Please note that this entire episode is available on the public channel. To gain access to all other episodes, please subscribe at https://thevoicesofwar.supercast.com/
Today, I spoke with Robert Hartley, who is a former Australian Army Officer who served for 12 years in the Artillery Corps before transitioning to a civilian career in the technology sector. During his time in the military, Robert deployed on exchange with the British Army on Operation Herrick XII (12) to Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2010. In his civilian life, Robert has worked for a number of technology companies, including Microsoft, before joining a start-up where he is an Executive Director.
Robert joins me today to discuss his life in the Army, how his deployment to Helmand resulted in a PTSD diagnosis, as well as his journey to recovery, which includes being part of the ketamine program that I discussed at length with Dr Alex Lim a few episodes ago.
Things we covered include:
- Rob’s entry into the Army and the Artillery Corps
- Rotation into Helmand with the British Army
- The thrill of preparing for and going to war
- Use of artillery as a direct-fire weapon
- The reality of Helmand as the ‘kinetic province’
- How the local population perceived the Coalition Forces
- Dealing with numerous casualties
- Reflecting on mateship, camaraderie, and sense of purpose
- The process of desensitisation to war and combat
- Reflection on the burden of command
- The challenge of preserving one’s own moral compass
- The struggle of upholding the delicate facade of morality in battle
- The price of extreme compartmentalisation and rationalisation
- Returning home, signs that things weren’t right and asking for help
- Symptoms, PTSD diagnosis, and importance of command support
- Short-term fixes but eventual relapse, downward spiral, and continual emotional compartmentalisation
- The path to recovery and reconnecting to emotions
- Joining Dr Alex Lim’s ketamine program, onboarding, and treatment initiation
- A reflection on the ketamine treatment, its sensations, experiences, and insights
- Why ketamine remains contentious
- How the ketamine treatment affected Rob’s relationships with his wife and children
- Why seeking help matters!
During this discussion, we referred to the following previous episodes:
Given the nature of this discussion, and the fact that many in our audience are veterans, there is a risk that elements of this episode might be difficult listening for some. If this is the case, I encourage you to seek help through one of the many channels nowadays available.
Listen to the podcast here
Special Release: Robert Hartley – From War Zone To Ketamine: A Veteran’s Journey Through Trauma And Healing
I’m releasing a conversation with a good friend of mine, Robert Hartley. Given the topic of this discussion and its potential importance to many veterans and their families, I’m releasing the full episode on the public channel. Rob goes into much detail about his combat experience while serving in Helmand Province in Afghanistan back in 2010.
Rob, who was at the time a junior Australian artillery officer, was on exchange with the British Army and spent seven months defending a small outpost against hardened insurgents. This is a deeply personal, honest, and hard-hitting discussion, but it is also a story of perseverance, hope, and a steady journey to recovery.
Some of the topics we covered are Rob’s rotation into the theatre, the thrill of preparing for and going to war, the use of artillery as direct-fire weapons, a description of Helmand as the kinetic province, and a reflection on how the local population might have viewed him and other coalition forces, dealing with multiple casualties, reflecting on mateship, camaraderie, and a sense of purpose, the process of desensitisation to war in combat, reflection on the burden of command, the challenge of preserving one’s own moral compass, and the struggle of upholding the delicate facade of morality in battle.
The price of extreme compartmentalisation and rationalisation, returning home and signs that things weren’t right and asking for help, symptoms, PTSD diagnosis, the importance of command support, short-term fixes, but eventual relapse, downward spiral, and continual emotional compartmentalisation, the path to recovery, and reconnecting to emotions.
Joining Dr. Alex Lim‘s Ketamine program, onboarding and treatment initiation, a reflection on the Ketamine treatment, its sensations, experiences, and insights. A discussion on why ketamine remains contentious, how his treatment affected Rob’s relationships with his wife and children, why seeking help matters, and other topics.
Finally, given the nature of this discussion and the fact that many in our audience are veterans, there is a risk that elements of this episode might be difficult for some. If this is the case, I encourage you to seek help through one of the many channels nowadays available, some of which I have shared. Let’s get to my chat with Robert Hartley.
My guest is Robert Hartley, a former Australian Army officer who served for twelve years in the Artillery Corps before transitioning to a civilian career in the technology sector. During his time in the military, Robert deployed an exchange with the British Army on Operation Herrick 12 to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2010.
In his civilian life, he has worked for a number of technology companies, including Microsoft, before joining a startup where he is an Executive Director. Robert joins me to discuss his life in the Army, how his deployment to Helmand resulted in a PTSD diagnosis, as well as his journey to recovery, which includes being part of the Ketamine trials that I discussed in length with Dr. Alex Slim a few episodes ago.
Lastly, for full disclosure, Robert is a good friend of mine. We completed all of our initial officer training together. Although we haven’t always kept in touch throughout the years, I have always been well aware of his outstanding achievements, both in uniform and as a civilian. On that note, Rob, it is a pleasure to host you on the show. Thanks for agreeing to join me.
Thank you. It is great to be here.
You have set the standard both in service in uniform and also outside. I have enjoyed watching how your career has progressed. Not many of our friends have landed well in the outside world. On that note also, you are the second good friend of mine whom I’m speaking with on this dire topic. At the start of the show, I spoke with Ash Judd. He became somewhat of a face for the increasing awareness of PTSD in the Army. Thank you for joining me. It is a deeply personal subject. I’m humbled that you have agreed.
Not a problem at all. Your episode with Ash was one of the first ones that I tuned into. That is what set me down on the Voices of War journey.
Before we get to the dark subject of PTSD, what motivated you to join the Army? What led to that? Have you got military in the family? How did that occur?
That was almost accidental for me. My grandfather was in the military, as almost everyone of that generation was around World War II. He was King’s Own Scottish Borderers, but he had a European background across World War II. We are not one of those families with a strong military history where everyone talks and thinks about it.
I had a gap year. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself. I was looking around at options. At a career fair, I ran into some army recruiters. It was almost accidental. It was a great process of coming to one thing to find out a bit more information. They were like, “You pass this round. Come to another day and learn a bit more. I need one more round of testing.” Before you knew it, I was down that path and accepted into AD for university. It all went from there, but I wasn’t one of those people that grew up dreaming of joining the military.
Why artillery? Was there a reason that you opted for artillery?
There are two parts to it. As you would know, I wasn’t the finest staff cadet going around. I was always a bit of a struggler in the barrack. I never rated highly. Some of it was because they were competitive to get into.
That is because you had the spirit. I don’t think that was anything to do with your performance because you were always rather spirited.
I wanted to go to the arms corps. Infantry armoured was competitive. I was sold the dream of being a forward observer in the artillery. That appealed to me. That was far less competitive. I thought I got a better opportunity of getting that pick and getting my preference of where I wanted to go. I’m working with the Parachute Battalion out of Sydney. That was the journey. At the time, I imagined it was going to be the forward observer of aircraft and all that great stuff. I never imagined I would spend so much time on the gun line.
It almost got to that point anyway for you. We will touch on that. You spent a lot of time on the gun line, which is how you were deployed to Helmand with the Brits. Can you describe what happened there? How was it that a junior Australian officer was deployed with the Brits?
It was an interesting process. In our era, it was coming out of the Timor Solomon Islands, where artillery had primarily rerolled into civil-military cooperation or as infantry. There had been almost no deployments of artillery in a core role, which was why artillery at the time was a little bit on the nose. People thought you were going to re-roll as someone else. You are going to get sent to a checkpoint somewhere. As Iraq and Afghanistan emerged, the forward observers were readily deployed, but the gun line was never deployed anywhere. Australia has not deployed its own guns with an offensive capability.
An agreement was struck with the British Army under a unilateral exchange. They were flooded. They had taken over a large area of Helmand Province under their command. They were running out of gun troop rotations. A lot of the soldiers were coming back from one deployment, posting to a new unit, and going immediately again, or even at a brigade-sized deployment, unable to fill their own staffing, calling in reinforcements from other units who had themselves come back from another deployment.
I don’t know who the brains behind it were, but someone said, “We got Australian gunners with a great wealth of technical knowledge but no opportunity to deploy operationally in their core role.” The British were screaming out for people. The rotation process was one junior officer, a couple of senior NCOs, and a troop of a couple of guns worth of Australian gunners, picked up and embedded with a British unit for around fourteen months. It was seven months of pre-deployment training and immersing with the British in the UK somewhere, and then seven months on their rotation somewhere in Helmand province with them.
I was lucky enough. I was reflecting on it. It was a competitive process. Everyone wanted to go. It was the trip of trips. Even at that early stage, there was some of that recognised stupidity of knowing, “What am I doing?” We learned some of those. We look at marketing campaigns around World War I and World War II to get off the beaches and trenches. You could expose that as the gamification of the concept of war. Some of the great literature on the past has been about that disillusionment of realising that it isn’t a game.
