The horizon is vast in the country but in James McGovern’s* hometown young men don’t tend to dream big. They don’t go to university, most don’t even finish year 12. Instead, he says, they get a trade or stay and work on the farm and live the lives of their fathers. But growing up in the small Victorian grazing town, McGovern wanted something different for himself. Different enough that it might give him a sense of pride, earn him some recognition. He wanted to make a mark.
At 16, he began thinking about joining the Australian Defence Force (ADF). In 2005, with a nod from his parents, he’d enlisted in the Army. He was 19. Given that one of the blessings of youth is invulnerability, or at least a sense of it, he didn’t for a moment think he might be putting himself in harm’s way. “At that [age] you don’t have that capacity to worry about death,” says McGovern, a stocky 28-year-old with ginger stubble and short hair. “When I first joined, I imagined being in the army was like the movies. When you go away to war you don’t die, you don’t get injured; people around you might, but not you. Then when you come back you’re going to be a hero. That’s what I thought it was going to be like.”
He was wrong. Speaking to the Global Mail from a Fitzroy pub, where he’s nursing a pot of beer and wearing a T-shirt and shorts after a gym session, McGovern recalls that within a couple of years after returning to Australia from a seven-month tour of Iraq —a tour that commenced in September 2006, three months before Saddam Hussein was hanged in an Iraqi military base in Baghdad— his life had unraveled. Though he had no bullet wounds or shrapnel scars to explain his malaise, he was a burning fuse that could ignite at any time. He had panic attacks, he couldn’t sleep, he was drinking too much and carving deep grooves in his couch such was his lack of motivation. His nascent marriage broke under the strain. For someone who used to think depression was for wimps, that mental health issues were things people should just “get over”, it was a humbling experience to eventually find out his problem had a name: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Seen most commonly among military personnel, emergency services workers, victims of violent crime and survivors of natural disasters, PTSD is an anxiety disorder that follows exposure (or cumulative exposures) to a traumatic event such as a life-threatening incident or a violent assault. Typically, PTSD sufferers are haunted by the things they’ve witnessed and experienced—and it’s this haunting element that particularly differentiates PTSD from depression, though there is some overlapping between the two.
Symptomatically, PTSD sufferers re-experience their trauma through terrifying memories, nightmares, images and smells, and they are often in a heightened state of anxiety, which can surface as aggression. At the same time they actively try to avoid —almost to the point of phobia— any reminders of the trauma, and as a consequence they are reluctant to talk about the events that led to their PTSD, and they often shut themselves off from their families, their interests, their careers and the world around them.
Approximately 8% of military personnel will develop PTSD, according to Professor David Forbes, director of the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health (ACPMH), a trauma-based research, education and training organisation (which has partnerships with organisations including the departments of Defence and Veterans’ Affairs). This includes not only personnel deployed to a conflict zone as combatants or peacekeepers, but also those who experience non-combat related events such as training accidents, vehicular accidents, and physical and sexual assaults. “There’s potential to diagnose while on operational service,” says Forbes, “but symptoms kind of accrue over time and often only declare themselves once the person begins to try and integrate themselves back into normal civilian life. Not necessarily as a civilian, but at least life outside of a warzone.”
While PTSD is treatable, and a significant percentage of people will FULLY RECOVER, Forbes says many will continue to have residual PTSD symptoms. But a proportion, in the order of 20-30%, will go on to have chronic PTSD, which is not just an issue for them but also, due to the RIPPLES IT CREATES, their families, friends and colleagues.
Given the nature of warfare it’s a testament to the resilience of the human mind that most people who experience armed conflict and/or witness its residue of suffering avoid any kind of mental illness, much less PTSD. However, a figure of 8% is hardly insignificant, particularly when it’s accepted that there is a high rate of under-reporting of mental health issues by military personnel for fear of stigma and a possible curtailing —or redirecting— of their military career.
