The Voices of War

4. Ashley Judd – On Combat, Mental Health And The Road To Recovery

VOW 4 | Mental Health Recovery

 

Today, I’m proud to be bringing to you an episode on a topic that, as an Army officer, I think is not discussed enough—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) amongst war veterans. My guest, Ashley Judd, and I went through our Army officer training at the Royal Military College – Duntroon together, way back in 2007. Since then, Ash spent 8 years in the Army and is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. Due to his experiences of that war, and his actions and responsibilities in the line of duty, Ash faced significant challenges and was ultimately diagnosed with PTSD. In the years following, he became somewhat of a spokesperson for lifting the veil of shame on PTSD. I think this is an incredibly important conversation, both because Ash spoke so candidly and openly about his experience, but also because it sheds much light onto the fact that recovery is possible.

 

Some of the things we covered are:

  • Ash’s reasons for joining the military
  • The training he received and how effectively it had prepared him for combat
  • The challenge and privilege of command
  • His experience of combat
  • His struggle with mental illness
  • Speaking out publicly and accompanying fears
  • Recovery and finding meaning again

 

As promised in the episode, here are the links to Ash’s excellent TedX Talk at the London Business School: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0NMDlkarvE

 

As well as to the ABC Insight episode I referred to during out conversation:

https://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/11868227710/insight-s2012-ep30-insight-2012-ep-30

Lastly, for my Australian audience, military and otherwise, if you or someone you know are suffering, there is a lot help available. Below are the contacts and websites of some of the many agencies offering support. For my audience around the world, please look for help. Even if there are no services in your area, the internet has opened up many previously unavailable avenues. As Ash says in the episode, you are important, so please take the necessary first step and look out for yourself and each other.

 

All-hours Support Line

(1800 628 036 / +612 9425 3878 if O/S)

1800 IMSICK

(1800 624 608)

Defence Community Organisation (DCO)

Defence Family Helpline

1800 624 608

http://www.defence.gov.au/dco/

Open Arms (VVCS)

1800 011 046

https://www.openarms.gov.au/

Lifeline

13 11 14

https://www.lifeline.org.au

Suicide Call back service

1300 659 467

https://www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au

Listen to the podcast here

 

Ashley Judd – On Combat, Mental Health And The Road To Recovery

In this episode, I’m here with Ashley Judd. Ash and I went through our Army officer training at the Royal Military College, Duntroon back in 2007. Since then, Ash spent about eight years in the Army and is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. Due to his experiences in that war and because of the things he had to do in the line of duty, Ash faced significant challenges. He was ultimately diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In the years following, he became somewhat of a spokesperson for lifting the veil of shame on PTSD. Ash, thanks for taking the time to speak with me.

It’s great to be with you, Maz.

Before we get into your experiences of war, maybe let’s backtrack a little. What made you join the Army in the first place?

It’s something that I think about as I’m getting older and having two kids. The young man who made that decision to join the Army in the first place seems like a million years ago. I think of a couple of things. One was that I was influenced by the attacks on September 11, 2001, and the Bali bombing. I was at the University of Sydney studying Economics and International Relations. I was thinking about national security policy as part of my studies and what I was thinking about. I went on a student exchange at the University of Texas at Austin. I spent some time there in 2004.

A few years after September 11, 2001, I was in New York in 2004 when they still had National Guard soldiers at Subway. Some things gave a real sense of the visceral nature of that event for Americans and a sense of what it felt like to them to have political violence visited on them. It’s the overthinking undergraduate way that young people think. I started this loop in my mind that political violence is bad. Therefore, we should do something about it.

The war in Afghanistan, in particular, is something about it. Therefore, we should do it. I didn’t have a family military background of any particular depth. If young men and women should go and fight this war, it’d be disingenuous if I wasn’t willing to do it as well. This didn’t come all through my head in the space of a couple of beers. That’s about a year’s worth of thinking, and that led me to enlist in the Army.

You didn’t have great military experience in your lineage. What did your family think of you joining?

They were pretty surprised. I’m a relatively determined individual. Once it was clear that I was serious about it, then they were supportive. There was certainly a degree when I finished high school, they wouldn’t have picked it, and neither would I have.

My story is somewhat similar in that vein. I fled from the Bosnia War and then joined the Army as well. My family certainly was surprised, to say the least. Maybe you can describe your life in the Army or even the beginnings of the training at RMC. Since you deployed pretty early on in your career, we can first delve into that. Firstly, what was it like in RMC?

I was in the illustrious December 2007 graduation class. I graduated from the Infantry. I had a fantastic time at RMC, but I don’t remember thinking that at that time. I remember being pretty glad to leave, but I looked back on it fondly, and I was well prepared. Physically is the easy part, but intellectually and to a certain extent, morally and ethically to do what was asked to be in Afghanistan. Whatever happened to my experience of war, for the role that I was asked to take on, I was quite well prepared by RMC, which ended up being pretty useful. I graduated into Infantry, was posted to the 7th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment up in Duntroon, and then found out straight away that I was going to Afghanistan as a Platoon Commander.