There was a part of my consciousness that was aware. I was throwing myself down that same path. At the same time, there was nothing anyone could have ever said that stopped me from wanting to be challenged, go and see if I could do it and if I had it. We ran almost the unit. I was in the four regiments. I ran probably almost a year-long selection between the junior offices. It was well known that you have to be the best and the most ready to be picked to take that trip over.
It was representational in many ways.
You needed the right mix of personality, place, time, and seniority. You are performing well in the right technical courses. You didn’t do something stupid and get yourself charged at a mess night for doing something crazy. When I graduated, I worked out that a rotation would be coming up. I was the fifth and penultimate rotation for Herrick. One after me was Dan. They scrapped the Herrick rotations.
Why did they scrap it?
I’m not entirely sure. I imagine at a higher level that I wasn’t aware of. There were some memorandum understandings that had a certain number. At the same time, it was also coming into that drawdown of Australian presence and trying to move to another phase of the war. The reality was that Helmand province and the British military were in an entirely different kinetic level of operation. It was not stability. It was counterinsurgency. It was warfare.
We got lucky that no Australian soldiers were killed on those rotations, but it felt like it was a matter of time. It would have been a much harder political justification. There was no mentoring. There was no hearts and minds growing capability of the Afghan National Army. It was just deploying your core role and fighting. From an Australian political perspective, when you are trying to wind down your presence in the country, you are promoting that we are there to support and enable, having some random people off in a kinetic province on the gun line fighting. If one of us were to be killed, it would be a hard pill to swallow for the Australian public.
For many people who would be perhaps unclear why somebody on a gun line, given the ranges we are talking about, you are deploying these guns, and perhaps that is a question to ask. What ranges were you hitting? The natural question that comes around is, why would you have been a threat? Why would your life have been a threat, given that you are presumably quite far from the actual frontline?
In the first part of it, there was no real frontline in the area of Helmand province that I was in. The fighting was fierce along the green zone, which is a few kilometres off on either side of the Helmand River. You had outposts, combat outposts, fire support bases, FOBS, Forward Operating Bases, whatever people refer to them as dotted along at increments between the large populations. You were positioned. You could provide offensive support. There are two patrols in that area. You were relatively close to each other, so they could overlap.
The guns that we were using were the British howitzer. It had a maximum range of about 18 kilometres. We did fire a few missions out at that distance. There was one time when an American convoy out in the desert was contacted and needed support right at the edge of the range for the last three months of the tour. I remember reflecting on how idiotic it was. We didn’t fire a single mission that wasn’t in the protection of our own position. We weren’t doing our core role of firing in support of patrols. We were only firing in support of our own base.
By virtue of the fact, it is this chicken and egg of you who were there to provide support, but because you were there sitting on the edge of the green zone, you are a target. In terms of counterinsurgency, doctrine, and idiocy, we were fighting because we were there, and they were fighting us because we were there. We were killing them because they were trying to kill us. That is the definition of attrition. We weren’t there for the land. We weren’t trying to patrol. We didn’t have freedom of manoeuvre or any of those things that you learned about. We were holding our ground, and they were trying to take it off us.We were fighting because we were there, and they were fighting us. We were killing them because they were trying to kill us. That is the definition of attrition. Click To Tweet
What I was blown away by was the proximity of it all. We were high up on a cliff above the green zone. We used direct fire far more than we used any indirect. For the non-artillery audience, your indirect fire is where the guns are at a 45-degree angle, and you are lobbing your rounds off 10 kilometres into the distance. Direct fire is where we had the guns elevated on a platform above the wall. You can bore sight and look through the barrel at what you are trying to hit, and you are firing line of sight.
It was a big rifle at that stage because all the patrols up to company strength patrols weren’t getting out more than about 800 metres from the base at any time during their seven-month tour before they were contacted and took a casualty. You had that intimacy of even in an artillery role, you are in fire support range. We were the machine gunfire support. We had our 50-calibre grenade machine guns. We had our howitzers. We have big rifles firing either smoke barrages to help people withdraw or firing direct-fire artillery and illumination rounds.
The tipping point is that we had a quiet first part of the tour. It is normal, you would call it. At that stage, we had several hundred large bases. It is about 300 people in total. Danish mechanised combat team with a couple of Abrams tanks, CV90, which was an infantry fighting vehicle with 35-mil cannons on them. We were a bristling porcupine of death. No one wanted to touch us, and the way things happen with higher headquarters not communicating, the Danish largely got redeployed because we were a quiet area.
It was that cause and effect. No one wanted to attack the 300 people with tanks. Take the 300 people and the tanks away, and we were suddenly a large and easy target. Our manning fell to about 75 people for the last three months of the tour. It became another Danish lieutenant and me. He controlled the infantry team. I controlled the base and the local defence. At that stage, we became an obvious target for the local insurgents.
A helpful Special Forces brethren had prosecuted a few VIPs and killed the local insurgent leader, which kicked off almost an election campaign where there were three rival leaders from different parts of the area. They all made a campaign promise. One was going to shoot down an Apache. I can’t remember what the guy on the other river was going to do, but the guy near us was going to overrun our base. He made that his commitment. He was like, “I’m going to overrun that base and take it over.” That is how he would become the head honcho. For about the last three months, we were under a sustained attack, and we were fighting to hold the ground that we were there for.
I imagine for most of our Australian audience, that might be a surprise that Australians have been involved in that type of fighting in Afghanistan because most of those Australians who have deployed went to TK, Kandahar, and Kabul, where things were certainly vastly different. What was it about Helmand? Helmand is quite renowned for the violence or, as you described it, the kinetic province. What was it about Helmand that you believe made it so kinetic?
I’m far from an expert on this. It was firsthand observations plus the reading I did before I went over theatre briefs and things like that. I also will caveat it by saying, “I don’t have experience with other provinces. I don’t know how different it was.” It was the agrarian peasantry. You would watch people farm their fields with sickles by day. There is no running water apart from what they could do via aqueducts. It is little in the way of machinery and maybe one tractor between multiple families in an area with mud huts. You got that natural incredibly low socioeconomic grounds where an insurgency can often take root. We are not talking about Lashkargah, which previously had universities.
One of the interpreters I worked with went to the University of Lashkargah. His mother had been a professor there. That was night and day different from where we were. You were close down to the border with Pakistan. There was this fairly porous border. We would receive the intelligence report of out-of-area fighters coming through. You would hear them on the radio. You would hear different accents.
We became almost the test ground for new weapons coming into theatre because there was an absolutely porous border with Pakistan. The first time grenade launchers were being used in the theatre was in our area because they were easy to get across, and there would be Chechen fighters coming, mercenaries, and other more ideologically driven fighters from around the world. They would come in from the South and make their way up North. You could almost see the inkblot map of new weapons coming into the theatre. We were at that nexus.
It always had a reputation. The whole province has been the heart of the insurgency. When I was there, that was the time when President Obama surged 40,000-odd more forces into the area to kick the hornet’s nest. You start taking out leaders, you create power vacuums, jostling of international forces, and leaving overlaps like we were in where suddenly everyone left. That was my understanding of it. It was all they knew that the people. There was nothing else. There were no infrastructure, electricity, shop, or schools. It was farm, fight, desert, and green zone. That was it.
Who were you to them? I appreciate that you are saying you are not an expert and you have limited on-the-ground experience. This is the lived experience of those who we sent forth to fight our wars, which we don’t often hear about as to how you contextualise the role you are playing on the ground there and then.
We can hear from all the experts the strategic vision, lack thereof, or what is being discussed in Doha, Washington, London, and Canberra. We rarely hear of those. I didn’t know you were in charge of that base for the last three months. How did you feel there? How did the locals view you? Who were you to them? How did they consider you? What relationship did they have with you? I would imagine not all of them were Taliban, as clearly defined.
We didn’t even use the term Taliban. It was such an esoteric notion of who was there. Insurgents were the people that were fighting you at the time, whether it was ideological, aligned to the Taliban, or were just pissed off. It could be anything in between. The part I found interesting talking to my peers that deployed down other provinces was when they were mentoring Afghan forces and working with interpreters closely. I never had any of that. It was that war-fighting interaction. There was nothing more. I dare say to those people, “I was a faceless jerk on a top of a hill who kept dropping bombs on them.”
There is no conversation. I didn’t once have a conversation with an Afghan that wasn’t someone working. We had some locally employed civilians in a kitchen. There is an interpreter, but he only works over the radio listening to icon chatter. We weren’t out patrolling hearts and minds. In the first part of the tour, the Danish were making that footprint felt. That was your more conventional go out and try to project our presence into that area, bring stability, and do missions like securing bridges. They could get commerce going from the east to west across the river.
There was a national election when I was there. We go and secure polling stations, deny patrols to try and clear IED or weapons cases and take out high-profile leaders. Towards the end of the tour, we weren’t able to force the project. We lost many forces to be able to project out. We lost most of our armoured vehicles either to IED strikes or being withdrawn. Our perimeter shrunk. If you think about any of your defensive operations, we were losing because we weren’t projecting out. They had complete freedom of movement up to and around our base. We became like, “Let’s hold up and not get overrun.”