Supporting this, the 2011 ADF Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy estimated that a total of 36.9 per cent of ADF personnel agreed or strongly agreed that seeking help for a mental health problem would reduce their opportunity to deploy. There’s some merit to these fears. The ADF would hardly re-deploy someone it knows to be suffering PTSD, for example, to a conflict zone. However, an ADF spokesperson told The Global Mail via email that “A diagnosis of a mental health condition such as depression or posttraumatic stress disorder does not automatically preclude a member from future deployments provided they have been effectively treated for the condition and they have been free of symptoms for a specified period of time”.
In the middle of these survey results, however, stand cultural barriers that will be more difficult to overcome. Around one-quarter ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that having sought help would harm their career prospects, lead people to treat them differently, or make others see them as weak. Despite increasing mental health awareness among ADF members this is an ongoing concern.
In light of the figures and the continuing withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, the ADF has been warned BY SOME PROMINENT FIGURES to expect an influx of mental health casualties —a “tidal wave” according Major John Cantwell, former commander of Australian forces in Afghanistan. General David Hurley, Chief of the Defence Force, described terminology such as Cantwell’s as “provocative” and “emotive” and said the ADF had no data to suggest there’d been a spike in PTSD cases in the past decade (although the ADF looks at medical discharges only, says John Jarrett, president of the independent organisation Young Diggers, which helps veterans, soldiers and their families cope with the effects of serving. Cases where soldiers, feeling anger and stress, ask for voluntary discharge are not counted in the ADF’s mental health figures, he says). At the same time General Hurley acknowledged that ''we need to recognise that some form of anguish is a normal human reaction to abnormal events.”
This is indeed true. And short of ending all forms of trauma, there’s no way to eliminate PTSD in the military, any more than there is in the general population. But given the debilitating, and costly, effects of mental health injuries such as PTSD, how equipped is the military to not only reduce the likelihood of someone getting PTSD, but to facilitate and even hasten their recovery if they do? The short answer is not as equipped as they could be, but better equipped than they’ve ever been before.
James McGovern was sheep sheering in the bush and just short of his 20th birthday when he packed up and went to Melbourne to enlist, something that required a couple of aptitude tests and a physical. Nothing occurred during the recruitment process to derail his enthusiasm. He recalls that the Army recruiters (private contractors, civilians, who are rewarded for recruiting people with sought-after trades and/or particular skills) didn’t actively mislead him about what Army life might entail outside of the rather fun-looking exercises we see on recruitment advertisements — the ones that make the Army look like Scouts on steroids. He was told it was going to be tough and not for the faint hearted; but he says, without bitterness, that he received no disclosures about the likelihood, however slim, of death or injury—physical or mental. Not that that would have dissuaded him, he says. When you’re 19, he suggests, mortality is just a concept.
Besides, before joining the Army, and even more so after he’d begun training and making mates —the kind you want to stick with, the kind you’ll do anything to avoid letting down— McGovern wanted to experience conflict. Really? “Yes,” he says, “and every infantry soldier you talk to will say the same. They want to go. That’s what you train for, that’s what you do. At the time you’re prepared to die for your country. I was, definitely. The train of thought I had —and still do to a degree, despite everything— was that I’d rather die in battle than die at 86, shitting my own bed, not having achieved anything.”
By this definition, McGovern’s first deployment was disappointing. Following six months of training, his company of infantry soldiers was sent as a peacekeeping force to Honiara, in the Solomon Islands, after rioting broke out following the April 2006 general election. When this group of young Australians touched down in the Solomons —McGovern says his section commander was just 27— they were nervous but ready for action. The worst of the rioting, however, was already over. “We did our patrols and we were ready to kill if necessary. I wanted to be in battle, but there was no one to shoot,” he says, giving an embarrassed laugh that gives the impression he’s only half joking. “So it was peacekeeping, walking around in the heat, a show of force. It was boring.”
His deployment wasn’t a complete loss, however. After close to two months in the Solomon Islands McGovern returned to Australia and received a service medal. For the first time since joining the ADF he had a something to pin on his uniform after having to endure so many military parades, he says, looking like a “lid”: a new guy. It wasn’t quite the mark of pride he was seeking, but it was a start.
