Emotional scars need our support to heal
My great-grandfather Arthur Curley Winwood fought in World War I, sacrificing a leg and possibly parts of his heart. By all accounts Curley was a lovely man. A man who like many of his contemporaries lost a part of themselves in the name of our country. He was one of the lucky ones who came home and from my family’s stories, he was quieter when he returned, and that was the extent of the emotion expressed around his experiences. Any trauma that he dealt with was not voiced.
When our Anzacs came back, life went on. People may have been considered as crochety or withdrawn, but we hear that most returned servicemen in that time did not seek help for the emotional toll of what they had been exposed to, the lives lost around them and the challenges with reintegrating back into their previous lives.
This was a different time. A time when emotions were not as well understood, not as freely expressed and as a relatively new Federation at that stage, we possibly had little knowledge about or resources to support any emotional toll.
However, today we do. Today we understand the emotional toll of being in active service. Today we understand many of the challenges faced by those who exit the military and try to move into a new phase of their lives. Not by all, but by many. Some of the numbers are staggering. For example, it’s estimated that around one in 20 homeless in Australia are veterans.
An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report found that while suicide rates were significantly lower among full-time serving male Australian Defence Force members, the rate is 13 per cent higher for men who have left the force. Another report found unemployment rates for veterans was around five times higher than the national average. Clearly there is much work to be done.
For more than 100 years we have sent our men and women into danger zones around the world, sometimes in active combat, sometimes in peacekeeper roles. And we often fall short of supporting them for the emotional scars they have received in the name of our country.
I have heard ex-military personnel talk about the nightmares they still have that drag them back into scenes that’d make your skin crawl; the dad whose daughter wanted him to sit in the front row at her school concert but instead he stood at the rear of the room with the wall securely shielding his back as this was the only way he felt secure in a crowded uncontrolled environment; the man who found it so hard to forget when he came home and everyone wanted him to just be grateful that he came back in one piece so he started drinking to numb the pain, over two years his numbing spiralled and his life did too, until eventually addicted to methamphetamine, he sat homeless and disconnected from everyone he had once loved.
I, like many of us, grew up with an awareness that Anzac Day is a day of national remembrance.
A date to pause and reflect on the lives lost in service, and a day to be conscious of the ongoing horrors of war and that we should not enter into it lightly. On April 25 we shine a light on our servicemen and women, past and present. There are services, there are marches and there are memories shared. But what happens the other 364 days of the year?
This week, the Sir John Monash Centre will be opened in the grounds of the Villers-Bretonneux military cemetery in northern France. It will be opened after an investment of significant funds, time and energy.
The centre shares Australia’s story of the Western Front in the words of those who served. It heralds a significant memorial to those passed.
But what about those who are present? How will we focus on them and their needs for the next 364 days to ensure we don’t just pay lip service to recognise what they have sacrificed in the name of our country?
How will we invest funds, time and energy over the next 364 days to ensure that we genuinely support them to recover from all of their injuries, and to recalibrate their lives with the range of physical and emotional scars they might be carrying?
I have heard former military personnel talk about the nightmares they still have.