I had no relationship with the Afghan people apart from watching them. You would watch day and night from your senses and watchpoints. You watch them farm. You start to understand their pattern of life. Their buildings all had nicknames. They had a practical purpose because they gave you the quickest way. No one knows what you’re talking about. You say, “I have been attacked from compound 4-3B.” You say, “We are getting shot at from Hollywood. We are getting shot at from the grenade wall.” That was it.
It was desensitised, faceless, and standoff-ish. I imagine that for them, it was the same. We would have been singing on the hill overlooking them. Because we were there, IEDs were there. I’m sure many of them would be farmers going about their day, but because we were there, the area was riddled with IEDs. No one benefits from shooting happening across a paddock because there are some people in that paddock who are lying on their guts, hoping not to get shot. No one benefits from dropping high explosives in and around compounds. I dare say they didn’t think highly of me, and I didn’t know them at all.
It is not often one hears that side of the close combat, especially as an artilleryman. It is certainly not a common story. Without a doubt, you have had an exceptionally complex deployment. One of the hardest ones that our peers have deployed to. You said you were in the country for seven months. What would be the standout memories that you have taken away from those several months?
There are many good and bad. I want to caveat it by saying, “If it sounds like I am glorifying at all, I’m not attempting to.” That period of time is larger than life in my mind. You would have spoken to a lot of people that when you come back from that absolute heightened intensity where every sensor in your body is alert, it feels like you have been staring at the sun. You come back to normal life, and everything is a pay limitation of the real deal. The goods aren’t as good. The bads aren’t as bad. I’m not trying to glorify what happened there, but some of those things were amazing to be challenged and have succeeded in life-or-death combat. There is nothing that matches it.There is nothing that matches life-or-death combat. You come back to normal life, and everything is a pay limitation of the real deal. The goods aren't as good. The bads aren't as bad. Click To Tweet
It is more encompassing. It is intoxicating.
Your world has shrunk to a few hundred meters on either side of you. It is life or death. When you live through it, you have won objectively. For the whole period for me, I felt like I did come of age. I went there nervous and lacking a bit of the self-confidence to know who I was. Being there in charge of the team, the rapport I built with our guys, and seeing how they performed helped me validate that I was good at something. I didn’t know what the combo and recipe were, but I was like, “This works. We, as a team, work.”
I have memories there. It was everything that I thought a junior officer should be doing and my relationship with my senior NCOs. There was one example where we were up in a direct fire position trying to cover a patrol that we were trying to withdraw in contact. We wanted to put down a smoke screen for them. The gunnery computer wouldn’t calculate the range because it was under 600 metres. The gunnery computer said, “Why would you be firing smoke grounds less than 600 meters?” It couldn’t calculate a fuse.
I brought up the junior officer’s wacky idea that we can direct-fire smoke. I know how conceptually, from a ballistic way, if we calculate the muzzle velocity of that round and the distance, we can reverse engineer a few settings. I had the warren officer with me with twenty years of knowledge. When I could say, “What is the muzzle velocity of a such and such round at charge one?” He spits it off the top of his head and says, “Let’s make up a few settings on the fly. Set them by hand.” The first one uttered deep into the mud. I was like, “I must suck.”
We are laying down a direct fire and smoke screen. Us taking rounds on our position and covering a patrol and contact. It was what I thought I was supposed to be doing. As that kinetic intensity ramped up, the fighting ramped up, and the culmination point of it. The guys were there. They had seen it in all their memories.
Towards the end of the tour, we had increasingly kinetic attacks around that September period because one of them happened on September 11 and August 21st because it was my birthday. There was a big attack. We had satellite phones. You got twenty minutes a week of credit on a satellite phone. I was talking to Fi at the time when we came in contact. I hit hang up, and I didn’t communicate with her for three days afterwards. I was like, “It was nothing. The phone dropped out.” Afterwards, she found out what had happened. She grilled me.
They were increasingly probing our position. To set the scene by that stage, we hadn’t patrolled out in over a month or two. We are taking IED strikes. We did try to go out within 30 meters of the wall. People would crawl up under the cover of dust storms and lay IEDs under our watch positions. You could go out to try and check a claim or cable. We had a couple of layers of concertina razor wire. You could go out to try and clear those and not make it. It was like, “Give up. Hold the position.”
The whole election campaign was going on. People were attacking us from different areas with a range of weapons. You remember back to our lessons sitting in the theatre at down throne. You would go through Russian weapons and learn their ranges. You are like, “What a waste of time.” We started playing Bingo with all the weapons like SPG-9s and ZU-23s. I’m like, “I’m getting shot at by a Russian anti-aircraft weapon. What is going on in my life?”
It culminated in this one attack. It was in mid-October. It was a genuine sustained attack to try and overrun the base. I remember watching it. It seeded into my memory. I got called up to one of the sangers. We saw three people crawling up through the green zone. It is the training you would do where you are looking at the hill, and you say, “How would I attack this?” It was almost like they had a staff member with them. There were three of them there pointing at us. They were sketching on the ground. I thought, “Those are three people running at a mud model of how to attack me.” As the sun started to come down, we thought that was when we were going to get hit.
We started to see some people move into positions. The rules of engagement we were under were self-defence only. Wait to get shot at before you can shoot back or hand on heart genuine threat. Someone moving with a weapon is not enough. You don’t have to wait to get shot, but if you see them raise a weapon in your direction. If you can put your hand on your heart, it is self-defence, and you are okay.
We saw someone move up a PKM, a heavy machine gun, into the position. We had a few armoured vehicles left with us, the CV-9s. It creeps up to wall optics. It was above the wall, so we could see it. There is someone with a radio. We are going to get some indirect fire as well. I was in the command centre at that stage, looking through optics, using the radios, and talking to people. As soon as we take a mortar round in, we kill that guy with the radio. It is weapons clear as soon as people start engaging us, and it kicked off there.
It was at dusk, which was around 6:00 PM, with heavy machines on fire and mortar rounds. It kicked on for about the next 3 or 4 hours. We are getting attacked from three directions simultaneously and nearly achieving a break-in. They were up to our perimeter wall. When I did the roundup at the end of your casualty and the ammunition that you expended, I was tallying the list. I was like, “Who has been firing 9-mil?” It was one of the forward observers acting up on the wall with his 9-mil firing off the side of the wall down at the people below. I was coming in and trying to climb the walls to get over.
I sustained RPGs, mortars, and heavy weapons. They had that anti-aircraft gun that was taking chunks out of us. I was on all the different nets at once, talking to people on the radio and calling for backup. I was getting sent the note that I didn’t want to get across one of the secret networks that were saying, “When you get broken into, accept breaking in the south and fight your way back to the northern wall.” They were dispatching the QRF from FOB, which was going to be some tanks. They were going to crash some Abrams tanks through the wall and get us to fight back behind the tanks. They are try and get us out that way. I was reading this message going, “Can we go in if, not when I get overrun?”
The fact that you can laugh at it is better, but it is no laughing matter. That was intense.
It was one of those. You are trying to project calmness down the radio to people, not letting them know quite how bad it is. The guys describe it to me as almost a scene out of Star Wars because it was the strangest thing that stuck in your memory. We had Red Tracer rounds. They were largely using old-era Russian and Chinese rounds, which are Green Tracer. It was a red and green tracer arcing across the position.
It is the most bizarre and satirical moment. I was sitting in this command centre. Everything is squawking at you. You got radios on different nets. You got the local command net. The Danes had broken into Danish by then because they were in extremely high-stress mode. You got different languages chirping at you. The phone rang like a normal telephone rang on the Mission Secret Network. I ignored it for a while and picked it up. I was like, “What?” It was an American JTAC from a neighbouring patrol base. He heard our radio chatter and knew what was going on. I couldn’t talk to the aircraft because we lost our JTAC.
He had cued up a British Apache helicopter on his TACs, and he was jamming a press switch of his radio to his phone. I got patched into this British Apache through a landline telephone in this talk. It was a bizarre moment of calling in this Apache on our own position. There were moments like that. I remember one moment slightly earlier in the tour. I was in my best footy shorts and pluggers thongs. I had been in the gym. We started taking mortar around. I sprinted to the headquarters. I sprinted to the talk.
We had a light counter mortar radar. We had a ten-figure grid at the firing point that we were getting shot at. I couldn’t raise the gun line on the radio to pass the grid to them. It turned out that the line had been broken. It is this mix of World War I crap. The mortar rounds had blown up our line. I scribbled the grid down on the 10-figure grid on my hand and did what I thought would be a heroic dash to the gun line through this mortar fire. I saw an RPG come sailing in over the top of me. It hit the deck. It has skimmed over my head. I had a plug blown out. I’m thinking, “What am I doing?”