Some time later McGovern, based at Holsworthy Barracks in western Sydney, found out his company would be heading to Iraq later that year. The intensity of their training stepped up, but he enjoyed it and he looked forward to deployment despite knowing, intellectually, that Baghdad, a war zone, would be a significantly more dangerous proposition than Honiara.
Around this time McGovern’s company began to receive some mental health training, including desensitization training. On an “official level” they were shown slide shows of real battle scenes picturing people—soldiers, civilians—with battle wounds, or bodies decapitated or blown into pieces.
On an unofficial level, a few times a week, he and his peers also watched videos taken by other troops; videos taken in the Middle East howing things like beheadings and executions. Invariably, he says, such videos were watched in a hushed silence and when they were over there was never any discussion among the troops about how people felt watching them. McGovern says he remembers them making him feel a little sick —and thinking about them now, he adds, makes him feel ill and panicky— but, again, they didn’t prompt a shift in his thinking or willingness to see some action. “I was still gung ho. I wanted to get amongst it. That was what we were there for, what we trained for. Weirdly, I still thought it would be like the movies. That’s why they call it the infantry I suppose. Like sending children to war.”
In September 2006, wearing civilian clothes, McGovern’s company and deployment group flew to the Middle East out of Sydney Airport. Due to operational security there were few people who knew about it; there were fewer still to say goodbye.
As a term, PTSD is relatively new, traceable to the period after the Vietnam War, and formally recognized in 1980 when it was added to the 3rd edition of the mental health bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But in terms of the symptoms that give rise to it it’s as old as the hills. In Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, written somewhere between 700-800BC, his heroes Achilles and Odysseus suffer, after battle, what could be described as combat stress (Achilles), flashbacks and survivor guilt (Odysseus). In Shakespeare’s King Henry VI Henry Percy’s wife, Kate, worries that his behaviour has changed after many battles, and asks, “Tell me, sweet lord, what is’t that takes from thee/ Thy stomach, pleasure and thy golden sleep?”
Of course warfare has always produced mental health casualties. Conditions that might amount to PTSD, or something akin to it, have simply had another name, like exhaustion, shell shock, or battle fatigue; the ‘treatment’ of which consisted of little more than rest, hospitalization, disciplinary action (since some authorities interpreted it as cowardice) and even electric shock treatment.
But it’s the problems experienced by Vietnam veterans in particular that gave rise to the coining of the descriptor ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ as well as drawing wider attention to the effects of war on a combatants’ mental health —even though that attention came way too late to help many Vietnam vets who were sent to war utterly unprepared for what they’d see and have to do, and then deposited home in the manner a newspaper is thrown onto a front porch from a moving vehicle. Tom, a 66-year-old former fitter-and-turner who spent more than a year in Vietnam —then lived with PTSD on his return for more than 20 years before he received help— told the Global Mail: “Pending discharge you were given an eye, ear, nose and throat check. Your teeth too. What was between your ears was never mentioned. It was a case of ‘piss off back to work’.” [See companion piece: PTSD Vietnam]
It’s impossible to say whether rates of PTSD have increased or decreased since Vietnam; or even whether the changing nature of conflict —on the one hand, the technological advances that allow much warfare to be conducted at a distance, on the other the messiness of modern war where enemies are insurgents who don’t wear uniforms— has had an effect. “Reliable data is relatively new,” says Melbourne University’s Mark Creamer, a trauma expert and former long time director of the ACPMH. “The [comparable] prevalence [of PTSD] is a feature of debate, but I don’t think anyone knows the answer.”
Creamer believes, however, that the ADF —as with defence forces worldwide— has made considerable attempts over the past decade to improve its mental health policies and programs. “There is always more that could be done,” he says, “but they are doing much more now than ever before. But there’s still a long way to go. It’s got to be seen as a high priority now. Despite some of the lip service it’s still not seen as a high enough priority and I think health services and mental health services are often under the knife when it comes to budgets.”
