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.
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