That was the first time that we said, “We got to think liberally here. There were no forward observers. We couldn’t follow the normal procedures. It was like, “Who is calling in the fire mission?” That is when we pivoted to direct fire. I was like, “I got the grid, and I’m here. I can see the firing point. I’m the observer now.” We started calling a lot of direct fire.
All the guns by that stage were built up on these berms above the level of the HESCO walls. They found on an earlier tour that with the difference between the gun sitting here and the HESCO wall being higher, you had to elevate to a certain trajectory to clear the wall. It left this dead zone that you couldn’t engage by digging the guns up. You counterintuitively gave away. You have no protection because you are no longer behind a wall, but you could depress the guns and achieve direct fire. It was seven months of incidental memories like that are well seared in.
How did you get away without any casualties?
At our patrol base in the tour, we took heavy casualties. The numbers are foggy that were killed on that tour. They are British from our brigade. We lost one from our battery, who was on patrol. He is not of our patrol base. There are a few more from the regiment that were killed. For the Danish, we have lost heavily. The Danish that I was working with lost both his legs in an IED strike and was killed. We evacuated him onto a helicopter, but he died on the way out.
Other people from the patrol base, one of the drivers, were killed in another IED strike. There were many people killed in the patrol base, from our battery and our regiment. The fourteen of us Aussies dodged the bullet. It is that chaotic part of the war. You can miss it by an inch or miss it by a mile. Some days, you step on the IED, and someone steps one foot to the side and doesn’t.
How did your soldiers fare after that deployment?
It is a mixed bag. It is an incredibly tight bunch. One guy, who I won’t name, refused to come back. That was a breach of trust. The feelings of the guys for him were not kind. Everyone has their reasons, but in that environment, you did need to make that commitment to something other than yourself. Opting out of the team screwed everyone else. You fight a man down. No one sends a reinforcement and replacement. You had to go the last five months of the tour a man down.
He was feeling the effects even at the time. I’m still in touch with all the guys and a lot of the British guys. It has impacted people differently. Some have shown similar issues to me. We talk through that and work through it. Others seem fine with it. Others are struggling in their own way but maybe don’t recognise it. Some may be struggling in their own way. They don’t feel comfortable talking to me about it.
It is a bond that brought us all together. Many of them went on deployed on other rotations and reflected that it wasn’t the same. We had played the biggest game of our lives and everything after that. Most of them got out quickly afterwards. The feeling was common among us. It felt like the Army was play-acting after that. It was almost like we did that. That was real. That was the absolute ultimate of our roles. What have you got left from the Army? For most people, the shine came off after that, and mixed degrees of disillusionment. You were never going to do something like that again.
You used the words before when you were describing your time in those seven months as your world reduced and you became desensitised. That was it. Describe for me this idea of desensitisation. What do you mean by that?
It is such an interesting one. It is the thing that led to many of my longer-term issues down the track. The process for me of desensitising start as a survival mechanism and as a coping strategy. You are being asked to kill, and you are seeing these things around you. It is adaptive in that environment because you can’t function without it. You can’t deal with the death of someone and give yourself time to grieve because the decision needs to be made in the next second.
There are a few tipping points for me during the tour where I remember thinking, “What is happening to me? It was obvious to me that I was becoming desensitised or potentially getting to be a Jedi master level of compartmentalising. I separated myself largely from home. I was completely dismissive of the Australian-style welfare hub, which we didn’t have it. There was one computer that the Danish had. You could get on Facebook Messenger from time to time if you went there at 3:00 in the morning or something.
I didn’t bother with the sat phone. I spoke maybe once a fourth night or once every three weeks because it felt like that was there and I’m here. The more I am in that world, the less I am focused on this world. This world is survival. As an example, one of the guys from our battery was killed. I was told over the radio that he was killed. I had to pass the news on to the team. I remember telling them, and it echoed with me for a long time afterwards how little I felt. I couldn’t quite picture his face.
It was like I was telling people the milk had arrived. I was able to completely compartmentalise and go, “He is dead. That is done now. I have to tell the team so they know. The patrol is out in five minutes. You have to move on.” Some of the guys who were close to him and were schoolmates with him were torn apart. I remember at the time going, “That is a normal human reaction. Why am I not feeling any of that?” The environment does it. Death is everywhere.
There was a time when we used to refer to them as our own goals if someone digging in an IED blew themselves up. It was a source of great hilarity when someone digging an IED would blow up. By the end of the tour, you would hear the bang. If it didn’t come with rounds incoming, it is not worth getting out of bed for.
We had a Danish doctor who had joined the rotation. The Danish doctors were what we would think of as a reservist. He was a civilian doctor doing military service. We were on the wall together. There was an IED blast. We didn’t have a patrol out. Immediately you go, “I don’t care.” We watched the footage. It was a guy who had gone to lay the IED. He might have been an unlucky guy, but more than likely, he was trying to set an IED and blew himself up.
We watched him. He is still alive. He wasn’t instantly killed. He’s just maimed. We watched him trying to crawl towards us a couple of hundred meters away. The Danish doctor said, “We got to go out and get him. That is an injured person. By the Hippocratic Oath, I’m going to go get that person.” I remember we looked at him like, “That’s mad. No, we are not. If there is one IED, there are more.” You can sit on the wall and watch someone bleed out and go, “He was trying to lay an IED. It is not my problem.”
I remember someone getting blown up by an IED and seeing the kids come from the local town to come to pick up the body parts. They bought a big bedsheet out with them. These are young kids all going out to pick up the body parts of Uncle Bill. They chuck him in this grip up like a little rucksack and drag him back home. I thought, “For the people over there, that is their life raised in that.” The desensitisation we feel is nothing compared to what they go through, but it is noticeable.
It is not the most pleasant conversation, but even with the pornography the guys were watching, I remember noticing it got increasingly more extreme. It was like the base level of human arousal raised throughout the tour. I don’t mean sexual arousal. It is your attention state. The first time when you saw that, and you heard a gunshot, everyone was like, “What was that? Scramble to the walls. Get to positions. Is that us? Are we not?” The first IED strike, “Where was that? What do we do?” By the end, you don’t get out of bed unless that is us getting shot. Even if it is us getting shot, you are like, “No, the sangers got it. I’m not getting out of bed for that one.”
The level of everything became more visceral and graphic. That is the real dehumanising part of protecting yourself from the reality of being killed, facing death as a young officer, and having to make decisions that you knew bore a reasonable likelihood of getting to kill the people that you were in charge of and were close with.In war, everything becomes more visceral and graphic. That is the real dehumanising part of protecting yourself from the reality of being killed. Click To Tweet
I found the bombardier tend to be about my age as a young lieutenant. You look at these people who you spent seven months or a year in Australia training and seven months in the UK training and living with. On this tour together, living and sleeping together. You go, “That is a branch in the road.” There is no class structure. That is a different choice for recruiting. We were friends. For all intents and purposes, we could have been similar people.
Another turn at recruiting, I could have ended up with them, or they could have ended up at Duntroon next to us. You then still had to be able to compartmentalise and say, “I need you to go out and do that. I need you to go and lead that clearing patrol. I need you to push that gun to the top of that hill out into harm’s way and man that direct-fire position. If you get killed in doing so, that is what we are all here for.” It was a necessity to be able to compartmentalise and desensitise yourself from the fact that you couldn’t rip yourself apart at the time of going, “Is this the right decision? What if they get killed? Am I responsible? What have I done?”
That is the micro level. The macro level is the whole conflict. I recognised while I was there the abject stupidity of what we were doing. That notion of, “They are fighting me because I’m here. I keep killing them so they come back and fight me again.” I read all of Kim Collins’ stuff, and you go, “We are doing this wrong.” It wasn’t within my sphere of influence to change the strategy of the war.
Even when the withdrawals were announced, you say, “We have lost now,” but all I can influence is trying to keep my people as safe as I can and do it in war theory. I can fight this little part of the war in a way. I can make sure we do the right thing. I can make sure to the best of my ability to keep us safe and that we all get home alive. I had to put my horsey blinkers on outside of that and go, “I can’t think about the futility of this war. I can’t think about whether it is the right thing for us to be here. We have been sent here. We are here, and now we just have to get out.”
Given that desensitisation and callousness that you had to embody to do your job, how hard was it to comply with the just war tradition and the principles deeply embedded in our folklore, if nothing else?
It was hard. I got into a bit of strife. When I returned to Australia, there was a CO’s professional military education. You go to the mess and talk to experiences. I was asked to speak about it. I was bothered by the notion that people thought, “Australians are different. Australians would never commit war crimes.” We have seen the fallacy of that over time.
There is something to be proud of about our culture, but there is also no need to be naive and pretend that that doesn’t affect human beings. I felt genuine at the time, and I say this with absolute love and respect to the guys as the young officer there. I was the one with a pack of rabid dogs on the lead. These were guys that were desensitised and trained to kill. I feel like we were hemmed in and attacked daily. It was claustrophobic. You wanted to escape, and you couldn’t. You had to stay on the whole ground.