David Morton, the ADF’s director general of mental health psychology and rehabilitation, says that in terms of addressing mental health issues within its ranks the ADF is in a “much better situation than in previous years and previous eras.” He believes that’s a combination of better mental health awareness on a national scale as well as efforts undertaken by the ADF in recent years. Some of these efforts are in response to 2009’s independent, government-commissioned report, Review of Mental Health Care in the ADF and Transition through Discharge.
Prepared by Professor David Dunt, the review concluded that the ADF’s 2002 Mental Health Strategy “compared favourably” with mental strategies in other Australian workplaces and those employed by military forces in other countries. The review’s author, Professor David Dunt, also wrote that the ADF was “committed to looking after the mental health of its members.” However, the so-called Dunt Review concluded that the roll-out of the MHS had been “patchy” and reflected “a lack of proper funding.” He made 52 recommendations towards reforming and improving the ADF’s mental health programs, among them that a more integrated approach was needed between health care providers, the inclusion of more innovative resilience training and mental heath literacy programs, and more staff to facilitate such changes.
Following the review’s release in January 2009 the ADF underwent a four-year mental health reform plan, which ended in July. In the past four year it has met [HOW MANY OF THE 52 RECOMMENDATIONS?] and created 74 fulltime equivalent positions in its health sector, according to the ADF: “While mental health services were delivered almost exclusively by a mix of uniformed and APS psychologists prior to the Dunt Review, almost all the new positions have been established as mental health professional positions enabling the creation of truly multidisciplinary teams. These teams comprise of psychologists, mental health nurses, clinical social workers and appropriately credentialed occupational therapists.”
Morton says the ADF has put considerable effort into [mental health] training, screening, increasing awareness, and trying to expedite counselling services. Regarding screening, Morton says a typical ADF member undergoes numerous mental health assessments and training initiatives through the course of their service—either incorporated into questionnaires and/or conducted by direct interview with a psychologist. Such initiatives, he says, include those that take place during the enlistment process, during training and prior to deployment (according to the 2011 ADF Mental Health and Wellbeing Prevalence Study these are tailored psycho-educational training “covering topics such as separation, cultural adaptation, operational tempo, fatigue and stress management, and homecoming.”).
Psychological screening is also undertaken in response to a potentially traumatic event during deployment, before returning home from deployment, three and six months after deployment (ADF personnel are encouraged to bring partners and family to these interviews since it’s believed they may be the first to notice changing behaviours), and prior to leaving the ADF.
Morton says that the past few years have also seen an increase in the range of psychiatrists and psychologists to whom the ADF can refer its personnel. “We’re certainly in a much better place than we’ve previously been,” says Morton. “What we’re also doing is recognizing that PTSD is one condition that may occur, but we also recognize that if you want to do something about this early you also need to be on the lookout for issues to do with anger, sleep disorder, depression, these sorts of things. With early intervention…maybe we won’t see full-blown diagnosis of PTSD.”
For all that, he says it may still be too early to tell what the results of these changes may be. “Over the next few years we’ll get to know whether [ADF members] find it easier to raise their hand than they did 10 years ago.”
If they don’t find it easier it may not be fair to blame the ADF, says Creamer, but, rather, cultural expectations. “[In terms of mental health] women are more likely to seek help and there’s some evidence to suggest they do better in treatment, which might be driven by cultural expectations and so on. These expectations say that men should be tough, men should be strong, that it’s not acceptable to admit to weakness. We see this happening in any male- dominated culture. But it is changing but still that cultural change that encourages people to stick their hands up is something we still need to work on.”
Flying into Kuwait McGovern was greeted with culture shock—but no shock and awe. Highly nervous and half expecting to get into “contacts” (engagement with the enemy) soon after stepping off the plane he quickly discovered Kuwait was safe and secure, something reinforced by arriving at an American military base to find it replete with McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut. For two weeks they trained there, training that including discharging their weapons—the Steyr semi-automatic assault rifle that McGovern says has the disconcerting habit of jamming in the sandy conditions.
