of things that you might expect”, she says. “Dreams, flashbacks, not being able to stand crowds, wanting to be by themselves a lot.
Finding it difficult to accept the authority of a boss – those kinds of things.”
She recalls being asked to give a talk on her historic research to a mental health network of carers and workers in the field, from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service, and Carry On, a support organisation for returned peacekeepers.
When the event ended, a Carry On delegate told her: “It’s still the same – those kinds of problems still haunt.”
She’s concerned that although PTSD is now an established condition, returned soldiers don’t receive adequate support.
“Even though there’s a recognition that participating in war, and peacekeeping missions, can have a psychological impact, there’s still not a proper way of responding to that.”
But she believes the biggest lesson of her research is that war experiences alone don’t define the trajectory of a person’s life.
“One of the dangers we have in Australia when we focus on Anzac and on war is that we offer that as the explanation for everything that happens to somebody. And we can’t reduce people to being cardboard cut-out figures, and not take account of their social class, their family of origin, their experience of education, their opportunities.
“Because sometimes the people who seemed to me the most damaged by their war experiences were those who went into that war with a distinct disadvantage. They came from impoverished backgrounds, for instance, hadn’t had good education, or were very young when they became soldiers …
“Yes, it’s important to think about what war does to people,” she says, “but in order to really understand our national story, we need to think about what sort of society they came from in the first place. And what sort of society they returned to.”
Barry Heard (Australian Army), Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
Barry Heard served in Vietnam in 1967 as a national serviceman. After many years he suffered a breakdown and was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Supported by his family he recovered and wrote a successful book about his life and experiences.
In 1967, Barry Heard served proudly and well as a national serviceman in Vietnam. But what he experienced as an infantryman made him want to forget the war.
“I stay away from everything. Apparently a couple of guys got in touch with my parents and wanted to get in touch with me…”
In 1987 the Welcome Home Parade took pace in Sydney. Barry refused to attend.
“I watched it on television and I could not believe what I saw. I was just stunned that people… Welcome Home? You know, holding up placards and that’s when I said to my wife I want to catch up with my mates. I need to see them; I haven’t seen them for so long.”
He attended his first battalion reunion. It produced mixed feelings.
“It was good and it was bad. It was good to see all the guys again, I’m sure we’re all gay; all we want to do is hold one another and cry and hug. It was just beautiful. To see all those guys. But what I ended up with was a book full of addresses and all that sort of thing and then the next three or four years were just bloody hell.
Because things did go downhill rapidly. There were suicides, there were… It was too much I think. Everything was too much.”
Barry was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He suffered a complete breakdown and his world crashed.
“Came out of the hospital; not sure when, probably a few weeks; wetting myself and soiling myself and not game to leave the bedroom for a start and then I wasn’t game to leave the house, for a long time. About six months I wasn’t game to go outside. I was just so frightened of everything. My poor wife. She has to look after me, this dribbling, bloody, fragile, old man. Yeah.”
Barry wrote a successful book about his life and it produced a surprising bonus.
“It’s brought us together my mates and I, all of us, in a way that’s surreal, and that is we’ve done a lot of fund raising. We’ve learnt that to give is the best thing to heal our soul and our spirit. We had no idea.”
Barry’s path back to health was long and painful for him and his family.
“I believe from that whole experience, the things I treasure in my life are so simple: I don’t want anything other than a wife “” I’ve got a beautiful wife, I’ve got beautiful children; beautiful grandchildren, and that’s it.”
The Cost of war conflict is high and its damage to people often exstensive beyond the battlefield itself.
It’s not uncommon for PTSD to spread, like a virus, through a household.
Read Mandys story.
THE OTHER FACE OF ANZAC DAY by Mark Saunokonoko.
Mandy cannot forgive the Defence force for the lack of support she and her family received after war left her partner violent, abusive and finally homeless.
Mandy, who suffered her own breakdown after her partner’s abuse. TAMMY LAW
The letter Mandy finally wrote to the prime minister’s advisory council was not angry.
Nor was it desperate.
Weighted in each sentence is the raw-boned language of resignation.
She wrote of her partner’s night sweats and restless legs. How he returned from his first deployment to Iraq withdrawn and violent. How the army forced him into hospital for alcoholism, only to send him on two further tours of Afghanistan.
She writes of how he would disappear for days on end, how he would experience flashbacks and blackouts.