I remember I was on my regimental officer’s basic course at the grenade range. I’m still not even a qualified infantry officer. They got me and two mates who had been in the same company at RMC and got told by our OC, “You guys are going to Afghanistan.” To be honest, my feelings about that, at that time, were very much young, professional officer, and not particularly deep. It was an exciting professional opportunity, and I felt excited that I was going to get it. Not over other people, but I was glad I was going, and it didn’t have to be other people watching me going. I wasn’t going in some random staff role. I was going to be an Infantry Platoon Commander.

Our deployment to Afghanistan was the first mentoring and reconstruction task force involving mentoring the Afghan Army. There were kinetic actions and combat on the previous reconstruction task force for occasions, but this was the first they had as part of their explicit role in actively seeking to engage with the Taliban through the ANA. It’s a period of pre-deployment training, which will be run by ASLAV. In September 2008, I was on a plane and I remember getting off the back of the Hawk in Afghanistan. We can see most of the mountains and a bit of the valley from inside TK’s main base as you would have been there and thinking, “I am doing it now.”

We’ll get into that very shortly. I want to touch on a couple of points you’ve made so far. You were well prepared. Both morally, ethically, and physically are easy. What do you mean by that? How were we all prepared?

We were prepared largely morally and ethically inculcated with a sense of duty in a pretty healthy way. In terms of its job of service primarily and duty, it’s quite enough, but the motto of the regiment is “Duty First.” RMC was very strong on ethics particularly not lying, being honest, putting yourself and your interests last, and the interest of the mission and your men first. Duty in terms of there’s a protective mechanism that can come unravelled a bit later when something is controversial or not.

Afghanistan wasn’t World War II, but most things aren’t morally unambiguous. Very few people would say Afghanistan was morally unambiguous. Mostly, no one would say that Iraq was morally unambiguous. Your focus was on the bit of the war that you owned. I didn’t spend a ton of time thinking about Afghanistan’s strategy until I was home again. I had only one bit to do and I was well set up to do that bit.

Professionally and tactically, when stuff happened to me, I knew what to do. I had been exposed to things like that in training environments under a degree of stress enough times that when it happened to me for real, I had the confidence that I would at least do tolerably well. One of the most important things in training is not that you intellectually know what to happen when bullets start flying, but you have enough self-confidence that you’re like, “I’ll be okay.” The first step to convincing other people that you’re going to be able to do a tolerable job or something is generally being able to convince yourself.

The first step to convincing other people that you're going to be able to do a tolerable job is generally being able to convince yourself. Share on X

A huge part of training is to inculcate that sense of confidence like, “I’ve been through this. I’ve got the tools. I can do this. I can execute this.” You marched into your unit as a brand-new lieutenant, finishing your regimental officer’s basic course, about to deploy into the war for the Australian Army, and taking over a platoon. We’ll mention your TEDx Talk in 2015 and also your interview with Jenny Brockie on SBS in Australia. What was that like being a young platoon commander and relatively inexperienced? I’m assuming a lot of your soldiers had already been with Afghanistan or at least to some of the other operational theatres.

It was intimidating but it’s a good idea that they give these gigs to guys and girls in their early twenties. In retrospect, I’m like, “How did anyone take me the slightest bit seriously? What business did I have?” At that time, you’re like, “I’ll be all right. They told me I’m going to do this and this.” It’s a bit of a keen sense of responsibility. When you’re early or in your first leadership role in the military, there are other things as well.

In those first months, you’re trying out styles a bit. I’m relatively looking at it and laid back. It took me a while to settle into a version of myself and self-presentation that made sense to me. I was lucky to have corporals and Army sergeants that had tons of operational experience and that was a benefit. You can look at it and be personally intimidated, or you can take the view I mostly took. Thank God, someone has done it all before.

It’s a pretty serious responsibility. You are ultimately in charge of this platoon and, in this case, all men or presumably largely young men. You’ve made the point a couple of times that it appears to at least have a significant influence on how we send people overseas. It’s generally younger people. As men, we have a whole lot of testosterone during those younger years. That’s part of, as you alluded to, the orientation to even go into the fight.

I was very conscious of that. I talked about it before but I didn’t spend an enormous amount of time on the strategy. It certainly is not of alternate paths. What could we do to reach the same political outcomes without using military force? I didn’t spend any time thinking about that at that time. With the soldiers, if you’re doing a tactical training exercise, blank fire, or something, and it goes a bit pear shapes, you’re conscious that if you eff things up, then it’s real. You can hurt people and people can die. That was a weighty thing.

Also, you are very conscious of the importance of projecting confidence and acting in a way that can give confidence to your subordinates. That’s quite lonely and hard work. When you’re junior, you’re less inclined to ask for advice or show vulnerability, which is probably helpful. For better or worse, you feel there’s some level of achievement you can before you can be yourself a bit. I got comfortable in Afghanistan, but it wasn’t until the first time we’d been in a gunfire. I’m not sure how well I did it particularly, but it wasn’t dreadful.


VOW 4 | Mental Health Recovery
Mental Health Recovery: You are very conscious of the importance of projecting confidence and acting in a way that can give confidence to your subordinates, and that’s quite lonely and quite hard work.

 

That was some confidence building and there is a need to have a degree of personal presentation that is about projecting the image of leadership that you want. That work. If that’s not what you’re feeling, that is emotionally taxing and constantly feeling like you need to personally know the answer straight away for what to do as opposed to seeking some counsel and eventually, making a right the right decision. The latter is better but it takes a while for you to work out how to do that.