One afternoon they flew into an American base in Baghdad before, around midnight, boarding Chinook helicopters for a short flight to the so-called ‘Green Zone’, a relatively secure area where interim government, international delegates and coalition troops were based. From the chopper McGovern could see tracer fire like shooting stars across the cityscape and he says there was a dense blanket of anxiety aboard, with everyone feeling particularly vulnerable in the air. That pervading sense of heightened awareness—of being “on”—was one McGovern would have for the entire seven months he was in Baghdad.
Stationed at a Coalition base in the Green Zone, McGovern’s company discovered their primary role would be to escort Australian delegates (politicians, envoys, higher ranking military officers) around the battered city’s Green Zone. They would also do reconnaissance runs to places MPs were planning on visiting to ensure they were as safe as possible. On occasion they would also need to make runs to Baghdad Airport, which required negotiating 12km through the Red Zone along the Baghdad Airport Road, aka Route Irish, considered at the time the most dangerous road in the world. The greatest threat when doing such runs were improvised explosive devices (IEDs), that is home-made bombs placed by the roadside (and detonated remotely), or vehicular borne IEDs. The majority of Coalition troops killed in Iraq have been killed by IEDs.
Compared to the runs through the Red Zone time spent on base was less stressful but at no point, says McGovern, could you escape awareness of where you were, the threat of potential harm. It was not unusual, he says, for stray rounds and mortar fire to come into the base. Before he arrived he heard that a rocket entered Coalition soldiers’ sleeping quarters. After he’d arrived, an American walking to the gym was shot through his shoulder. “And that’s what got me in the end. I was always [in a state of readiness], always in this ‘fight or flight’ spectrum, constantly wound up. You don’t realise it when you’re there, but when I got home I couldn’t wind back down. My mind was like a spring. It can take weeks to gradually release but mine didn’t.”
One of the major catalysts for McGovern’s PTSD came soon after he returned to Baghdad from two weeks rostered leave, which he spent out of the Middle East. The day he returned and before resuming his normal duties he was dining in a packed mess hall —alongside, in the main, administrative and intelligence personnel— in a secure military base in the Green Zone just outside of Baghdad. Without warning the side of the mess was hit by a mortar shell. The doors blew in, the windows shattered, and everyone was thrown to the floor. Seconds later, a mortar shell hit the other side of the mess. Chaos ensured, McGovern says. “People were pushed to the ground, people got run over. I remember thinking this is the definition of panic.”
Although keen to leave the mess himself, he and some fellow Australian troops were ordered to remain where they were by a Australian major who, he says, was out of her mind and shaking so much she couldn’t dial her phone to seek instructions. Fortunately, there were no more incoming shells but on leaving the damaged mess hall McGovern saw the security gates outside the mess hall had taken a direct hit. The bodies of a number of American servicemen were all too evident. “I remember seeing that and thinking, ‘We’re going back into Baghdad now, back to that.”
Following the incident —and before he was allowed back to work— McGovern says he was given a psychological screening. When he was asked how he felt about what had happened, McGovern says he replied that he was fine. At the time he believed it, he says. “Anyway, you’re not going to leave your mates there, you’re there for them. I wanted to get back into it. I was shaken by [the shelling] but I knew I could still do my job. I was actually as keen as ever to come face to face with the enemy. To fight them on even terms instead of being blown up [from afar].”
If that was the catalyst for McGovern’s PTSD —and he believes it was— he had to deal with the accumulative trauma that came from further incidents. Being “contacted” (fired upon) in various jobs, working at the gates of a hospital and seeing the stream of bodies of soldiers and civilians coming in, or the hordes of wounded, like a soldier with his legs blown off screaming for his mother. For McGovern they became constant reminders of what could happen to him, and he started counting the days until he’d return home.
An important part of dealing with PTSD in the military is trying to prevent it happening in the first place —or finding a way of identifying people at risk before recruitment. But screening out people vulnerable to PTSD and mental illness before they enlist is still a work in progress, says Creamer. He also points out that defence forces around the world have a hard enough time recruiting without making entry requirements overly stringent. “So short of discovering a key to vulnerability, and short of commanders minimizing their members’ exposure to potential trauma, prevention involves social strategies — like good morale, good leadership, good unit cohesion— as well as coping strategies and resilience building, areas into which there’s much research going on in the US and Australia.”