We knew full well that the people that we were watching by day and the paddocks were the ones fighting us by night. It is an experiment that never came to pass, but if you have gone up into one of those sangers and said, “The next time the shooting starts, take out that field.” We know it is them. If it is not them today, it is going to be them tomorrow. That would have happened. People got offended at this PMA session. I said, “No, not Australians. They would never do that.”
Why do we fundamentally think Australian soldiers are different from American soldiers, British soldiers, or any human being who is under that prolonged stress? People say, “What is the role of the young officer?” It was to draw that morality line and say, “Yes, that could happen, and I feel it too.” We are here to do it differently. I have to keep a close check. We have rules of engagement. We have the things that safeguard us from crossing that precipice.
One time, we lost some people to an IED strike by day. It was one of the few times that I dealt with Afghans. They came there. We had a walk-in area. You could come to approach the patrol base. Three fighting-age males jokingly came in. We were a laughingstock to them. We had an officer at the time who did the usual, “What do you want? Do you want this? This is what I can give you.?” They said, “We want a car battery.” It had been a car battery IED that had killed one of our people that day. “We need a new car battery. We have used ours up today.”
We know it was them. They knew it was them. They were having a great laugh, full of opium confidence, knowing that we wouldn’t do anything. We are not going to give them a battery, but I could have pulled out my pistol and shot them all on the spot and then slept like a baby, knowing full well that it was them. I had taken three fighters out of the gate, but you can’t do it.
You have to hold yourself to a higher standard of their exploiting our rules of engagement as a weakness. It is a slippery slope that is a war crime. That is not what we are there to do. If you don’t hold onto that element of your humanity that you are going to fight the war in a different way, you can’t drag yourself down to the level of the conflict. Otherwise, it does become all-encompassing. That is where people ever struggle to come back from it. It is that internal wound.
I have always known you as being somebody who is strong of will and a person of deeply developed character. There are many of those in our peer group. I’m not trying to elevate you to some unreasonable pedestal, but you were always a standout performer. I wonder how many others would have been able to handle that pressure in the same way.
I don’t say this to demean anybody, but war impacts and those conditions impact the people differently. It was an interplay of you and all your personal history interplaying with that environment. For the luck of your guys, those people you were there with, and your own sanity, you made the decisions that you hopefully can sleep with at night.
I would imagine there would’ve been a lot of people who wouldn’t have been able to, not because they are bad people or they are evil, but because they come back and come into this with different personal histories, sensitivities, traumas, and the ability to desensitise and compartmentalise. This is not casting shame on anyone, but that I feel is the reality of it.
It is an interesting thing that I have reflected on over the years, which is that the things that make you adaptive in theatre can be the things that make you maladaptive back home, and it can go too far. I always noticed that it’s not so much in training at Duntroon but in career courses and other things like that, where I did notice that I seemed to have the ability to operate rationally at a higher level of stress. The JTAC course that I did when I came back is all about absorbing information and multiple radio feeds and thinking in a 3D battle space. You watch people hit the barrier where their brain goes, “No, I need to do this one thing. I need to do that thing.”
They are not dumb people, but you got an instructor on your shoulder pushing you, “Where are we at? What are we doing?” It was an ability to be able to block it all out and make rational decisions that I found in theatre ramped to a whole other level. You watch people start to panic. The emotions start to overcome. Being able to suppress emotion, make rational decisions, operate off logic, follow drills of gunnery drills, fire drills, and protect the base.
I’m one of those people that narrates my life in my head as I constantly go, “What if? What then? What next?” The British mantra. It was at what, what, what when you are doing your situation report. What if? What next? What then? It is always contingency planning and thinking about what could happen. I find I still do it. I think about where conversations might go. I wonder if they are going to say this. I use it in business. What are they thinking? What is my angle? Where can I get in? What are they going to say?
A part of that might be a part of our own upbringing and something that I only realised later on in life. I always thought that was a great thing because it doesn’t manifest as openly bad. You deal well under pressure. You make great rational decisions. You can deal with stress. This is awesome. In business, when I step out of the military, it rewards it. You can make the hard logical decisions. You can analyse numbers quickly. You don’t get flustered.
A big part of it that I realised is the more human response in a time of high stress is to feel good and bad. If someone is dead, that hurts. I don’t want to be able to compartmentalise and move on. When you step out of that environment, it is those things that were rewarded and became ingrained with me that helped you assimilate back into having a full and meaningful life. There is an element of you becoming a gold medalist in compartmentalising.
There is a theory that I had worked with a counsellor. There was a bit of a history of alcoholism in my family. She was pointing me in the direction of some studies that children who are raised in that environment often become self-reliant if there is alcohol in a family and that same child’s needs. If someone is numb, I’m not getting that. I learned to self-validate, self-orientate, and make my own decisions.
Who knows? We are all a complex melting pot of experiences, upbringing, and personalities. I don’t think anyone could assess from the outside who would do it and who wouldn’t. I’m sure there are people that would not have that right balance. It could have been one of the senior NCOs that would have stepped in and gone, “This officer is not going to call the shots I need to. It could have been a gunner who I refuse to.”
I don’t think I was holding it all. If I had failed the whole strength of the team, there were checks and balances. They were all fundamentally good people. My fear in those situations is that if no one makes the call and that group mentality, if everyone starts doing it or someone has started shooting, that is when it all could have kicked off.
We have seen that example play out in Mila. That is one of those case studies that is studied for that point, poor orders, unclear guidance, and difficult circumstances. As you described it, a pack of rabid dogs almost ready to unleash the fury of death upon anyone. What you have described perfectly matches that double scenario.
I don’t intend to elevate you to some a pedestal, but you and the people undoubtedly around you, because again, that is part of the interplay and the interpersonal relationships that exist. I would imagine the respect, whether consciously or non-consciously, that your soldiers wanted to hold you in the highest esteem that you had earned, and you wanted to retain that. That has an impact and a role in shaping behaviour. Nobody wants to slip off a status they had achieved. The status will maintain for you and the same for them. If you have elevated them and given them certain status, they wouldn’t want to lose that because they are going crazy.
This is grossly oversimplifying. The point you are trying to make echoes clearly in my mind. The environment and what you have described as the desensitising environment have a truly degrading effect on our humanity. It takes a strong moral compass, internal motivation, and validation within one’s environment to sustain that and to remain above the threshold of what we consider moral, ethical, and legal in a war where the enemy is anyone.
That is another interesting and important point to highlight here. As you stress time and time again, anybody in those fields is a farmer by day, but by night is a mortal enemy. This is an insightful piece of the conversation that I want to double-click on. We can pivot now to your returning back home because we have alluded to some of the issues that you have subsequently faced. Maybe you can talk us through how that occurred. At which point you realised that something was wrong. What did you find out when you put your hand up?
There are two parts to it. I recognised in myself something wasn’t quite right soon after getting back. I returned at the end of 2010. I took some post-deployment leave and posted up to Townsville in 2011. I had a supportive boss up there. It is the same CO that had come and done my in-country in the UK validation and sent me off on the deployment finally.
I can’t remember exactly when in that year, but I started to have some of the more textbook symptoms. I never experienced nightmares. My trauma wasn’t the one distinct incident. It was that typical compression, the bucket filling and never decompressing. I was always at that tipping point of boiling over, anger, irritability, and fatigue.
I never noticeably had trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. I never woke up with nightmares or couldn’t get to sleep, but I was exhausted, which was a sign to me that the sleep wasn’t working. I wasn’t probably dreaming. I wasn’t processing healthily. The other thing about that desensitisation we spoke about is that it drills into you that there is no fight or flight anymore. There is just a fight. It was like I lost the other coping mechanisms. My reactions had gone from nothing to a tipping point and then a fight. You remember me from the early days. I have always had that ability to control aggression, but sometimes it becomes uncontrolled in the right circumstance.
You are a big lad. How tall are you?
I’m 6’5”. It is adaptive in the right environment. When you trigger, that is adrenaline. You ignore pain, pick someone up, and throw them over your shoulder. You can achieve things, but you try to bring that back into a normal world. I find myself not cool and calm most of the time, but the wrong thing flips my switch. I would be shouting at a tradesman who is trying to rip me off with a quote or oblivious shouting in the office for something. I started thinking, “This isn’t quite right.”
What I felt was a very supportive environment. It was a microcosm within the military. That was a left turn to Colonel Charles Weller. He was my CO. He set a high standard amongst the unit. He was the amazing mix of a strong leader, physically strong, mentally robust, caring, and compassionate. He balanced it well. To me, he was a human being. He was the first commanding officer I had seen who was human, who would say, “My wife is on deployment. I need to go pick up my girls.” I was like, “This guy is a real human being.”
That rapport and trust let me open the door. I went and saw the GP on base, who referred me to a military psychiatrist who diagnosed me with PTSD, got me into some therapy, and antidepressants, stock standard SSRIs. I didn’t go too deep down the rabbit hole. I float with the fringes of excessive drinking. I caught it quite early and thought, “I’m going to get on top of this.” I think of that as recovery 1.0, where my recovery goal was that triage approach and get me good enough.