That’s an important leadership lesson right there. Both you and I will agree that the Army does that exceptionally well, particularly as officers, we’re very lucky to oftentimes have good senior non-commissioned officers who will help us learn some lessons along.

It was excellent but a leadership challenge at times. I had two sergeants. For the audience, normally, you would match this young left-tenant lead with a second-in-command who’s an experienced senior non-commissioned officer and a platoon sergeant. I had a great Infantry sergeant, but to deploy, we had some cavalry armoured vehicles come with us.

My two cavalry vehicles were commanded by another sergeant. We had this fantastic organisation with amazing firepower and capability, but I did have the leadership challenge of finding the most appropriate role and how that work because that is a bit different. The professionalism of both of those individuals meant a lot. It worked.

Was it a challenge for you as a leader or between them recognising allegiances to you? Where was the challenge?

It’s both. If you have subordinate leaders, you’ve got to be conscious of making decisions. The way we present ourselves is how the world receives us. You can think things in your head, but the world receives you in the way that you talk, move, and act. I learned a lot about being conscious of giving leaders that worked with me the space to do particular things to allow them to project what we wanted to get across. It is much more effective than me saying X is going to do this, and Y is going to do that. Certainly, a lot more than me thinking it because that doesn’t tell anyone anything. I might be comfortable with it but people don’t know your thoughts. Typically, show rather than tell is a more effective way of getting what you want across.

You can think things in your head, but the world receives you in the way that you talk, move, and act. Share on X

You then deployed towards the latter part of 2008, and you had a significant organisation. Tell us a little bit about that. What was your job for the uninitiated? Put it into simple speech. What did you have to do on the ground?

In the organisation, we had nearly 50 soldiers. We had an Infantry platoon of about 35 guys, which had 4 armoured vehicles and 4 bushmasters. We also had 2 cavalry vehicles with 6 guys. Effectively, on every mission, we would go out with the same fantastic section of combat engineers with another armoured vehicle to help look after the explosive device and threat. On top of that, an artillery individual to help us coordinate air and artillery, a medic, and then all sorts of other people that needed to get out into the battle space to do a job where my role was transport security.

The role of our platoon as part of our combat team was that the specific guys in our battle group that were mentoring the Afghan Army to fight with the idea that the Afghan Army would leave the fight with our support, we would help to provide security to them. If the Afghans were going to search someone’s house in a village, we might help with the cordon around it or patrol in the depth of that. We beefed up security around the Afghan Army so that they had the capability to build their level of knowledge and understanding because they were doing it while in training. They were doing it live against the live enemy. What did that mean? It meant patrolling in the green zone as a formed platoon, looking for the Taliban, more or less, and occasionally finding them.

You’ve talked about how during your deployment, you had been involved in a number of contacts and one particular ambush that, in your words, changed your life in many ways. What happened? You can tell more broadly but we can narrow it down into one specific incident.

The day I remember most or was the most influential was in late December 2008 in the Chora Valley. We’re doing a fairly standard mission at that time. The Afghan Army was doing some searches of suspect’s houses and we’re forward of them patrolling to put a bit of a hard shoulder between that activity and where we suspected the Taliban went. It was a cold clear day, and we’d been patrolling for a couple of hours. There were few civilians around and it felt like something bad was going to happen. We felt that for two hours.

How did you feel about that? What do you mean you felt that?

It was a feeling, not intuitive. We spent 90% to 95% of the time out in the field so you get to understand what the village atmosphere is where nothing is going to happen and when it doesn’t reflect that way. Typically, you see people in the fields working, cooking smells from inside compounds, and road traffic from the ubiquitous motorbikes, like people living their life. When you don’t have any of that in populated villages, then you start to wonder because that can be a sign that there’s a precursor for an attack.

Why is that? For those who are not necessarily familiar with the context, why would that be a sign?

The locals live an extremely trying life and undeniably, for obvious and very fair reasons. If they get a sense, whether they’ve been told by the Taliban or there are unfamiliar fighters in the village, they will try to reduce their involvement in the conflict as much as humanly possible. They’ll do that in a way by removing themselves from their homes or walking away. They do not come out and tell us, which is something I find frustrating at times. It’s understandable because in an environment of great uncertainty, they’re trying to survive and they will reliably do the thing that is most likely to have them survive another day or another week.


VOW 4 | Mental Health Recovery
Mental Health Recovery: In an environment of great uncertainty, civilians are literally just trying to survive and will reliably do the thing that is most likely to have them survive another day or another week.

 

When you try to keep your family alive, you think in pretty short timeframes. Equally as can be seen many years later when the place I patrol still isn’t secure from the Taliban, people had a hard time believing our promise that if they would be fully supportive of us, they would have some greatly enhanced level of security. We’re not able to provide that. We tried but historically and persistently, we’re unable to provide the people of the region the things we said we would. They wouldn’t tell but you could tell from their actions if something was up.

The idea of the pattern of life is different.

When the patrol was about to wrap up searching the compounds and then there was some activity behind us, we’ll press ahead one more field. Many people haven’t had the joy of patrolling the green zone in Afghanistan. It’s a patchwork of fields that are bordered by deep aqueducts. They use an ingenious method of irrigation where aqueducts are built around every field and they’ll knock down the walls so it floods the field for irrigation and close it up to move the water.