Strategies to teach military personnel to manage their levels of arousal are central to this, says Creamer. “We know if people become very tense and uptight that’s associated with poor adjustment, so we teach them controlled breathing, strategies to relax. Not in a way that’s going to interfere with their capacity to function or perform, but a way that’s going to make you more adaptive. But how do you teach that?
“You can sit them down in a classroom and say, this is what you do; take a slow breath through your nose or whatever. But are they going to remember that out on the battlefield? No, they’re not. So what we’re trying to do is train people in real life situations, which might include using video or lots of military exercises, where people are being reminded to use these coping strategies, like arousal. Or like using their mates, talking to their mates; so you say you’ve just seen this horrible thing, what are you going to do about it? And get them used to the idea of talking to their mate about it, how horrible it was. Because again if we can practice these skills in a training setting the chances of them being used in real life and much greater.”
The ADF implements a resilience-building program —through recurring workshops— called battleSMART. The ADF is the first defence force to implement such a program. The ADF’s Morton says battleSMART is rolled out during various phases of training, and it changes in intensity the closer someone gets to deployment. “The workshops [involving physical and mental exercises] are about trying to help people understand the concepts they can use to get through [stressful] situations, or help them realise when they are not coping, and importantly when to ask for help, from their mates and others. And getting that into place, that’s it’s okay to ask for help.”
Forbes says resilience is a difficult thing to teach and the success of programs like battleSMART have yet to be proven. “Early data looks like they might have an affect but at this stage we’re not sure how strong an effect it has,” he says. “It’s certainly better than not doing it, and it’s at the cutting edge of what we know at the moment, but how effective that is in preventing the development of mental health problems is still a little hard to say. Hopefully it might mitigate the severity of it, or prime people to seek care earlier. But whether it stops you from getting PTSD is another story. But that’s an international challenge. “
If PTSD can’t be stopped entirely, how is it treated? There are a number of evidence-based treatments, says Forbes. “The two key categories are called trauma-focused cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), and a treatment also called eye-movement desensitisation and reprocessing, otherwise known as EMDR. Both treatments have been repeatedly shown to be effective in treating PTSD which means that a vast majority of people get significant benefits.
“Essentially both treatments involve engaging with the traumatic memories. In PTSD the person is haunted by memories of their traumatic experiences, they replay them, they react to anything that looks like a reminder. They are keyed up and on edge, They avoid anything that looks or smells like it. It’s marked by intrusive memories coupled with avoidance. Both treatments involve in a graded, gentle way helping the person start to confront the memories. To gradually engage with what happened, to think about what happened, what it meant to them, how to interpret those events, how to work through it so it is no longer so frightening for them that they can’t stand to think about it. They will never enjoy thinking about it, it won’t take away that experience, but it will help them process it to the point where they can tolerate thinking about it, and have an emotional response to it. And then a lot of symptoms then start to fade once the person actually engages with tolerating the memory.”
Of course a huge part of treating PTSD comes after someone leaves the military, for it’s then that the condition usually rears its head. As Creamer says, “In many cases people suffering a mental health condition are able to hold it together and function pretty well while they are still amongst the military structure and boundaries. But then they discharge and that’s no longer there and often the wheels fall off. So that process of transition is a crucial point in mental health. So we need to do much better in terms of managing transition. We spend a lot of time and a lot of money training people to be soldiers. We don’t spend any time or money training them to be civilians at the other end. That process of transition we need to give much more attention, onto adjustment issues and mental health issues at that point to help prevent disorder.”
In March 2007, after a one-on-one psychological assessment in Kuwait, McGovern returned to Australia, shedding tears of pride on flying over the Top End en route to Sydney. It was probably the highlight of the next few years. Expecting a six-week break, McGovern says his company was told they’d be getting only four, as they were to undertake training ahead of being used for security for APEC meetings in Sydney later that year. McGovern says he was quickly disgruntled, feeling it was nowhere near enough time to wind down.
