In their home country, Australian soldiers are fondly known as "diggers". Their tales of bravery are etched in the national psyche. This fervor reaches its peak on ANZAC Day, where veterans from various wars march in cities and towns across the country. It is considered Australia's most important national occasion and is held annually to mark the first time its troops fought in World War One.
But for many returned veterans, a battle within lingers on. One in five Australian soldiers are expected to face mental health problems like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when they come home. PTSD is a debilitating mental condition characterised by recollections of a traumatic event that may include repetitive nightmares or distress. Since 2001, the rates of PTSD amongst Australian soldiers have quadrupled.
Now, young combat troops are returning from Afghanistan - this country's longest war. Forty Australian men were killed in action there in the last 13 years, but soldier suicides at home have outnumbered those casualties.
For many young veterans, the horrors of deployment have led to broken relationships and substance abuse. It's been described as a "large wave of sadness coming our way" by John Cantwell, a recently retired army major general, who questions whether the Defence Force is ready for the challenges of PTSD.
Veterans' support groups warn that many of the 30,000 troops who served in Afghanistan are suffering from or are at risk of confronting mental health issues.
As two decades of large-scale engagements come to an end, including East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan, many soldiers have anger issues, nightmares and an inability to deal with normal life.
Admitting they have a problem can also be a challenge, with discussion of mental health issues often considered taboo within the military, especially if soldiers feel it will hamper their future career options. Some complain that when they have finally found the courage to speak up, help has been hard to come by.
As more Australian soldiers return from the battlefield, 101 East reporter Drew Ambrose explores their war within.
What can Australia do to address rising rates of mental health problems in its military? Share your thoughts with us @AJ101East #VeteransAffairs
| Interview with James Brown
James Brown bio: James Brown served as an officer in the Australian Army prior to joining the Lowy Institute. He commanded a cavalry troop in Southern Iraq, served on the Australian task force headquarters in Baghdad, and was attached to Special Forces in Afghanistan. He was awarded a commendation for work in the Solomon Islands and as an operational planner at the Australian Defence Force Headquarters Joint Operations Command. Brown also instructed at the Army's Combat Arms Training Centre.
Brown is the Military Fellow at the Lowy Institute and his research focuses on military issues and defence policy. Previously he coordinated the Lowy Institute MacArthur Foundation Asia Security Project (exploring security cooperation in Asia) and was the lead researcher on a multi-year project investigating the evolution of private security companies.
He studied economics at the University of Sydney and completed graduate studies in strategy at the University of New South Wales. He is the author of Anzac's Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession, published by Black Inc in February 2014.
Drew Ambrose: One of the strong messages that comes through in your book ANZAC's Long Shadow is that Australia has a proud tradition of remembering the fallen in wars past but it's much harder when it comes to dealing with the veterans coming home from wars like Afghanistan and Iraq. Can you talk a bit about that?
James Brown: We have unique problems with connecting veterans back into society here. We have a situation where because not many Australians have served in the military and because not many families know someone who served in the military they don't understand what it means to be a modern soldier. I think a lot of Australians base their understanding on what the military does on movies and books from one hundred years ago. So it means it's hard for Australian veterans to be understood or even valued when they come back to Australia. We're also struggling to address mental health issues
Drew Ambrose: How?
James Brown: One of the unique problems of addressing mental health in defence forces in Australia is there's not that much research or data on it . A lot of the time we assume it's going to be the same as the US where they've seen 1 in 4 needing some form treatment.
Drew Ambrose: Do you think prescreening and post screening of Australian soldiers for mental illnesses is effective?
James Brown: It's been perfunctory in a lot of areas. We've had these psychological screening tests to pick up problems when soldiers leave warzones but often they've been administered in a routine way - done by asking pro forma questions without really thinking about it, because our deployments to places like Afghanistan have been small.
Drew Ambrose: You're the definition of a modern Australian soldier. You've served on a number of missions in the Solomon Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers from wars past only served in Korea or Vietnam and did one assignment. What problems does this culture of constant deployments create?
James Brown: Australia's special forces often do seven,eight, nine rotations to different warzones in a decade. By the time you go to your sixth deployment you start to go into an alternate reality. Coming home to Australia is a short sojourn between deployments so your world is very very different. That constant transition in and out of warzones is a very difficult thing to encounter. It's a very new phenomenon. In wars of old, people were gone for years and they came back. Now, soldiers are in a warzone one day and then they are out of it. 24 hours later they're in a warzone, their life is being threatened and then the next second they're back on a base, on the phone to their partner, talking about how to pay bills. It's complex and confusing.
Drew Ambrose: Do you think it contributes the mental health problems?
James Brown: I think it does. You're flashing in and out of these intense situations.
Drew Ambrose: Another strong message you put forward in your book is that Australian politicians don't understand the challenges facing the military and veterans compared to their counterparts overseas.
James Brown: If you're going to look at big, complex areas like defence and veterans' affairs, it helps to understand the language and understand the issues. When you look at the US, the number of congress people who have served in the military is the lowest it's been in years, but it's still one in four. In Australia, only 6 percent of members in the last parliament had any experience in the military, and half of them were in part-time university regiments. So literacy is very low and there are few opportunities for parliamentarians to get up to speed on these areas. What that means when they're coming to consider policy for veterans - they're coming at it with not much more knowledge than a member of the average public. There's not that understanding there and there's not that political pressure to understand what's happening in the military, which is strange because we're one of the top 15 spenders on defence in the world.
Drew Ambrose: What about the Australian Defence Force? Do you think they've made much of an effort to bridge the divide between soldiers in places like Afghanistan and the wider public?
James Brown: It's almost as if there's been a big wall dropped between the Australian military and the community. The stories from the battlefield have come out so late they've got no relevance. [Or] so positive that they are virtually propaganda, or so defensive they said nothing. And there are big problems in the way the military speaks to people here. When you look at what Australians did in World War One and World War Two, there are so many stories, official histories, official stories, official dispatches - diaries, poems, songs and books. When you look at Iraq and Afghanistan there's been very little official reporting from the government and the military. That means the only chance our public have to see what their soldiers are doing is when they get very structured and limited engagement between the defence force and the media, or when they hear news reports of a soldier dying in combat.
Drew Ambrose: The United States has had many challenges in dealing with its large veteran population. But it's a larger cohort of troops so more services are there to help them. Because Australia's contemporary veteran population is much smaller, how is it harder to deal with the problems facing veterans?
James Brown: There are a lot of differences between the US experience of bringing veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and the Australian experiences. One person that made that observation was a US brigadier speaking on an Australian television show recently. She said "when your veterans step off their military bases they just disappear" and I think it's true. There are a lot less initiatives here to keep veterans in the community. There are very few initiatives to employ veterans, whereas in the United States, big companies make it a mission of theirs to employ veterans. There are few outlets for veterans to write about their experiences. All of those little differences mean that veterans just slink away from the community in a lot of ways when they return to Australia. Some of them don't want to wear their uniforms or medals.
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