Water is a particularly important deal over there. You could secure yourself or get cover from observational fire in these aqueducts but out in the field, you’re open. We pushed across what was going to be one more field and quickly came under pretty intense fire in the open. I remember going to the grounds. The first RMC drill sergeants would be proud because the first three seconds went all right, like run, down, crawl, and fire. We got that all good. You could hear the whip of bullets and see bullets strike around me and the half section I was with.

My biggest recollection is thinking I’m going to get shot in the face and I hope it doesn’t hurt. It was intense. I remember my vision narrowed and it felt like everything was in slow motion. My brain was struggling to cope with the whole idea that this was happening. This was half a second and then I remembered the world turned back on again. I don’t think it was a particularly insightful tactical manoeuvre but at least I said something and there was a wall to go. I’m like, “We’ll go over there. Let’s get to that wall.”

I suspect you didn’t say it in such a cool, calm, and collected manner at that time.

No. It’ll be great for people to see how is this like the Pink Panther and super chill over there. I don’t think I was like that. We got to the wall and the soldiers were with me. They relied on their training, great composure, and courage, and covered each other’s movement by fire. Guys deliberately stayed out in the open until someone moved around them.

Relatively shortly, that movement separated two parts of my platoon. Very shortly after, one of my soldiers, Private Matthew Pepe was shot very badly in both legs. The remainder of the next hour and a half was an attempt and ultimately successful to evacuate a wounded casualty while were pretty well surrounded and at times, having a grenade range gunfight with the Taliban.

The tactics and things aside, I did feel that it was entirely possible that we weren’t going to get out, or at least not all of us. Something terribly bad could happen. When we did and got Matt to the helicopter, and he thankfully survived, that was an extraordinary feeling of relief but also a real discomfort. That wasn’t good or that came much closer to the edge that I might have wanted to. That day, I don’t think there was anything magical about what I did. My soldiers and two of my corporals, in particular, perform incredible courage, bravery, and composure.

You single out two particular corporals. What makes you say that? What do they do?

Their names are Leon Gray and Nathen Webb to give them a shout-out but they commanded their sections in difficult circumstances. With a PHQ that was split, it’s like the arc of fire. It was 270 degrees so it was not a great idea of where the enemy was, except that they appeared to be in lots of places.

You, at least, perceived or were surrounded. Is that what happened? What did it look like on the ground?

We certainly perceived we were surrounded. At different times, we were fired at from all points. It’s hard to know. At any one time, they were on all points because they were moving in small teams. I always perceive, in my experience of combat, that some people are sure there were X guys and they were here. My perception was I was never that sure about anything that happened in any of them. Reliably, you can ask 10 people and get 15 answers. I’m not sure my answers are any more credible than anyone else’s but we perceived we were being surrounded. We found the enemy was moving around and firing at us. That was happening.

These corporals and the soldiers did like everyone did their job. They’re so focused on the things that they could do whether that’s firing into your arc or being the medic and treating the wound. When Matt was shot, the soldier who initially put a cover on him did so underwater in an aqueduct. When you have to do hard things, you have to do them under stress in an ideal way where not everything is perfect. You have to overcome it. To the degree to which I did anything, I kept it together. My recollection of how it felt was keeping it together just enough. I never felt like I had a particular master plan, and maybe that’s a fault. We’re going to do X, Y, and Z, and then we’ll get out. It was more like, “If we do this, we’ll be good for ten minutes, and then we might buy some space or time to think about a new thing.”

That makes sense because time stopped still for a moment. All hell is breaking loose around you. You don’t know what you’re dealing with. There’s so much uncertainty. In a way, it makes sense that your leaps and bounds temporarily are very short. Let’s survive the next five minutes.

The circumstances might change to your advantage. I don’t know if it’s a life or tactical lesson there about being a bit patient. You don’t have to solve everything with a Napoleonic masterstroke. Sometimes, being around, calm, and not having some ammo left in ten minutes is okay. All things end.


VOW 4 | Mental Health Recovery
Mental Health Recovery: You don’t have to solve everything with a Napoleonic masterstroke. Sometimes, just being around, being calm, and not having some ammo left in 10 minutes is okay. Everything ends.

 

How did that ambush come to an end for you guys?

With the help of some very good and close friendly forces, they deliberately fire from outside of our cavalry vehicles. What was also helpful was when the casualty evacuation helicopter came to pick up Matt. It was escorted by an Apache helicopter gunship. By the time the Apache did it slowly, the enemy was unenthused about continuing the fight. Also, they had taken some of their casualties so we were able to get back.

Do you know that they took casualties as you could see?

I didn’t but I did see the enemy go down. We didn’t recover any bodies but other guys confirmed that they saw it. To me, the numbers and stuff of how many were there and how many casualties are the blackest of boxes. There were some. I saw some.

Ultimately, it’s not a matter of numbers. That’s not what the purpose is about finding out. It’s more about the feeling of what’s happening on the ground. You opened this part of a discussion with a feeling that you’re about to get shot in the face. That is a massive thing to be confronted by as somebody who’s not only young and relatively inexperienced, although trained but in charge of 50 soldiers who are all looking to you to get you out of this fight.

One of the things that helps is I genuinely think that I was more scared of doing a bad job than I was of getting personally injured. That might sound like I’m pumping up my tires. It’s a good sign of the training I had mostly. RMC has beaten into us that, “It’s your job.” It’s not intellectual. It’s far more than intellectual. It’s beaten into your personal moral and ethical code that it would be an incredibly shameful and wrong thing to do to be more worried about your safety than the mission and the men, and that works.