There were a few things. I would be walking the dog in the morning. It is pre-dawn because the towns are stinking hot. If I looked over my shoulder rationally, I had the feeling that there was nothing behind me, but irrationally, I would feel fear. I would feel I was being followed and pursued. Sometimes, I would end up running. You convince yourself, “No, I’m just jogging home. That is the only reason I’m running,” but actually you are scared for some reason. I thought, “Get rid of that.” The CO at the time moves me.
It is rational compartmentalisation. You are like, “Switch that off for me, please, so I can keep doing what I’m doing. Give me whatever you need to numb and nullify that emotion and feeling to this rational approach to dealing with these deeply internal messages manifesting.”
I wonder if it is partly because I didn’t know what good looked or felt like. It was quite rational. I read enough. I was educated enough to go, “I don’t want to be one of those people that ignore PTSD and end up a catatonic mess in several years’ time. I better deal with this.” Dealing with it at that time, for me, meant, “Can’t we do a quick course of meds or something?” I will speak to a counsellor a few times. It will be good. I will be back on track. Bang me on the next deployment. The inevitable stigma there in a military unit. By that stage, I had the self-confidence coming off the back of that deployment.
I don’t give a sh*t what anyone thinks of me. I was happy to talk to the gunners and say, “I’m medically downgraded because I got PTSD, and they put me on medication.” There are idiotic things. You are not allowed to carry a weapon. The CO moved me into a headquarters role. In a way, it’s less obvious that I wasn’t carrying a weapon. It is a good supportive environment for things like that.
It was hard. The unit deployed because I was off-kilter, having deployed with the British. I came back and posted to an Australian unit that was deploying. I became a stay-at-home dad. I’m the only offensive support to the other battalions in the brigade. It is an incredibly busy year outfield. I gave it a half-ass crack at recovery.
I posted the School of Langs the following year. I didn’t like the medication. It is a combination of headaches. I didn’t like the stigma of being on medication. I didn’t like having to take something. Once the most acute symptoms were out of the way, I went, “I’m good now.” I posted a school of languages in Melbourne where there was a civilian doctor who didn’t know the process well. Instead of a long upgrade process of weaning off the medication and welfare boards and upgrading through the medical process, I stopped taking the meds. I went to him and said, “I used to take meds, but I’m good now. Can you upgrade me?” He went, “I don’t even know what you are talking about.” I got myself medically upgraded. I’m fit to deploy again.
That would have been in 2013. That is about where I left it. I put a stopper on the worst of the symptoms. I still have these blowouts now. Once every six months, a real rage blowout where I lose it in the gym at someone or in the car at something. Blackout drunk was a common go-to. I was a binge drinker, not a regular drinker, in the way that only the military can say, “Just binge drinking.” Diming nights. I write myself off. Weddings write me off. I said, “That is not PTSD. That is just me. That is what you do in the Army. I didn’t see a problem with it. That culture is everywhere.
That was the first go around the boy. I got married and started having kids. Fast forward 40 years, in the last few years, I started to want something more. It is the kids that brought that to life for me. I always had this objective fear that I had seen people in other relationships, including my parents, but not have a relationship. I academically knew that I wanted to make sure Fi and I always kept a relationship strong through kids. I wanted to be a good dad. I thought I had an image of what that looked like.
My later years in the military and everything I started to do since felt like I was going through the motions of I’m doing the right things. I’m being successful. I have transitioned out of the military. I got a good job. I keep getting promoted. Everyone tells me I’m doing the right things. I have a great wife. I have kids. Why am I not content? I thought maybe that was what life was. I wasn’t overly depressed. I wouldn’t have thought I wasn’t jumping every time. There were cars backfiring or any of those stereotypical symptoms. It was a malaise that ran through it all. Life was a bit of a big sigh.
I got four kids, the two oldest boys. We just had our third. We got two girls. I found myself yearning for more. I was objectively going through the motions of what a good parent should do. I’m reading with the kids and dropping them to school. I’m present. I’m not working too hard. I’m setting a work-life balance. I’m there for Fi. I was drinking increasingly more, but I didn’t see it as a problem. All the lies you tell yourself, “I work hard. I shouldn’t be allowed to have a beer.” In hindsight, there was a fair numbing self-medication going on there.
What were you numbing from?
I don’t know because it wasn’t a specific memory. It wasn’t recurring dreams. It was that process of compartmentalising from the world. I didn’t want to be a part of it. I still had that worldview. This is one of the biggest shifts for me. Take me back a couple of years, ask me about the world, and I would have said it to you. You seem a bit depressed because you seem to think the world is a bad place, and everyone is out to get you because the world is a bad place.
You look at it, and it is self-reinforcing. You believe the world is a bad place and people are terrible. I don’t want to be around them. I don’t want to be out with them. It is a self-manifesting process of you looking for the worst in the world and people, which validates my decision to not be amongst them and want to join them. I didn’t have a belief in humanity or the good, even good charities. There is an angle, virtue signalling. Doing it to make themselves feel better. They are not helping anyone. They are a cynical prick.The world is a bad place. Look at it, and it is self-reinforcing. Click To Tweet
I was becoming an empty vessel. I don’t know what changed. I decided to reach out and try counselling again. I went through Open Arms previously VVCS. I called up and said, “I’m not where I want to be. I can’t put my finger on it. I don’t feel great. I don’t feel happy.” I don’t think I use those words because I didn’t talk a lot about feelings, but it was restlessness.
At some subconscious level, I must have recognised that I was burning out. I wanted it to be different for my relationship with my wife and kids. My third child was around that tipping point. I was getting increasingly afraid. I had gone through a few jobs, each time getting promoted, thinking maybe a bigger job would satisfy me. It was increasingly causing friction between Fi and me because I had this security complex of, “I got to earn more money.” Not because I like money on material things, but the rug is going to get pulled out at any minute.
I was convinced that doomsday was coming. I need to have the mortgage paid off. I need to make sure my kids are going to be safe. They are going to have a place to stay no matter what happens to them. I was pushing and not enjoying life along the way. I was like, “We can’t spend. Pay down the mortgage. Build security.”
That was increasingly fraying. I found myself at one stage on a barbecue. I idle chitchat with someone. They say, “What do you do for fun?” I went, “I don’t know. I don’t have fun. I don’t enjoy anything.” I do things I’m supposed to do. I look after my kids. I make lunches. I drop them to school. I work hard. I lead a team at work. I’m a good husband. I’m faithful. I help out with the chores, but they are all things. They are things I do. None of it was about what makes me happy or what I want to be.
I found a counsellor I liked and trusted. I still work with her. I started to build it into part of my routine. I would do gym training and go with others. There is a mental element there that I need to keep training. We slowly peeled back the onion. I’m addressing some of the more superficial things first and gradually peeling apart layers. What I loved about it is that it wasn’t about PTSD or the war. It was life. It doesn’t matter what. Maybe some of it is from your parents, work, or Army. I don’t care. Let’s get to the bottom of what makes you tick.
I started to connect in isolated batches with these little moments of connecting to two feelings again. I had a moment. I was camping. Fi and I took the kid to camp down by the beach. I was lying in a swag with my daughter next to me. She must be two years old. She snuggled up next to me. The fire is next to us. We are staring up at the moon and the stars, the smell of the fire and the smoke shimmering across. I had this almost out-of-body experience of going, “How lucky am I to have this little human being dependent on me here at this exact moment in this country and space to have the safety and the ability to do this?” Looking at the stars, it felt like this cosmic juxtaposition of, “Of all those stars out there, I’m here right now in this one moment.”
It hit me in the guts, a feeling of gratitude and enormity. I thought, “Is that what I’m missing?” That is where I amped up. I spoke to the counsellor the next time. I said, “I had a feeling.” I realised it had been so long since I had felt anything because I had become good at compartmentalising and staying in the world of rational, logical decision-making and never allowing myself to feel. That was the good and the bad feelings.
That kicked off the next part of the journey for me, where I started to think more proactively, “Maybe there is more here at play than I thought. I think I’m okay, but am I okay? Could I be better?” When you come from an environment of being trained to be selfless and put others first, it took a mindset shift for me to go, “I have to invest in myself.” I have to be a bit selfish and say, “It is okay to want to do something for yourself.”
My counsellor pushed me on it, and this was after seeing her for a couple of years. She was like, “Why do you come to counselling?” I could rattle off and say, “I want to be a good husband and dad. I want to look after my kids.” She said, “Why do you do it? You have never once said anything about yourself and what you want to do. You want to be something for other people. You can’t give from an empty cup.” I had to learn that I had to look inwards first. I’m thrown around the old random analogies, but the rising tide lifts all ships. If I’m good and happy, I will be a better husband and better for the kids. I don’t, but I was trying to focus externally. What can I fix? What can I do that’ll make the kids happy?
