Brian Kajewski — winning my battle

Photo of Brian Kajewski

Experience in the Army and the Reserves

I spent my service in both the Army and the Reserves. I began in the Reserves in 1985. Back in those days, you didn't have to do your training at Kapooka and I did my training at Jezzine Barracks in Townsville.

I did a mix of part-time and full-time service. I was doing shift work and my employer wasn't very supportive. This made it hard to continue to be a member of the Reserves, so after nine years of service I reluctantly had to give it away in 1996.

My circumstances changed a few years later when I went to a Military Police Corp reunion and my old company commander encouraged me to re-enlist. So with his sponsorship I re-enlisted in 2001. I initially struggled when I re-enlisted, as I'd been out for a long time and found it difficult to get back into training. I ended up doing a corp transfer to Transport and I was then posted to 1RAR in the Transport Platoon.

From there I deployed to East Timor, came back from East Timor and was transferred to Puckapunyal and was then deployed to Banda Aceh in 2005.

I didn't really want to leave the Army but family circumstances meant I had to leave, and I transferred to the Standby Reserves. I then moved back to Brisbane and got a job driving trucks interstate.

Easy transfer of skills to civilian life

It wasn't too hard to adjust when I left, because it was pretty similar to what I had been doing in Service. Probably looking back on it, I was on my own a lot and was responsible for my own time management in getting jobs done so that was pretty much a similar experience and what I was trained to do in the Army.

In the Army, I would often drive trucks where I was detached from my own unit and have to attach to other units to run special operations all on my own. Essentially I was doing the roles that usually would be done by Corporal Sergeants and Lieutenants in service, so that type of responsibility held me in good stead for civilian work and expectations. I prided myself on doing the best job possible.

When my first-born child was 2 years old, I decided to give up the interstate job and get a local job, which I did for a couple of years. I didn't mind it. It was less pay but the hours were flexible and I bought myself a Japanese motorbike and used to love riding it every day to work for my early morning starts.

Out of nowhere — PTSD hit me like a ton of bricks

Then one day, I went to work, made myself a cup of tea and then just out of nowhere, something came over me and I had a meltdown then and there, and dropped into a heap on the ground. I was found by one of my workmates. The bosses drove me home and my workmate rode my bike home.

When I got home, my wife was put onto DVA, who then sent a car over to my place and took me to my GP. But my GP was on holidays. Filling in for him was a regular Army Major. He knew straight away what was going on and the next day I was in hospital where I stayed for the next three months.

I didn't think there was anything wrong with me. It just hit me like a ton of bricks. I've never cried so much in my life. Before my episode, I never cried, but since I have been diagnosed with PTSD I have been so emotional. I've felt like an emotional wreck. My whole adult life up until then I never cried, not when people died, not when I got injured, nothing. I just didn't know what was going on, it was a confusing situation. My Psychiatrist told me that I would never work again, I was just a mess. I then entered into a Psychiatric Unit. That was when I had to start trialing medication, lots of different drugs, some drugs didn't work and sent me into ‘zombie land'. It was just a confusing time.

The Army had always been my passion

I was saddened when finally I had to discharge from the Reserves. The Army has always been my passion. I didn't know anything about DVA to begin with, but when I found out more about it I did what I needed to do. I went to my first interview with my rehab provider.

My consultant was excellent, she made me feel comfortable. This is really a big thing for a veteran, feeling comfortable and especially important if you have PTSD. She really worked out how to get the best out of me, she really had a positive effect on me and we got positive results. I feel my rehabilitation consultant played a very integral part in my success to this point in my recovery. She got me started and provided the encouragement and support I needed to get me to a point where I successfully completed my goals in my rehab plan.

Kung Fu helped get me active  

From there I found a new support outlet with my Martial Arts, firstly in Kung Fu and was able to include that as part of my rehab plan. I started off training two nights a week, but I was enjoying it so much that two nights a week wasn't enough and after 12 months of doing Kung Fu, I decided to move to another school to learn Wing Chun.

What I love about Martial Arts is that it builds character, self-discipline and self-confidence. It gave me all those sorts of things. All the attributes that you want to develop into your community and life in general. I have found it has really helped with my condition. While I was doing this, it gave me the confidence to go back and instruct Military Cadets, which is something I also loved. So I went from doing nothing at all in 12 months, from hiding away at home to being quite active again.

Having a Dad with PTSD

The big thing for me was that I'm not the person I was before. I was very proud of who I was, I was very capable, I had a good reputation and I was very proud of that. Ever since I was diagnosed with PTSD I feel like I got dumber and dumber every single day, physically weaker and mentally weaker. It just brings to the forefront of your mind, what your situation is and what you used to be.

I feel like my illness has impacted on my family. I have two daughters aged 12 and 8 years of age and they have grown up with me having PTSD. Over the years, my symptoms like my mood swings, my quick temper, anxiety and severe depression, has had an effect on their lives. Other children in normal families cannot comprehend what it is like to have a father with PTSD. I mean, recently I have gone a long way to improving myself, but I believe that the years of me being at home with PTSD has impacted my family.

Some things DVA could learn from

I haven't had any particularly bad experiences with DVA, but I guess from the experiences I have had, the system is a bit daunting. It seems complicated and I tend to avoid it unless I really need it.

I know myself that asking a veteran with PTSD to do paperwork … well they won't do it. With my condition, the worse I got, the simple things were harder to do. You get overwhelmed so easily.

I think it is also vital for people with PTSD, that where possible, the same DVA staff are dealing with veterans, so they don't have to tell their story over and over again. Every time I got a new co-ordinator, I had to start again and build up that trust, which is very important for someone with a mental illness and I'm sure other veterans in my situation are the same.

Winning my battle

The one thing I've learned, is regardless of the situation, it doesn't matter if you can't go forward in leaps and bounds, if you are only taking one or two steps forward or even a step backwards, as long as you can focus on moving forward with intent then that is a step in the right direction. Find out what will motivate you in your recovery to give you some drive to build up yourself so you can enjoy life, get your pride back, your independence.

I have amazed people and myself with what I've been able to achieve so far, but I understand I still have a way to go. I feel I am winning my battle. My symptoms are not as bad as they were before and I've improved a lot, but I understand that I still suffer from PTSD and I need to maintain my health.

Open Arms — Veterans & Families 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 Open Arms.