I don’t think I have magic for thinking that or even particularly good for thinking that but I’m the product of an effective training regime that got me to act that way. When it came to it, I was able to do so. I very much doubt that if you could have taken me 4 years before as a young man in his early 20s and somehow downloaded into my brain the tactical knowledge and stuff, would you do all the same things? I don’t think so. If there’s an effort to get people to act in this way, there is a whole structure, logic, symbolism, and lots of things that play into the idea of getting any number of individuals to do something dangerous all at once in some vaguely organised fashion.

You mentioned here but also in your TED Talk about the camaraderie and the bonds that are forged under these types of circumstances. What are these bonds?

There’s something incredibly bonding as a human about shared hardship. You have a tribe that you rely on to live for all aspects of your life. You all eat the same food. You exist when you sleep. You are in a perimeter and rely on the security of these guys switching over you while you sleep. As the platoon commander, I’m a guy. I’ve got a rifle but a dude with a radio, map, and a couple of sonography pencils. All the actual fighting is done by the soldiers. I’m relying on them also for my security. They’re relying on me to make tactically appropriate and just decisions. When you’re in an environment of great uncertainty, there’s something bonding and at least knowing who you can rely on.

There's just something incredibly bonding as a human about shared hardship. Share on X

We don’t know what’s going to happen but I’ve got a tight team. Humans are pretty communal naturally. We don’t always live the most communal lives in the modern era. When put into that structure, people thrive. I also think it became heart-warming to see some of these young men. I was young but still in the oldest third of age. Do great things whether it be acts of morality, courage, or selflessness looking after their mates, even simple things like being incredibly reliable.

One of the things I always reflect on some people might think is a boring thing that I was always very proud of my platoon, was that I knew if there was a gunfight going on here, an enemy forward left and right, and I task three guys to look back, they’d keep looking back, which is not the easiest thing. That’s the stuff where you start to feel that the organisation is in good shape, which it was. One thing I reflect on later is that it was optimised for a task and there’s a cost to that later.

What do you mean?

It’s when tribalism relies to a certain degree, explicitly or implicitly on other people. The military is big on this and it helps build bonds of camaraderie. We wear different coloured headdresses and lanyards. We call each other different things. We have a complex social hierarchy of things where lots of infantry people incorrectly and often quite forcedly perceive themselves at the top. All this social structure is a matter of ton to how we bond and how we relate to each other in a military context.

Often, the depths of those bonds are made at the expense of the ability to interact with others on neutral ground on their terms. One thing I reflect on is the ability to even do something as simple as talking to a member of the Afghan people. Without the prior, what we all want here and what everyone’s focus should be is finding out where the Taliban are. It’s like, “I need one thing from you.”

It’s very binary because it’s almost a clash of different identities. You are not necessarily part of my tribe but we have, what I perceive, as the same goal. Let’s do these transactions so that we can both go forward and achieve our goals.

Everything not in your tribe becomes a transaction and is viewed through the moral code of your tribe. Not everyone has the same moral code or focus. When you break that tribe up and then go home in particular, then it becomes hard because civilians, or as I would call them normal people, don’t prioritise things in the same way for very good reason that they haven’t had to for very specific circumstances. This is where we start. I mentally started such PTSD stuff.

I often think of it, particularly the way my PTSD, which ended up being diagnosed with manifested early in the pace, as a hyper adaptation to an environment that was no longer appropriate. You can think about it as a disorder or pathologise if we take that away and describe it as a set of behaviours and thoughts. What happened is I became good at being a platoon commander in Afghanistan, at least by the standards of not asking for external credibility.

To myself, I felt confident that I could do a good job at it. The behaviours that were rewarded both within the tribe, by my superiors, and by things that happened on the grounds became the behaviours I was most comfortable demonstrating. They worked there but that there was a pretty weird there and not representative of the rest of my life.

The behaviours and the thoughts didn’t match the context that you were in when you came back ultimately.

I like the intensity of Afghanistan and that everything mattered. There’s a great deal of fulfillment because whatever your political views on whether you should be there or not when you’re there, you’re there. You may well do something useful and try as best as you might get yourself and others alive. It’s intense and that intensity becomes a bit addictive. You start to give yourself a bit of self-wraps about being a serious person. When you get home, not everything has to be at that level of intensity, nor should it be because it’s emotionally draining.


VOW 4 | Mental Health Recovery
Mental Health Recovery: When you get home, not everything has to be at that level of intensity, nor should it be because it’s actually really emotionally draining.

 

I don’t think that we realise the degree to which, even our ability to perform to that level is extremely time-bound. As everyone who’s been there knows the Afghan National Army’s discipline wasn’t great by us if you’re judging by our standards. To be honest, if you judge it by any reasonable military standard, the discipline wasn’t great. One thing I didn’t spend very little time thinking of back then is they’re here until the bloody war ends. Afterward, I know when I’m going on leave, when I’m going home, and when I’m going back to main base TK. There’s a lot of context and wisdom that comes with age, where you look back and think of things with a lot more nuance.

