I accumulated many injuries over time, a lot of wear and tear. I've had surgery three times, both knees and a right shoulder, which ended up building to Chronic Pain Syndrome. Following on from that, I developed Major Depressive Disorder as well.
I wasn't well versed on DVA at first. I only really became aware of DVA after 8 years of service, a corps transfer and multiple injuries that were beginning to get the better of me. Following my last round of knee surgery I couldn't run, I couldn't really function that well. That was really the first time that I began looking at DVA very seriously. I started to think about things like compensation, how am I going to move forward? Can I work again?
I found with DVA that, once you have your compensation claims through, it's good, claiming is the long process. As far as compensation goes, it's one of the best in the world, so it makes sense for it to be a rigorous process. However, many of us are not in a good mental state and simply cannot endure a lengthy involved process. Once your claims are accepted and you are receiving services, from that point it is really good.
My journey to recovery was not an easy one
My journey to recovery was not an easy one. I ended up in a very bad place, an emotional breakdown, at the point of suicide. After a few hours I pieced myself together and called a mate I had served with in Afghanistan because I knew he had been going through PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). I had a chat to him and he was the one that talked me into getting some help. He probably saved my life, I don't know if would have survived a second breakdown.
After my breakdown, I struggled a lot with anxiety to the extent that I would have to sit in the car for 20 minutes having to psyche myself up to go and get the groceries and rush back out again. I was a mess.
Nobody knew the state I was in
The thing about me was that nobody knew the state I was in. I hid it away from everyone, putting the happy smiling mask on each day and turning up for work. They knew I was in a lot of pain because of the pain medication I was on and I was a bit withdrawn, but they didn't know the depths of it. Unfortunately I think there is a stigma still attached to mental illness in the military. It was a bit of a shock to them when I finally showed up to the OC (Officer Commanding) and Warrant Officer (WO) and said ‘this is the go and this is what has happened over the weekend, I've just been to see the Doc and I'll be going off to see a psychiatrist to start addressing these issues'. I kept this close as I continued rehabilitation in the military and only talked about it with others in rehabilitation. My OC and WO were great, they supported me where they could and didn't make a big issue of the situation. While I was in such a state of chaos, it was the best thing they could have done.
My support network saved my life
About 3 months later, I got together with my partner, she was full-time military as well, and we had been friends for a couple of years. As we became more serious, I told her what was happening and where I was at. I thought at the time that that would be the end of our relationship, but she fully supported me and we have been together ever since. Her support of me has been amazing.
Looking back on it now, I think that if I didn't have the support of my mate and my partner I just would have cycled back around. So I'm very fortunate.
After the medical discharge, I had a couple of months of not doing too much, not getting out. Eventually I got the courage and saw Bronson Horan, who was with Soldier On in Adelaide at the time. I then started doing some volunteer work for Soldier On and, since I was qualified as a personal trainer, I was able to offer my services running their health and fitness program. It was through doing that that I first became involved in the veteran community.
As a result of that work, I was given the opportunity to go to the Invictus Games in England. I was starting to get some control over my anxiety and depression and felt I had reached a point where I was ready to take this challenge. Participating in the Invictus Games was a turning point for me, it was an amazing journey. One of the best things was that it was confronting.
Winning gold at the Invictus Games
It was amazing to see all the American, British and Canadian teams turn up. There were 12 countries there and it was confronting to see the number of amputees, wheelchairs, burns and scars. It was phenomenal seeing all these people compete and it put a lot of things in perspective. Everyone on the Australian team, they saw that too. It just made everyone reassess themselves, it was a bit of a reality check. I think that is one of the strongest things about the Invictus Games.
I had a very strong swimming background prior to enlisting so I did alright in the pool. I almost passed out in the indoor rowing though! It was brutal and horrible. I was much better at the swimming, being a bit easier on the joints and my physical injuries. I ended up with a Gold, Silver and Bronze for the swimming, so one of each which was nice.
A new opportunity presents itself
The connections I made at the Invictus Games have turned out to be great personal and professional networks. That's how I ended up getting the job I'm in now. I was still in South Australia at the time and about 3 months after the Games I received a phone call enquiring about my interest for a position assisting Veterans at Dee Why RSL Club. Therefore, the Invictus Games for me was a massive life changing event.
