Anzac Day a time for counting the true cost of war

I REMEMBER him as a quiet kid, on the small size for his age and not given to speak much in a group of friends with more than its fair share of confident types.

It’s probably why he fit in. He listened rather than tried to compete with the clowns and natural born leaders amongst those boisterous teens.

There were three in that group who left high school young, barely 15, to do apprenticeships. My son was one of the three, along with the quiet kid and another teen who was also relatively quiet and on the slim size.

They were and are good mates, on the cusp of turning 30.

They finished their apprenticeships – two in the cooking industry and the third in building. My son switched from being a chef to carpentry, and the other two joined the Army. The quiet kid joined first when he was in his early 20s, about a decade ago.

The three stayed in touch. The quiet kid, who developed into a quiet adult with one of those radiant smiles some people have that seem to stretch from ear to ear, stayed in constant touch from north Queensland where he was based, and then from overseas.

Then there were periods where there was no contact, and my son was anxious for his mate. He was in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were a number of very high profile matters that made the news here – the death of an Australian Army member in Afghanistan; criminal charges against a veteran in Australia after he was discharged – that my son said involved Army colleagues of his mate.

Each time his quiet Army mate spent a few days with my son he appeared more muscly, more controlled and quieter than before. He still smiled that radiant smile, but he also drank with a ferocity that worried my son, who has been known to turn it on himself at times.

It was drinking to obliterate rather than socialise, my son said. He drank quickly and methodically enough to wipe himself out. Some of the mates didn’t notice the subtle changes each time he returned from overseas duty. Some did. Gradually my son’s Army mate reduced contact with the louder members of the friends’ group and opted for the mates who realised he had changed, and struggled at times in what the rest of us would call normal life.  

Each time his quiet Army mate spent a few days with my son he appeared more muscly, more controlled and quieter than before. He still smiled that radiant smile, but he also drank with a ferocity that worried my son.

He left the Army recently, with the health record you get after years of the kind of duty he’s seen. It includes a post traumatic stress diagnosis and reports on his physical condition that indicate problems ahead after years of hauling huge loads.

He rang my son a couple of weeks ago about coming to stay for a few days. He arrived almost immediately.

Over the next couple of days his mental state became clear. He was depressed, felt isolated, but needed to get out of the Army town where he’s been living, to spend time with people who weren’t associated with the horrors he’s experienced over the past decade.

He didn’t say much at first, but in the quiet on my son’s deck one night he said some things about what he’d experienced that horrified my son. The next day I dropped in and the three of us chatted for awhile, and he said he needed to see someone for his depression.

The next morning my son was subdued. He’s just moved into a new house, is married and talking about babies. His mate is certainly financially set up after years in the Army, but it’s as if he’s starting his life all over again, with a metaphorical heavy pack that can be managed, but not forgotten or offloaded.

The third mate in the trio joined the Army several years ago, suffered a serious and disabling physical injury during an exercise in Australia, and is on the long road to recovery that appears to include no further active service with Australian Defence.

At this time of year we hear a lot about war and veterans, and the glorification of Gallipoli and Anzac Day by too many people, with little regard for actual facts about Australia’s involvement in either world war, or any of the subsequent wars and incursions where Australians have served.

A Senate inquiry looking at suicides among returning Australian veterans has so far received 373 submissions, many marked “Confidential”, by returned servicemen, their partners and groups providing support.

Many complain about the bureaucratic responses when veterans and their families seek help in a crisis. Many say they are not at all surprised at indications the suicide rate among veterans is climbing. The complaints include that deaths are reported as accidents or unexplained, that mask the true level of suicides among former service men and women.   

One submission is by psychiatrist Dr Nick Ford, a clinical lecturer at the University of Adelaide and also a reservist with the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps.

He writes about how families are not able to cope with the complexities of veterans dealing with post traumatic stress and depression. The burden of these relationship strains can be “catastrophic” for a fragile veteran, and “can lead them to feeling and being alone with exacerbated feelings of pain and helplessness”, Dr Ford said.

Another issue is the nature of contemporary wars and “the complexity of why we should or shouldn’t be there” which creates a moral dilemma for ex-service men and women expected to shrug off and forget horrific events when they return home.

When we say “Lest we forget” on Anzac Day we remember the dead, and it should be the dead on all sides, and the burden carried by family and friends when veterans return home.

But we should also never forget that all wars are ultimately tragedies. They represent a failure of humanity, and there’s no glory in that.