To be honest, I don’t think any of that nuance would’ve helped me to be a platoon commander particularly. I don’t know if subtle distinctions would’ve gotten in a bit in the way of a bias for action and having the confidence to have real clarity of thought. Whereas now, I’m much older and I’ve got some kids. I may be 2% wiser and I can think of complexity, nuance, and everything but it wouldn’t have bloody helped at that time.

That’s the reason why we send young men mostly into those types of operations or missions.

It’s a good system. At the point in which you’ve decided to go and fight a war, that decision is a separate issue but at the point in which you’ve decided, you should fight it as well as you possibly can.

This is probably what you meant in your TED Talk. You mentioned that you loved combat. The war is intoxicating, all-consuming, and horrible but it also has a beauty. You were talking about what it was like for you to be in Afghanistan. You were operating at your peak performance, in a context where you had found what the rules were, and what your behaviours had to be to achieve the right outcome. Is that what you mean by the war was intoxicating and that you love combat?

Yes. You feel like you’re operating at peak performance and doing things that matter. You’re getting constant intrinsic rewards. You’re able to build teams at high-level performance because very rarely, for the world, they have nothing else to do. They don’t have any competing distractions. At a very minimum, you have high alignment because if we can agree on nothing else, everyone wants to live through the thing.

You don’t have a phone buzzing distracting you. You don’t have kids to go and pick up from school.

You only got this one big thing. Also, two months I looked back and my position as an infantry platoon commander had a degree of prestige to it, which I liked. You get into gunfights and that has some prestige to it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like that as well. I’d read too many undergraduate ideas about going out in the world and doing big exciting manly things. It’s an extraordinarily romanticised view of the world, which absences a bit of nuance. It was an enormously integral part of my identity when I was there but even after.

I spent a significant number of years in the morning. The most important impactful thing I’d ever do, I’d already done. You think there were other things I’d like to do and want to do but not able to imagine a world in which I didn’t spend most days thinking or talking about what happened in Afghanistan, which wasn’t particularly healthy. It fundamentally became part of what was a significant mental health distress that I will have with me for the rest of my life.

Was that part of the unravelling? You refer to it as the long shadow of the war that followed you back. Was that part of it?

Definitely. There are a couple of things that happened here. There were three aspects of the distress I was in that you could wrap up a bow in and call the PTSD and major depression diagnosis that I’ve got. 1) The persistent imagery of the conflict itself like flashbacks and the physical reactions of being hyperreactive. That was one part. 2) The aspect of moral injury. One being, “What on earth was the point of all that?”

These are two ideas that are a bit juxtaposed. One being, “What on earth was the point of all that,” for our soldiers, myself, and a little bit at the time for the people of Afghanistan but to be honest, this is a pretty inward thought. For me, feeling increasingly distant from the identity I was most happy with, which was this lack warrior. The more distant I got from that, my job, and being in civilian life, and became deeply unhappy, I became depressed essentially.

How long after you keep it when you come back? Did it happen immediately or was it sometime later?

About six months after I came back, it started unravelling in terms of persistent bad moods and recurrent imagery in my head. It wasn’t until I came back in mid-2009. It wasn’t until late 2010 that I was diagnosed. At the point of my diagnosis, I was very off the rails. I was drinking extremely heavily. It was impacting my relationship with my then-wife. I was at the School of Infantry as an instructor. When I went to the doctor to talk to someone, it was this outpouring of grief.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt truly suicidal in terms of having an active plan but that’s 1 of 2 times in my life I’ve felt that. Without some intervention that is beyond my capability to do, I don’t know how I can do anything. If something bad happens, I don’t have a fully formed thought of what it is. If someone has got to do something, I don’t know what that is to help me.

How did you know you were at that point? How did you know that it was time to go and see someone?

We spoke earlier about how people perceive you in words and actions, not in thoughts. People don’t know your thoughts. They perceive you by what you’re saying and what you do. I had a fairly well-adapted idea that my thoughts weren’t any good so I’m expending enormous cognitive energy on making sure that my words and actions are as appropriate as they could be. As that started to fall away, I was self-aware enough to know that was bad.


VOW 4 | Mental Health Recovery
Mental Health Recovery: People perceive you in words and actions, not in thoughts. People don’t know your thoughts. They perceive you by what you’re saying and what you do.

 

For example, I remember being incredibly, emotionally, and unhealthily angry at a trainee at the School of Infantry for some tactical infraction of minor importance. In my mind, on the scale of crimes, this is 12 out of 10, you’re going to get your mates killed. Not in the way that they tell us at RMC training but I’m emoting that you could have got someone killed. Not at the level it should be but 7 out of 10 to raise his stress levels and have him understand why this is important. There’s a space there for a bit of theatrical emotion but this is a real, honest to God, anger for me.

That inability to calmly perceive the world, react emotionally, and not think was so whack. Everything was feelings and nothing was thoughts. I couldn’t move without this gigantic well of feelings being everything. That’s the point at which I needed help. I don’t know what would’ve happened if I didn’t but I was very conscious that I had to do something.

Thankfully, for the rest of us and the Army, you became somewhat of a spokesperson for PTSD, particularly as a young officer coming out. In many ways, setting the standard for your subordinates, peers, and superiors is something that we shouldn’t hide. What made you take that leap? This is something I’ve congratulated you for before because that takes a lot of courage coming from the environment that you did, particularly as an Infantry officer where physical and mental toughness is perceived as the be-all-end-all. Perhaps not so much now but certainly in those days, the overwhelming stigma that’s attached to mental illness like PTSD.

