To date, the Vietnam War remains Australia’s longest engagement in a foreign conflict since World War II, including its commitment to the war in Afghanistan. Around 60,000 Australians were deployed to Vietnam between 1962 and 1972, where thousands were wounded, and hundreds died. At the time, their return home was not a cause for celebration.
Stephen Collins is the stepson of one of those veterans. Part of a project aimed at addressing the gaps in the treatment of veterans, Collins describes the first-hand effects of living with a veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the common frustrations for those coming home.
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This is his story told in his own words.
My stepdad Jim met my mum when I was about 17 or 18 years old. At that time in Australia, the Vietnam veterans’ experience was still extremely negative, similar to what happened in the US with the anti-war movement. Unlike veterans who fought in previous conflicts, the Vietnam veterans were never welcomed home, so many of them suffered from significant social isolation.
Jim’s PTSD was a result of his military experience in conflict and social isolation which created a vicious circle. He left Vietnam with some degree of trauma, and that trauma and not being welcomed home compounded each other. You become socially isolated, and because you’re socially isolated you have no way of dealing with your trauma, so your trauma becomes aggravated, and you become more socially isolated.
However, many of these veterans were functional in society. My stepdad worked as a taxi driver and then as a security guard at a large gallery. So he worked regular jobs, had friends, but he definitely had social isolation issues; he didn’t have a connection with people that understood and contextualised his military experience.
‘They had run out of bread rolls. That’s what triggered him’
People with high-functioning PTSD turn up to work, and they do their thing, and you would never know that they are suffering from PTSD. Until something triggers them in your presence and you realise that there is something that’s not right.
Jim had a notoriously short temper; his moods could change from one moment to another. The weirdest things could trigger him. He would see a helicopter on the news, and you could almost guarantee that he would have nightmares that evening.
I remember going to a restaurant one evening, late on a Sunday – which is the end of the working week for restaurants in Australia. We went to a little suburban cafe – and they had run out of bread rolls. That’s what triggered my stepdad’s temper.
The poor waiter, who was probably not older than 17 or 18, was caught in what was effectively a vicious, angry shouting fire hose of invective for about five minutes before we were asked to leave by the restaurant manager.
Jim’s PTSD would manifest as anything from restlessness to full-on, full-blown, technicolour nightmares, including doing things like trying to drag my mum out of bed and into hiding, in what he thought was obviously a foxhole. It was pretty dramatic.
‘If you’re broken, you’re not fit to serve’
There is still a culture in the military here that if you’re broken, you’re not fit to serve any more. And if you’re not fit to serve any more, then your reason for being, particularly if you’re in uniform, kind of vanishes. And that’s one of the re-integration issues that military people have.
Many veterans define themselves completely by the fact that they are a soldier. So they are coming back into civilian life where you’re not a soldier any more, and life doesn’t revolve around the things that soldiers do. It’s really hard.
Soldiers don’t want to appear broken. So, being associated with psychological illness is significantly harder. People are often a lot more accepting with physical problems. So if you fall off a truck, and you bust your legs, ok, you got some busted legs, but we’ll get you back, and we’ll fix you up, and you’ll be ok. And even if you can’t serve, no one is blaming you because it wasn’t your fault that you fell off of a truck.
Many veterans define themselves completely by the fact that they are a soldier. So they are coming back into civilian life where you're not a soldier any more, and life doesn't revolve around the things that soldiers do. It's really hard.
Whereas, much like it is in civilian life, if you suffer from a mental illness there is a perception – right or wrong – that you have a weakness of some sort. You’re weak somehow, and you gave up, and something broke because you gave up.
So, there’s a strong cultural aspect of “I’m not broken, I want to be able to continue to serve.” This is what happens, particularly for people that are discharged medically and therefore are likely to have a relationship with Veterans Affairs. There’s also an aspect of “I’m tough because I was trained to be a soldier, so I don’t want to have to rely on Veterans’ Affairs because I feel like I can go it alone.”
Transitioning from military to civilian life
Veteran suicide and veterans dealing with major mental health issues is a massive problem, and it’s pervasive across the militaries and veteran communities the world over. Everyone understands it’s there, and no one is quite sure how to address it.
In our last national election in September 2016, the current government made an election commitment to look at the challenges facing veterans transitioning from military to civilian life.
I joined a project at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to investigate the entire spectrum of barriers to successful transition to civilian life: cultural challenges, logistical challenges. What happens to families? What happens particularly to women veterans?
We talked to the Brits, and we talked to the Americans and found that similar proportions had the same problems. We talked with 160 people who served formerly, are still serving, family members, organisations set up to provide a connection around being an ex-service person. We did research in half a dozen cities in Australia as well as in rural areas, with all ranks, from brand new trainees and cadets all the way through to starred generals.
Veteran suicide and veterans dealing with major mental health issues is a massive problem, and it's pervasive across military and veteran communities the world over. Everyone understands it's there, and no one is quite sure how to address it.
A bunch of issues around bureaucracy and culture issues came out. Issues surrounding those that are discharged medically, who are no longer fit to serve because they have a health challenge, were highlighted as well as the emotional loss of identity, particularly suffering mental illness problems.
While some people are better prepared through their career or their rank to transition into civilian life, there are – across all ranks and all genders, and all gender identities – a range of issues that people see frustrations with, and have some adjustment issues with.
My partner, who is former military, still loves a lot about the military such as the strong structure and strong rank sense in the organisation. In her career since leaving the military, she has sought those kinds of roles, because that’s what they like.
Many of my friends who are ex-military transitioned from uniformed military to working for the civilian Department of Defence or a civilian military contractor, or organisations that have some kind of affinity with the military, so that the transition is not so challenging.
In the late 80s, maybe the early 90s, Australia finally decided to hold welcome home parades for its Vietnam veterans. This was nearly 20 years after they had arrived home. The veterans attended these parades en masse, and it was a massive cathartic experience for them. They finally felt welcomed home.