Part of the male nature is, “What can I fix? Tell me what I need to achieve. For you, the kids, and everybody around me to be happy, I will do it, and I will do it perfectly. Therefore, everyone should be happy.”
I have seen the movies. I’m doing dishes, folding clothes, ironing, making the kids’ lunches, and helping them with their school reading. I’m the perfect dad and husband. Why am I not happy? That led me down the path of thinking, “What more is out there?” I went back and saw my GP. I described to her. I was drinking too much by that stage, especially during COVID. I didn’t realise how much the impediment of having to drive to a tour from work or pick up kids. There were barriers to stopping me from drinking. I realised that once those barriers were out of the way, the danger of being a compulsive individual is that I do everything 110%. If I’m training at the gym, it is going to be 110%. If I’m drinking, I’m going to drink the most I was.
I went from being a periodic binge drinker to a regular binge drinker. A lot of your life becomes blackout drunk. It is not who I wanted to be, but deep in my own head, I convinced myself it wasn’t a problem. A huge part of my recovery was the acknowledgement that I’m not controlling this. This is a problem for me. When I saw my GP, we had the funniest conversation in hindsight, where I described how I was feeling. I was flat at that stage. I say this not to scare anyone, but there was a part of my brain that defaulted to any form of conflict, or you could kill yourself. I never made plans. There was a part of me that was horrified, but there was a voice in my head that anytime conflict, whether it was in the house or at work. I went, “This is hard. You could kill yourself, and this would go away.”
Part of my mind was there and recoiled from that. I went, “What was that?” It was there every day, 100 times a day, saying, “Kill yourself. It would be easy.” I went and described this to my GP. She said, “You sound depressed. Have you considered taking medication?” I sceptically said, “What does that entail?” I’m thinking of med review boards and downgrades. She would look at me like I was an idiot and say, “I write you a prescription. You walk next door, get a prescription, and take medication. End of story.” I started on medication. It wasn’t an exact linear.
Were you still in the Army at this point?
I had been out quite a few years.
That is what I thought. I misunderstood what you meant by the med boards.
That was my only experience before. It was a big deal to get diagnosed with PTSD. I didn’t realise that self-help is only a step away if there is no stigma. No one knew I was taking. Now, lots of people know, but there is no need to tell anyone you don’t want to tell that you are taking medication. I was one of those lucky people that SSRIs seem to work for. They are not great for everyone, but I noticed an immediate effect this time. I didn’t put two and two together straight away.Self-help is only a step away if there is no stigma. Click To Tweet
Shortly afterwards, I realised that drinking was a problem for me. I made a conscious effort that I see the route ahead of me. It is not one where I stay happily married. It is not one where I have a good relationship with my kids. I want that more than I want a beer. In some ways, I would be a terrible scientific case study because I changed a lot of variables at once. I feel like most of us know the recipe. It is common sense. If you are depressed, don’t pour liquid depressants on top of it.
Start moving, do some exercise, eat well, and stop drinking. Your sleep will improve. We know the key ingredients that will start you on the journey. It is a discipline. I want to do it. That is hard. I said, “If I’m going to go serious at this, I’m going to do it, stop drinking, seek out my PT and diet, lean into counselling, and commit myself.” I had to learn to admit vulnerability for the first time with my counsellor with Fi and everyone. I acknowledged that I did have a problem and I needed help to get through it.
As part of that step, I had been listening to podcasts and reading about alternative therapies, MDMA, ketamine, and suicide. I heard about Alex Lim’s trial. I wasn’t initially able to connect, but I found another GP who knew him and referred me. I was able to join the Ketamine trial, which was another one of those building blocks that brought me to the journey that I’m on now.
You mentioned Alex Lim. For many in the audience, that name will be familiar because I have interviewed Alex Lim. It was post-release of that episode that you and I spoke. You effectively said that you were part of the trial and praised it. The audience who listened to that episode now knows what that treatment is from the doctor’s perspective. People would be keen to hear what it is like from somebody who is into treatment. I will let you start where you see best, but how do you describe the treatment, the process you have gone through, and the outcomes you are getting from it?
I will start with the first conversation I had with Alex, where he described to me why he was doing the program, what he was hoping to achieve, and why it connected with me. It came through in your interview with him. When I met with him, he said that he didn’t like the idea that mental injury was always going to be there. All you could ever do was treat symptoms.
The SSRI level out. He went, “If we had a broken arm, you are going to set the bone.” He had that same project. What is a physiological thing that has happened? Can I do more than treat symptoms? That resonated with how I felt. I don’t want to be a victim and be someone that, for the rest of their life, has to go along being impaired in some way. I want to be better than I ever was.
I was hook, line, and sinker. He described the things that happen in your brain with cortisol spiking during combat exposure and the chemical way that the bioproducts of ketamine can help repair neural activity in the brain. This sounds to me like the next step of helping me go from understanding what is happened to me and taking a positive step to fixing it, not just making it less crappy.
The other key and interesting part that he mentioned to me that I hadn’t put a connection, and it might be important for other people out there, was he described the causal steps to having some issues. Exposure to combat was a big one, and the high cortisol spiking. He spoke about exposure to repeated percussive blasts. If you have seen combat experience, the likelihood of developing a substance abuse problem.
The risk multiplier was a percussive blast, artillery, heavy gunfire, mortars, and RPGs. The third was any family history of substance abuse or alcoholism. When I told him my background, he went, “Sorry, but I would have seen you as a profile and got 99% likely to develop a substance problem with something in your life.” It is the trifecta of doom, which many other people out there would have similar experiences because of the Army’s drinking culture. The percussive blast was part and parcel of combat.
They accepted me into the trial. There are a few preconditions. You either had to be seeing a counsellor or be willing to see one. You had to be free of other psychiatric conditions and other substance abuse issues. I stopped drinking before this. I was young and healthy physically. I’m a good candidate for the trial. It took me a while to initiate all the usual paperwork through DVA. It wasn’t particularly onerous. It was wait-and-see paperwork.
The trial kicked off for me with an onboarding process, which was a two-week ketamine infusion every second day. I used that time doing my own reading about psychedelic treatments. I read a fantastic book by Michael Pollan, How To Change Your Mind. I listen to some podcasts in different places. I still didn’t have a conceptual understanding of what the process would be like.
I knew that ketamine was a dissociative anaesthetic in high doses. It is administered in a hospital setting. I thought I had an idea of it would be quite sterile. I didn’t believe the hallucination part of it. I have never experienced anything like that. It is typical that when you join the Army at eighteen, you live a straight 180. Alcohol is a drug of choice.
This two-week onboarding process was designed to test your tolerance, size, weight, and everything to ketamine. You start at a low dose. For the infusion process, you show up at the hospital at about 5:30 in the morning on the day of your infusion. Noise-cancelling headphones and an eye mask are recommended. They hook you up to a cannula IV-administered ketamine in a fasted state. It hits you like a freight train.
The low doses initially were quite fairly lucid. What I felt was a stereotypical trip. If you watch a movie where someone is tripping, it is accurate. I saw colours. Every second day, they ramped up the dose to try to find a happy blend where you are disassociated enough to be able to access your subconscious, but you are not unconscious, and to confirm that you didn’t have any negative side effects from it, and those types of safety controls.
Over that period, even those initial experiences were life-changing for me. It started out with almost curiosity of experiencing synesthesia where I could see sounds, and music would have colours to it. I would have this. I would be listening to music. It would feel profound to me that I would be like, “This song is blue.”
For every one of these infusions, I would come away with a feeling of profound realisation about something. They all felt like lucid dreams to me, where I gradually increase the dose of that period of disassociation where you are out of the body. You are almost an observer of the goings on of your own thoughts, but still with enough of yourself there to be able to steer and self-direct. I often go into the infusions with an idea of something I want to explore, a relationship, a past or something, but reflections on the importance of a strong parental figure to my children and the feeling of care and protection.
I had read about psychedelic experiences. When it is happening to you, it feels profound that you know it to be true. I never experienced that. If I zoom out, I hear it described that over time in our brains, we develop. As entropy increases, we wear these grooves of the path most trotted in our thought processes. As humans, we all do it. We hear a car, and we go, “It is a car.” That can become debilitating when those grooves become well-trodden and depressive. You go, “It is going to be a crap day.” That reinforces because you have a crap day.
It felt like the shaking of the snow globe. I had it described as that experience activated the neural pathways. My mind was alive. It felt like that dissociative effect allowed me to tap into my subconscious, which I had been busy suppressing since before Afghanistan. I banged a stopper on in Afghanistan. It felt like my brain could go through and slowly sift out memories, put them in the middle of this electric snow globe, and explore them with almost a child’s curiosity, not constrained by a single sense. It was engaging all the sensors to pick apart memories and draw connections. It felt like a gradual process of pulling that memory and something I had suppressed. Examine it, pull it apart, and file it.