The first thing I had to do was give myself a little bit of space to feel better. Coming forward, it’s important to say that I needed to build up some strength and sort myself out a bit before I did that.

To clarify, at this stage, you had started treatment.

By the time I came out in any way at all publicly, I’d started treatment. The thing to understand is that I was in treatment first before I came out for a while to get the strengthened perspective and brain space to even think about it. One of the things that I reflected on was that it would’ve been easier to come forward if I’d had a role model. No one else had done it.

To be clear, I never expected that it was going to be like the 1970s that if I said I had PTSD, everyone was going to be like, “You’re a linger and not talk.” I didn’t think any of that was going to happen. What there wasn’t that I could see was an ability to say that and have people simultaneously be like, “He’s got this health issue he’s getting treated for but I still see him as a competent professional who has a future in the Army.” That’s what I didn’t trust.

One big thing that made a difference was if you remember General Cantwell who had been the Commander of Australian Forces in the Middle East. He had also been a junior officer. I read his book. He had fought in exchange with the British Army in the First Gulf War. He wrote a book about having a pretty severe mental health episode. I admired him for his bravery but what got me more interested was the response from the service community was quite positive. That was one thing. The other was I was seeing certain of my soldiers having severe mental health drama and I then became conscious.

I might think that I don’t have a role model for this, but do they? All that led to a spur-of-the-moment decision to what it started to talk about having PTSD as a chronic condition. I put this on my Facebook and then got 120 comments on nice stuff from people. I most tellingly got two soldiers individually from my platoon telling me that they thought that they were the only ones from the platoon who had problems, wondered what was wrong with them individually, and thought that was such a great tragedy. These guys unnecessarily, at least, were not going to fix everything but the pain of wondering what was particularly wrong with them.

They’re suffering darkness on their own.

Not even anyone to talk to about the bond of a shared experience. Once I’d done that at that level, I always found it uncomfortable. It’s not that I ever wanted to be the PTSD guy but life happens. Mostly, your ability to do good things is as circumstantial as it is as some grand design. It was never a grand plan but once it was possible, it was like, “This is a thing I can do that’s useful.” I was uncomfortable about it but it was in for a penny and a pound.

Your ability to do good things is as much circumstantial as it is like some grand design. Share on X

If I’m going to say it on Facebook, then I can go on TV and say it, or I can be on an internal defence video thing. First of all, it was the right thing to do. I don’t think it was a particularly amazing thing to do. I’m not giving myself props but it was the right thing to do. That made me feel better, which helped. I felt useful, which helped with how I was feeling.

What were your biggest fears about coming forward and going public?

Losing the opportunity to have a future military career, which is what I wanted. Also, being felt sorry for. I used to talk about my nightmare scenario. I was constantly going through life where people were asking if I needed a cup of tea. At this time, it’s an unhealthy extent. One of the things I’ve done in my life was I was an Infantry officer and I’m very proud of that. I enjoyed it. It was very incredibly formative. I’m not an Infantry officer now and the first thing I say when I describe myself is not that I’m an ex-Infantry officer but at that time, that was me. Anything that came away from that was not the way I wanted the world to perceive me.

Were those fears well-founded when you came out? How did it all unfold?

I was very well supported by the Army and virtually, everyone else. We can all only tell our stories. At the School of Infantry, the commanding officer and the OC at the time, and I was in a great piece of luck, was Dave Allen, who was the Command Sergeant Major of Forces Commands and was my RSM at 7RAR, and was the Wing Sergeant Major at Rifle Wing at the School of Infantry. I had some people around and guys had deployed with Afghanistan with Bengali. I had people around when I first got sick who knew me.

I got a lot of comfort from the fact that they knew and their prior that I was credible and competent as an Infantry officer. It might have been hard for me to say anything if I didn’t have people that at least knew that. The best thing that happened with the way the Army treated me was that I was treated mostly as the professional that I was. We started from the basis of, “You can do everything except some things you can’t,” not from the basis of, “You are fundamentally broken and useless. What are things you can do?”

I’m not sure how developed down is the policy was towards this at that time but certainly, my interactions with people as humans were pretty good. Most of the pain I felt about it was pretty self-generated, to be honest, and then I got extensive treatment, which was painful and tedious at times because it was hard work. I stayed in the Army. I would’ve been able to deploy, do all those things, and continue to have a career.

For those who find themselves having similar thoughts or in doubt as to how they should take their mental states forward, I am conscious that it’s highly individualised but what did your treatment look like?

It had a couple of arms to it. For the vast majority of the past, I have been taking antidepressant medication, which I went on quite early in my treatment because it required a bit of mood stabilisation. For some people, it includes going to a psychiatrist or a medical doctor and potentially prescribing some medication. Secondly, some talking therapy is cognitive behavioural therapy. If I can sum it up in a sentence poorly because I was the recipient, not the giver of therapy, thank God, it is to learn how to remember things without reliving them.

As humans, we can remember images, even painful ones at a much more muted level of emotion than we experienced the first time. Sometimes, people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are not experiencing memories the way we commonly understand memories. They’re experiencing the memories if it’s happening again, which can be very disruptive and threatening. It’s not like you’re never going to forget that it happens. You need to remember it happened and remember it as a memory, not as a present event.