During his break McGovern found himself “amping up” at the slightest provocation and he was in two “vicious” bar fights. He began to notice, too, that he couldn’t sleep with the lights off, he couldn’t sleep on his side, his drinking had increased significantly and crowds made him agitated. At first he didn’t think too much of it, figuring it was all part of readjusting to life at home, and sleeping in a room by himself for the first time in a long time. But most frighteningly of all, he began to experience panic attacks. Sometimes it was a smell that set him off, sometimes he didn’t know what the trigger was, but he was overcome. Once he got one while driving and had to pull over, feeling sick, thinking he was dying. It was terrifying to him.
There was no respite back at base. A new OC (operations commander) was making life miserable, establishing his authority by putting McGovern’s company under the pump. Spent, sleep deprived, and feeling he’d not had enough time with family and friends post Iraq, McGovern started entertaining the notion of going absent without leave (AWOL). At this point he saw an Army doctor and told him of his inability to cope, his desire to escape. He says he was put in the base’s psych hospital for a few days and prescribed Stilnox to help him sleep. At this point he knew he was unwell.
After APEC ended —by which time he’d begun a relationship, which was a form of escape— McGovern’s company was deployed to East Timor for five months. Oddly, though it’s not unusual, his panic attacks, sleeping problems and other issues more or less ended. Or were at least put on hold. Back in a deployment environment with an assault rifle by his side, McGovern says he felt better, safer, than he had in a long time. But he had to come home sometime and when he did, despite the excitement of getting engaged, all his old problems returned.
McGovern says he made it clear he wanted out of the infantry and put in a transfer request. After visits with a base psychiatrist he was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Before too long he was medically discharged from the Army. Now receiving an Army pension, and feeling like a “dole bludger because of it,” he and his new wife moved to Brisbane. McGovern hoped that these changes in his life would lead him out of the darkness occupying his mind. They didn’t. “I was drinking six beers every night so I could go to sleep, then I’d sit around on weekends not doing anything. I was always angry, flipping out over nothing and not even remembering what happened. I was sleeping with a knife under my pillow. I was mental. I should have been in a loony bin. I was a lost soul. Just surviving.”
Had he not been married, he says, he would have been in an even worse predicament. Feeling a moral obligation to be the breadwinner McGovern spent his weekdays as an apprentice plumber, which at least got him out of the house. “Looking back,” he says, “that was the only thing that helped me. Without that job I would have been just been sitting at home drinking myself to death. Or hanging from the rafters.”
It soon became clear that he and his wife couldn’t hold their life together and they split. Realising his life was at a crossroads he moved back to Victoria and started seeing another psychologist, a woman he says has helped him enormously. It took a couple of years —during which time he was also diagnosed with PTSD— but McGovern’s health slowly began to improve. A combination of anti-depressants, regular therapy and mindfullness training played a big part. So too, he says, did his enrolling in a university course. The way he sees it, the demands of study unlocked a different part of his brain, at the same time allowing him to escape the dark corners where he’d spent far too long.
Today, McGovern comes across as a happy, well-adjusted young man. He says his panic attacks have stopped, he’s been off anti-depressants for two years and although he’s had difficulties negotiating with Veterans’ Affairs he’s free of anxiety and his PTSD. That he can even talk about it all is a measure of his recovery, he says. So too is the fact he’s now in a new relationship that has produced a son, with another child on the way.
As he sips his beer in that Fitzroy pub, McGovern says he has no hard feelings towards the ADF. And if he had his time all over again he wouldn’t change a thing. He even imagines still being in the Army, which is partly a reflection of the culture of mateship he enjoyed. And partly a reaction to those recruitment ads. “Looks like fun, doesn’t it?” But maybe such thoughts are just down to the fact he’s in a better place these days. Better than he’s been in for a long, long time. As he says, fashioning a smile, “For the first time is years I feel happy.”
* Not his real name