It is probably what I should have been doing through a healthy dreaming process but a twenty-year bottleneck. I was walking away, making profound connections about the meaning of life, birth, and death. I experienced all those feelings of myself dying and being reborn, but in a way that was in no way scary. I went into it in a trusting environment. This is being administered to me in a hospital setting by a trained anaesthetist. I’m connected to ECGs and heart rate monitors.
That sterility of the environment also provided me with that backdrop of safety. There was one particular experience where I think I was disassociating enough to the sense that I couldn’t feel my body anymore. I didn’t know if I was breathing. A part of my brain went, “Maybe you are not breathing. Maybe you are dead.” There was enough consciousness there, and you go, “You are not because there is an anaesthetist, ECG, and a heart rate monitor. You are not dead.” This must be part of something your brain is exploring. That hallucination continued where I felt myself die, be buried, and reborn.
The takeaway was about the enormity of the world and how small we are in it. That profound feeling that the only thing that matters is what we do at the moment. Be good to the people around us. Be happy, loving, and caring. The two-week onboarding process was phenomenal. I rolled into monthly treatments. I still go back monthly and have a booster. They are in that stage of the trial now. They have run multiple intakes for some people, depending on the severity of their symptoms. Some are more regular. Some are further apart.The only thing that matters is what we do at the moment. Be good to people. Be happy, loving, and caring. Click To Tweet
What they are trying to do is find the right dosage of frequency. Is there a time when you repair and recover enough that you wean off the doses? Is this something that becomes an ongoing treatment? If so, are there any negative side effects? How often do people need it? People are at different stages of their own recovery journeys. It has been a fantastic process to be part of.
It sounds amazing. The insights you are describing are profound as far as connecting one to the present and to what is important there. It is that moment that you vividly describe with your daughter, lying down camping with the fire and the stars. As you were talking, I could see the importance and the value of those moments. In this state, you get to explore and unpack them and recognise their value in contrast to some of those other moments. I would imagine that a lot of it is not even conscious, as you rightly described. It happens, and the journey takes you wherever it takes you. Given everything you have talked about ketamine and its success, at least for you, why do you think it is still considered controversial?
It is a long legacy and the unfamiliarity with psychedelic treatments. It is a back alley. It is a party drug. I was separated from the military for seven years by the time I went into this experience. I went into it open-mindedly. I want to see where this takes me. I want to get everything I can out of it. When they recommended you wear an eye mask, noise-cancelling headphones, and have some relaxing music, I went all in. Others that I saw on the trial who were more military or perhaps still in seemed to have that more stoic like, “I’m in the Army. Why do I do drugs? Give me the medicine. I will lay here, and I don’t need all that hippie crap. It will fix me.”
It is that element of this feels different. It is unusual for people to hallucinate. That is something that hippies do. That is not something that you do in a medicinal process. I have personally found that surrendering completely to the process has been a huge part of why it has been successful for me. I do hear anecdotes of other people when you are in the waiting room. Some people say, “I didn’t feel anything.” Some were like, “I had a sleep.” Experiences may differ. That is all I can think of. It is a prejudice against something that may be considered or once was a party drug. It feels too good to be a medicine.
It is important to stress that point you said. It is not the silver bullet. It is not necessarily going to work for everyone the same way that it is working for you because we all come into this with our own personal histories. Just like trauma or how trauma might eventuate, we bring our histories into play with that environment. It is the same here. Your personal history is interplaying with this environment. This environment is extreme in a different way. It is disassociating you from your body.
On that hierarchy of recovery, I viewed it as a stepping stone. I’m not drinking. I have forced that balance on myself. I take medication, get better sleep, and communicate more with a counsellor. It was a win-win for me as long as it didn’t do something terrible to me. I thought, “I don’t need this to do anything. I’m already on a good journey.” I hope it helps. I fear that people put too much expectation on it if they expect it to be the panacea or the silver bullet. If you are not going to address your other issues, get your health into line, stop your drinking, or do whatever else is that you are doing that’s destructive, this isn’t going to fix you.
That is why you need a counselor.
You need someone to unpack with afterward. I go and talk about these things. I go, “I wonder why that came to me. I wonder what the meaning of that was.” The largest change has been that feeling of connection that I mentioned to you before. I used to think the world was a bad place. I was self-validated because you look at all the bad in the world. I find now that it is a feeling of hope and a feeling more of the rose-coloured glass of you.
I’m not naïve. Bad things happen in the world every day, but I have the belief that it can be better. I want to be part of making it better for my kids and the world. I used to want to hide away from society. I now find myself thinking, “I’m still an introvert, but I enjoy looking for the best in the world and hoping that I can do something that makes it a better place.”
How has it impacted your relationship with Fi and your kids since you have been on the treatment?
The feedback from Fi is that I sleep far more deeply, and I snore now, which she is not stoked about. I’m a happy person now. I can put my hand on my heart when people ask me and say, “How are you doing?” I don’t have to say, “I’m good and busy.” I say, “If there were a word, I would be content and happy.” It was the restless energy of constantly needing to fight to get somewhere, do something, and achieve something. You mentioned those goals. Give me a listen, and I will do it.
I’m happy just being. That means I can sit, be still with the kids, and appreciate being there. With Fi, it means we can sit, talk, be in the moment with her and be happy. I laugh spontaneously now. I never used to know what that was like. From her reflection, I’m a happier and more content person, which means I’m better to be around.
The stress levels and aura of anxiety in the house when someone is stressed and on edge have gradually started to wind down. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it means the kids pick up your nervous energy, stress, and anxiety. It feeds us the same. You bounce up off each other. We are all slowly whining about the anxiety and stress down in the house. Everyone is loving life a lot more.
It benefits everyone. That is what you said before. The boats are rising equally. If you are well, you are going to lift the people around you. That is what it comes down to. Rob, we are coming up toward the two-hour mark. We have covered all the ground. I do want to offer you the opportunity in case we haven’t touched on something that you want to share or cover that I haven’t asked about.
Maybe two little things in closing. One would be if anyone out there is tuning in, the message would be don’t be afraid to want to get better and to get good. There is that military stoicism. You stop it long enough to stop the bleeding when you are injured, and you get back in the game. Don’t be afraid to want more and seek out help to want to be happy. Don’t be afraid to put yourself first and say, “I want to be content. I want to be a happy person. I don’t just want to be okay.” If anyone is out there, I recommend the program. It is DVA endorsed and sponsored. It is all above board and legitimate. There is nothing funky about it.
I’m reflecting on something I said about the guys I was with, calling them rabid dogs. I hope no one takes offence to that. I mean it with love. People view it almost as offensive to say that our soldiers that go through those experiences are on the cusp of all having that ability to turn rogue. I don’t say that to diminish them at all. The absolute counterpoint of that is that it speaks to the strength and the testament of those men. There is that inner human frailty within all of us. They had the strength, the training, and the discipline not to act on it. That goes for all soldiers.
We are all human. We all feel hurt. We all suffer. It is naive of us to pretend that anyone is immune to it. Instead of saying it is a bad thing, it is an amazing wander of their training, discipline, culture, upbringing, and everything that makes them. They carried themselves out in such an amazing way. I will be forever grateful to have had the opportunity to serve with them. That will always be for all of us. There is a turning point in our lives, as it is for many that go through something like that.
I want to double-click on the importance of that environment and the circumstances. This is one of those points that I have picked up on the show a number of times about those who have allegedly transgressed. We have also been, not all of us, but some have been quick to discard them as the few bad apples who have dishonoured our service or our nation.
It is easy to say that without understanding the context as you describe eloquently about the desensitisation and the interplay with the environment. If we do throw them out in that manner, as I often say on the show, we deny them the humanity that we accused them of denying their victims. That is the point you are making. To think that anyone is immune to this is naive and rejects the reality of one’s lived experience under those circumstances.
You dangerously fail to diagnose the real problem if you blame it on a few bad people and think the problem is them and everyone else is okay. What did we do to them that could have happened to all of us, and therefore, how can we prevent this from happening again?
No one is born a war criminal. That is a fact of life. There are those who are psychologically more prone because they have certain genetic predispositions and combinations of their personality that are more prone to psychopaths for the 2% or 3% of society. Hopefully, our psychological testing filters out most, if not all of those, throughout the enlistment process. The rest is up to the upstream causes. They will lead down those acts. That is another topic for another time, given how much of your time I have taken.
I’m humbled by your ability to be open and vulnerable, to share something that is deeply personal, and to do it in such a way that resonates and connects to the audience because it is personable and real. I want to thank you for removing the BS from it by speaking truthfully about your experiences humbly where necessary but also ruthlessly and honestly where appropriate.
I have no doubt that this episode will land well with the audience. I certainly hope and echo everything you have said about anybody feeling like they are trapped in their own circumstances. There are ways and means out there to reach out and look for help. On that note, thank you so much. I enjoyed the conversation, as dark as it has gone in certain places, but it also landed on an optimistic note. Thanks a lot.
Thank you for inviting me on. It is an awesome conversation.