VOW 4 | Mental Health Recovery
Mental Health Recovery: People with post-traumatic stress disorder do not really experience memories the way we commonly understand memories. They’re experiencing the memories as if they are happening again.

 

To clarify a point and perhaps that’s an important point to make, what you described there ultimately is PTSD. You can’t delete the memory. What PTSD ultimately is that when you remember that memory, you end up reliving all the emotions, sounds, smells, and everything else that is associated with it.

Your brain is doing that as a protective mechanism to give you all and then fills you up with cortisol to adrenaline. The least developed part of your brain is giving you what your body needs to put up a fight or flight response. That’s not helpful because you might be in the aisle looking for past resources. One thing that I would add to that is how I think about PTSD now, which I still have. I had a bad run of mental health in 2018 so I wasn’t even in the Army anymore. That resulted in me spending a couple of months away from work and going back on medication, which I’m still on, and I imagine I’ll be on for the rest of my life.

It was a reminder that this is a chronic thing you always have. The way I see it is my brain works a bit differently from how it might have if I’d never gone to Afghanistan but in good ways as well as bad. I certainly think when I look back on how I was before this, there are things that I’ve learned about myself and the world that maybe I could have learned some other way but this is how I learned them. A degree of empathy, I’m a much more empathetic person than I was before all this happened. I am much more able to see in myself that I’ve done some things to some moderate degree of success, but I’ve also been, at times, in pronounced distress and unable to do very basic things at all.

Having had the experience of saying that can happen to me, I like to think I’m much more able to pick the good from the bad in others in a much more nuanced way, give people the benefit of the doubt, and assume good intentions. Being public about my mental health started from a base of taking a punt that most people were pretty all right. Sometimes institutions are bad at things but most people are pretty okay and will act decently if you give them a chance. That decision has been rewarded time and time again for me. I’d like to think I try to apply that in my life and that my experiences say that remains a way to go.

That’s powerful and a fantastic insight into life. You’ve been dealt some tough cards but you’ve realised that and you increased your level of self-awareness. It allowed you to build bridges that perhaps would never have existed otherwise between you and others. If there is a silver lining, that’s a monstrous one. Particularly as a father and in the civilian world where people haven’t, thankfully, experienced the things that you have, it allows you to be more empathetic. We’re all struggling. We’re all trying to create perceptions in people through our actions and behaviours that are, more often than not, very congruent with our minds. We’re all suffering somehow in some way in our minds.

You and I are the fathers of young children. One thing that’s taught me is everything is simultaneously wonderful and hard. Life is bloody tough for everyone. Sometimes fantastic but a lot is asked of us. The thing with cards is that’s all you’ve got. If my experience is all I’ve got to work with and it’s all I’m ever going to have to work with, you may as well get on the front foot with it. That comes after many years of me feeling sorry for myself and drinking a lot, and that’s not helpful. It’s not easy to come to this conclusion, but on things that you don’t have any choice, which is your personal history, make the best of it that you can. If for no other reason, then what else are you going to do?

That’s a wonderful way to sum it up. It’s taken us towards the end of our chat as well, appropriately so. I want to finish on the fact that we’ve got nearly 500 veterans who’ve committed suicide and have died as a consequence of their service. Undoubtedly, you made a very interesting statement that was left untouched there. You said, “Let’s wait until the war ends to see how many sufferers we truly have.”

With all the things you’ve discussed, people are not inclined to report when the war is still going on because they all want to go back. We all want to go, deploy, and do the job. Now that the war is largely finished, perhaps you saw something that many didn’t with so many casualties. Let’s call them that because that’s what they ultimately are. If there are those who are reading, both in Australia and overseas, who are struggling with recurring thoughts and emotions that are making them feel irrational or act out in a way that wouldn’t, what would you say to them?

Firstly, it makes complete sense that you feel the way you do. You are not weird, strange, or broken through having experience loss, pain, fear, and discomfort. That’s upsetting. It makes you look profoundly normal and human. The first thing I’d say is, in that sense, it’s okay that you feel like this. It’s normal for you to respond to war in a way to find it confronting and shocking. It says fundamentally good human things about you that you are confronted by it.

You are important and have a life that matters. It’s hard to talk to people, but my instinct is that if you reach out for help, you’ll be surprised positively far more than you’ll be surprised negatively. It doesn’t mean that people won’t disappoint you and it will be easy. There are people who want to help and are willing to because your life matters.

You are important and you have a life that matters. Share on X

All people matter, but you’ve also done a tremendous thing in giving some of your youth and time in the service of something bigger than yourself. We owe it to you, not as an Army but as a society. We owe a deep debt to help you live the life that you want to live. That’s hard work, but it’s possible. I’m not going to be chosen to come up with a pithy three-word slogan because I spoke for five minutes, but that’s what I would say to them.

That’s a wonderful message to leave it on. I’ve taken far more time than we initially agreed.

It’s my pleasure. I have long-winded answers. It’s my brevity.

It’s wonderful. I thank you both for being so candid and open about your experiences. Also, for still being the leader that I remember you as back from RMC and doing those things that you would hope others would do. Thank you very much for that. It’s a great testament to your character and your moral courage. I look forward to the next time we catch up over a beer.

I do too, Maz. Cheers for this show.

 

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