Twice he attempted suicide, and when she telephoned for help he beat her. “I tried to remain supportive and encouraging,” she wrote, “despite, at times, living in fear for my life.”
“The First World War diggers would be turning in their graves if they could see the way our modernday soldiers are treated.”
The support from army and veterans’ affairs was wildly inadequate, she wrote.
She knew nothing of post-traumatic stress or where to turn for help.
Her partner, Tim, began to use drugs and gamble. He went on compulsive spending binges. At one point he choked her on the floor as their young daughter watched. The night terrors became so bad he would run screaming down midnight streets naked, before falling into an inconsolable, crumpled heap on the footpath.
“On one occasion he completely destroyed our family car,” she wrote in her letter. “He slashed the seats and tyres, ruined the dashboard, jumped up and down on the bonnet and the roof, and kicked in every side panel.
The following morning he reported the destruction to the police, having no recollection of his involvement in the matter.”
Mandy and Tim were 14 when they met. By the time he enlisted in the army, they had one child together. The day Tim left for basic training, Mandy found out she was pregnant with their second. Eventually, they had a third. At times, Tim tried to repair his family, but the trauma was too much. “He would often say that he couldn’t see how he could regain control, because all he could see was fear in our eyes.”
The couple’s eldest child began acting out as their home life disintegrated. His grades deteriorated and he was suspended from school. Their nine-year-old daughter sees a psychiatrist weekly, having started to self-harm and become suicidal.
Over the edge
When Tim finally left – he disappeared, leaving Mandy and the children stranded in Queensland on a family holiday – he slept rough for five months.
He received a compensation payment from veterans’ affairs and spent it on a high-powered motorcycle, which he wrote off in a police chase, high on drugs with his mistress riding pillion. Finally, Mandy was found in a catatonic state and admitted to hospital suffering a nervous breakdown. She was diagnosed with vicarious post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a major depressive disorder and severe anxiety with panic attacks.
“If you’d have got me two days ago I might not have been able to even talk about this,” she says when we meet for the first time. “Today is a numb day.” Reflecting on her final years with Tim, the man she had loved since she was 14, she says, simply and without malice: “It was like living with a demon.”
Mandy, whose name has been changed, speaks with a voice that trembles at times. She tells her story of combat-related PTSD that manifested itself as domestic violence, suicide attempts, drug and alcohol addiction, and wild spending sprees followed by crippling debt and, ultimately, utter despair.
“Looking back,” she says, “the first thing I should have noticed was he didn’t want us to come to the airport when he came back from Iraq.”
Mandy says the defence force and veterans’ affairs discarded and forgot about Tim and failed to provide adequate support to her family. There are gaps in the system, she says, and soldiers and their families are falling through them.
Mandy says her story is much too common across Australia. Indeed, multiple sources interviewed by The Saturday Paper believe Australia, through the Australian Defence Force’s repeated, high-tempo missions in the Middle East since 2001, is sitting on a mental health time bomb.
Mandy sees a therapist once a week, attends a weekly anxiety workshop and has a monthly appointment with a psychiatrist. She relies on her parents and brother for financial and emotional support and feels herself a burden or inconvenience. “I have medication to go to sleep and to wake me up,” she tells me, “to calm me down, for depression, and anti-psychotics for night sweats.”
Her pale blue eyes have the gaze of someone under sedation. It is not uncommon for PTSD to spread, like a virus, through a household.
When Michael Burge, director of the Australian College of Trauma Treatment, considers the escalating numbers of modern veterans against the Vietnam experience, his forecast is bleak.
“The psychosocial and community implications are just horrible.”
The ADF states the incidence of PTSD in active members is 8.4 per cent. Burge, who has worked extensively with Vietnam veterans and their families, finds that figure implausibly low. “Usually with war veterans it’s consistently around 30 per cent.”
Ending up homeless
Homelessness is one guide to the toll felt by service people returning from the war on terror. This year, Homelessness NSW estimated as much as 12 per cent of the NSW homeless population were veterans. Melbourne Street to Home put the Victorian figure at 8 to 10 per cent.
Geoff Evans, a former lieutenant in the First Commando Regiment, explains away the statistical discrepancy as a simple case of soldiers not declaring mental health issues. “If you’re in the ADF and you put your hand up and say, ‘I’ve got a mental health problem’, then your career is finished. It is finished.”
Evans was medically discharged after being seriously wounded during a second tour of Afghanistan, and was later diagnosed with PTSD.
