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Mark Toogood — post-traumatic growth

I signed up during school holidays

I joined the Army Reserves in 1997, after I initially joined recruit training during my Year 11 and Year 12 holidays. I started in the Army Reserves, however East Timor kicked off in 1999 and I had the opportunity to help out with that, so off I went.

I was initially a Petroleum Operator, so I re-fueled aircraft and that sort of thing and that is what I did when I deployed to East Timor in 2001. I was a Section Commander in charge of a group of soldiers who were re-fueling helicopters on the border of East and West Timor. I've always had an interest in aircraft and talked to a lot of pilots. One of them who I was friendly with, recommended that I try out for Aircrew. So from there I went through pilot selection. I went to RMC (Royal Military College) and completed initial flight training. Unfortunately I washed out due to medical reasons.

Learning the lingo

So then I had basically two weeks to decide what to do with my future. I had the choice of returning to RMC and choosing another Corp, or discharge out of the Army. So I thought I would discharge to the Reserves and take some time to think about what I wanted to do next. I was always interested in languages, so I re-joined the Army in Electronic Warfare. During this time I learned Indonesian, Arabic and Timorese. From there I was deployed to Iraq as a Linguist. I became crook after returning from Iraq and I was medically discharged in 2009.

Leaving the Army with PTSD

When I left the Army I felt broken, shattered. It was really very distressing, both because of the fact that I was medically discharging and I didn't have any control over that. So that was a very difficult time in my life.

One of the difficult things with PTSD is the element of depression that can come with it. You have just discharged from the Military. You have this strong self-identity as a service person that has suddenly been taken away from you. When you're in the Military, you don't have exposure to the civilian world, so you don't have that link to develop a new identity. Without that identity you don't have a strong sense of self worth.

Getting some context of who I am

When I discharged from the Military and moved away from all my military friends, I had no friends in the civilian world. I was completely isolated to be honest. The other people I ended up hanging around were also other people in the Rehab system. It wasn't always healthy, because quite often they were in a bad spot as well and at times that led to all of us all reinforcing our worst behaviours. It wasn't until I really broke free of that and made a strong effort to associate with people who were very different to me that I started to get some context of who I was. It wasn't that I wanted to be part of very different groups, it was more about helping me understand myself.

Getting a support network outside of my family was important because the whole carer fatigue angle is really corrosive to family relationships. They want to care for you and they want to support you but at the same time it is a massive burden. It wears your family down, which is very bad for them. But it also made me feel quite bad as well. It made me think, look at what I'm doing to these people.

Navigating the process & being ill was too difficult

I knew next to nothing about DVA. It wasn't until I needed to apply to DVA for healthcare and incapacity payments, that sort of thing that I started to find out. Having to navigate the process and being quite ill at times made it difficult to understand what was happening. I found the process extremely difficult for someone with a mental illness. It left me not knowing how to fill out a form or what to submit. I guess also just not having effective support to navigate those challenges was the hardest thing.

My wife is currently a serving member and we moved to Melbourne in 2011. DVA put me onto Commonwealth Rehab Services (a rehabilitation company). They were really good, my rehabilitation consultant was fantastic. They helped me with getting into TAFE. A lot of my work in Intelligence involved geographic information systems, so we looked at transferring those skills. I started as a Surveyor, but it didn't work out for me.

Developing an interest in marketing

I then found a role at a start-up company involving veteran employment. I then found a niche in marketing and advertising, which is what I have now moved on to. That interest led to communications, how people communicate and then I got interested in marketing, because I actually disliked a lot of things that marketing did! It had also linked up with some of the work I had done in electronic warfare when I was in Service - dealing with people, statistics and behaviours. This role also allowed me to get experience in things like running social media campaigns, writing advertising copy, writing press releases, talking to journalists. So all that came about through on the job training, which I was able to adapt to quite rapidly.

That's not a knife, this is a knife

I currently work at Tharwa Valley Forge just outside Canberra and they run knife making courses. I had always been interested in knife making and one day my wife bought me a gift certificate for a two and half day knife making course. I went and did the course and I made two kitchen knives.

From there I found out that they were looking to hire an extra person. I was really keen and really drawn to the role given that I can work with my hands and be creative! Fortunately for me, my Defence background and my marketing background was really helpful. Initially I started out doing some workshop stuff, but once I got comfortable around the guys at the Forge I moved into the marketing side of things doing web development and social media campaigns.

A lot of veterans have come out to do courses off their own bat and we are seeing an increasing number of veterans coming through. We have a great interest in the veteran community, as I know myself the benefits in making something with your hands. It is an achievement and there is that positive reinforcement, that 'hey, I made this'.

Coming out here and making things from scratch, you start viewing yourself as not really a craftsman or an artist but as someone who is worthwhile. You can create things. You can make things. You also meet other people that are doing the same thing. There are people who aren't from the Military and that helps you see where you fit in with them. You really find out who you are and where you fit in the wide world.

Be proud of your military service

I think rehabilitation it is very individual. The main thing I learned though is to maintain connections with your military friends for support and be proud of your military service. Don't be afraid to break out from that once you are discharged. Find out who you are. It might be uncomfortable at times to do that, but while you don't have to necessarily make new friends, you need to try new things. Put yourself in different contexts to see what works for you and find what makes you comfortable. Fitting into the civilian world is hard and you are going to break things, but that is fine.

One of the clichés around Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is post-traumatic growth. It's not to say I'm happy I have PTSD, but I am very grateful for the experience it has given me and the side of life it has shown me. I've had some very bad times, but I've learnt a lot from that. I have also learned a lot about myself and who I am. For me, I have gotten better by learning more about myself and where I fit into the world. Finding myself was what really made the difference.

Tharwa Valley Forge has been announced as a recipient in the latest round of DVA's Veteran and Community Grants (VC&G) program. This grant program supports activities and services to that sustain or enhance health and wellbeing in the veteran community. More information on the VC&G program can be found via the DVA website.

Open Arms - Veteran & Family Counselling (formerly VVCS), is a national mental health service that provides 24-hour free and confidential counselling, group programs, and suicide prevention training for current and ex-serving ADF members, and their family. To get support, or to find out more, call 1800 011 046 or visit the Open Arms web site

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