I accepted the job in Sydney, where I am currently the Centre Manager at the Veterans' Centre — Sydney Northern Beaches. The Northern Beaches area and the advocates that specialise in compensation and welfare for veterans. I'm quite lucky I've got a few good mentors in the RSL Club who have guided and educated me which, in turn, has helped me to significantly progress my rehabilitation. It has been a big challenge personally and professionally but one I am enjoying.
I went through a bit of a rough patch when I first moved to Sydney. It was difficult moving away from my support network in Adelaide and having to establish one in a new city. Re-establishing those support networks is a problem that everyone in my position faces. Finding the right medical specialists that understand the military experience is a big barrier and, in particular, finding the right psychiatrist can take time. The whole thing didn't happen quickly and, because of my conditions, it took me quite a few months to recover from the move — it was a big adjustment. It was a slow process, but eventually I got there.
While the Invictus Games was a major turning point for me, the other was during my medical discharge where I completed a Pain Management course through the ADF. At the time I was cycling on a lot of pain medications and that course gave me the strength and tools to get off those pain medications, which I've been off ever since. So, for me, the Invictus Games and the Pain Management course were two of the major things that changed my life.
Rehabilitation can be a frustrating challenge
I faced many challenges with my rehabilitation. I had the obvious ones that were associated with my conditions, the motivation to get better, to move on with my life, as well as the frustrations of being limited with my conditions. Once I was finally medically discharged, I went into the DVA rehabilitation program, was assigned a rehabilitation coordinator and we looked at a number of options to work out what careers I would want to do post discharge. It didn't work at first because I tried to run my own fitness business, which was probably a bit stubborn and unrealistic looking back on it. At the time I thought that it was really the only option that was viable for me. After a couple of months it finally sunk in that this wasn't going to work, it was too demanding on my body, so basically I had to re-assess where do I go from here? I adjusted my rehabilitation plan to look at more office type roles which was better suited to my conditions.
The frustration during that period was a challenge. Not knowing what it was that I wanted to do and not being able to change in myself enough so I was able to move forward. I felt even all the specialist appointments that I needed to attend was such a grind. It felt like a part-time job in itself. It was a difficult place to be and I can really relate to others who are medically discharged and having a tough time finding where they fit in. You just end up in this horrible mental state, every morning just becomes such a challenge to get motivated. Even now I still feel it is a bit of a grind, but you just have to keep trying, keep pushing your boundaries. You really need to push things pretty far, to the cliff's edge, just to that point but not go over it, so it's a real challenge to keep that balance.
How do I engage socially?
I had been in the ADF from straight out of school, so community integration was something I haven't had to do before. Trying to have those social connections back into civilian life when you've been in the military for so long was difficult. Having to engage with people just socially in a different environment, essentially in a different language is very tough. It's a very steep learning curve.
It is a big challenge because your whole environment changes. Military life is unique, however, this shelters you from gaining many life experiences civilians take for granted. You have been trained to act and think a certain way, plus all the postings around Australia don't really promote community integration. We have our military community after all. Then all of a sudden you have discharged, you must be your own driving force, dictate how you will earn an income, figure out how the health system works. There is no more safety net or structured routine unless you create it. Prior to discharge, I was trying to get more involved in the community, prepare resumes and for job interviews, all the things I needed to do to prepare for life outside of service. It was still a big learning curve.
Making progress — being aware of your boundaries
I have made quite a lot of progress this year which has been fantastic. Staying in a routine has been vital. When I have been in a dark place, establishing a routine has been something that has helped me. Maintaining good habits, like committing to my medical appointments and keeping these things in check with regular maintenance. All those bits and pieces that make up what life is about, it's really just been a continuation of sustaining those good habits.
Submitting compensation claims early is my best advice. As early as you can and ask around and find a good Veterans' Advocate. It makes a big difference and minimises mistakes being made and decreases the chances of delays happening with your claims.
Secondly, take the time you need to recover properly. Don't jump back in too quickly and burn yourself out when you know you aren't ready. Be aware of your boundaries and pacing yourself so you can function better over the course of a day. By all means push yourself out of those comfort zones, but don't push yourself over the edge. Once you have those two things, you can adapt that to your rehabilitation, your social life and your working life. Self-awareness and self-motivation is the key.
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
DVA pays for treatment for certain mental and physical health conditions without the need for the conditions to be accepted as related to service. This is known as non-liability health care (NLHC). For more information visit Treatment of your health conditions—Non-Liability Health Care or view Factsheet HSV109 - Non-Liability Health Care.