He now leads RSL LifeCare’s Homes for Heroes program in Sydney’s Narrabeen, which provides shelter and support services to homeless veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tim is one of those veterans.
Evans, who is in constant chronic pain from vertebrae crushed when his Bushmaster was blown over by an improvised explosive device, twists and stretches his back throughout the interview. On his wrist is a black metal band inscribed with the names of two mates killed alongside him in Afghanistan.
He says every veteran who comes into his shelter is suffering from some kind of mental illness.
There are only 30 beds in the facility, and the initiative is hopelessly overwhelmed and underfunded. He describes excruciating phone calls where he has to turn away a desperate homeless veteran who is on the slippery slope to suicide.
“One hundred years after the First World War the diggers would be turning in their graves if they could see the way our modern-day soldiers are treated,” he says. “It’s a national disgrace, and it is going to get worse.”
A big part of the problem, says Evans, is what he describes as a veterans’ affairs system constrained by a combative legislation. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs says housing is an issue for the Department of Social Services, and therefore contributes nothing to the Narrabeen homeless program, which is funded entirely by the RSL and a small number of donations.
Norbert Keough is director of the East Sydney RSL Veterans’ Centre and also an advocate for veterans who need to lodge claims with the DVA for compensation and treatment of physical and mental health issues. “I view putting in claims like going through a meat grinder,” he says. “It grinds you up.”
Keough argues Australia’s “web-like” veterans’ entitlement legislation is probably the most complex in the world. Moreover, unlike in the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, there are no statutory timelines for veterans’ affairs to process and finalise claims. As a result, veterans in the system can suffer, unsupported, waiting months or years for assistance from a country they served courageously and without question.
A departmental spokesperson acknowledged the claims process is sometimes arduous, but said the department is focused on reducing wait times, and had implemented streamlining initiatives that were resulting in gradual improvements. Last financial year, the department spent $179 million on veteran mental health services and the spokesman emphasised there was no cap on funding in this area. A 2014 report tabled in parliament recommended against introducing legislated time frames to process claims “because they increase the risk of poor, incomplete or incorrect outcomes”.
Former commando Evans doesn’t buy it. “When the system is fighting you like that, what the system
is really saying is, ‘We don’t believe you.’ ” He says the department is trying to weed out a minority of false claims through a process that also prolongs the suffering of the vast majority who need help and need it quickly. Feeling let down
Mandy remains aggrieved that when Tim left for combat she was not told what to look for on his return and what support programs were available. The what-ifs and hypotheticals still pain her. “That’s where the defence community gets let down,” she says. “Because Tim turned to the person he trusted most for support and I let him down because I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Her letter to the advisory council on veterans’ mental health concluded with the same gentle dignity it carried throughout its five pages, the stoicism with which she has faced a life ripped apart by distant wars.
“My partner committed to doing his job within the defence force with the utmost dedication. He completed his service to the highest of his ability and that was only made possible by the commitment and dedication of his supportive spouse and children who have been left behind and forgotten by the very people dependent on our support,” she wrote.
“The children and I are doing the best we can, taking one day at a time. I cannot think what the future holds for us.”
With storys like this all to familiar, how can we as a people continue to allow such poor care of our vets and their families ?
sacrifices aren’t often discussed.
“When we at Sovereign australian talk to people about this issue “We don’t hear very much about the individuals who took their lives, either while serving or post-service.
There’s a big difference in the way we talk about it.”
We let the vets do all the talking and try our best to comprehend and comfort them it saddens us very deeply and aggravates us also for we wish we could do more to alleviate their suffering.
Between 2001 and 2016, there were a total of 373 suicides among service, reserve and former members of the Defence Force.
Of those, more than half were ex-serving personnel who had returned to their communities and civilian life.
These men and women of the Commonwealth of Australia defence forces served us , where is our duty of care to these great men and women .
They deserve a better damn service provided for them no exception no excuses, we really should be ashamed of ourselves , these men and women suffered in so many ways while serving so we the individual sovereign free men and women could sleep in our warm beds safe and sound and go to work in a safe environment .
Their families also suffered more than any normal folk could imagine.
The treatment of all our vets is just not good enough period.
At Sovereign Australian we believe We can do better and we must do better and hold accountable all those in government who fail to do right by our men and women in defence.
If you come accross a war vet please give them a moment of your time it can make all the difference in their daily struggle.
Home for Heroes: rsllifecare.org.au/young-veterans; Lifeline: 13 11 14.