Richie Neal — building a new career

Active service within my first year

I joined the Army in October 1998. I went to Kapooka for training then joined 3RAR (3RD Battalion Royal Australian Regiment). I went over on active service to East Timor the following year in 1999, so within the first 12 months of finishing my training, I was on active service and ended up doing 2 years in Timor. I was a Rifleman and then I learned how to speak Timorese and did some interpreting for the training team. Because I knew the language I was asked to spend some time as an interpreter for the intelligence cell for the Battalion.

Non-stop injuries halted my career

My first major injury was early into my career when I fractured my back. However around 2005 to 2008, I just had non-stop injuries. I fractured my neck and it went on from there. My worst injury though was when I first tore my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in my knee. I just had a horrendous time after the first ACL, just a terrible recovery. I could never straighten the knee again. I also tore the groin tendon and then I needed hip surgery. So I had right knee surgery as well as my back injury and since then I have had around 20 surgeries, including two ACL reconstructions and a failed High Tibial Osteotomy. I remember the medical officer of my unit just said "let’s look at a medical discharge for you, what do you reckon?" I said, "I think it is a good idea".

Watching my mates in action was demoralising

I was medically discharged in February 2010, with my multiple injuries taking their toll. I was ready to transition out of the Army. I had been plagued by injuries at that point and I hated watching my mates and colleagues undertaking normal duties, operations, exercises and I would be staying back undertaking battalion guard duty and things like that. It felt demoralising, and it really started playing with my mental health at that time.

I didn’t really know what to expect or what was really going on when I saw the person from DVA. I just remember going out and talking to someone for 20 minutes or so and really not grasping what was happening, how the process worked or anything. In hindsight it would have been better to get that information earlier. Early intervention would have been better for me because towards the end of my career in the Army there were just so many other things I was worried about.

I felt completely isolated

I have had to rehabilitate on a couple of occasions since leaving the Army, in 2010 after knee surgery and again in 2013 after more surgeries. I had a tough time with my knee. I went away for surgery for what was supposed to be a few weeks and due to complications, my recovery turned into 7 months. I was also having relationship problems. I suffered a relationship breakdown and was separated from my kids as well, which was really hard.

My brother was really my only support in 2013, but he was away with work quite a bit, so it was hard for him to support me when I was pretty much unable to do anything after surgery. I was pretty much on the lounge by myself, bombing away on my medication. So I was pretty much by myself a lot of the time.

It was horrendous, all I could do was dial in pizzas because I couldn’t even stand up in the kitchen to make myself anything, it was that bad. I put on about 15 kilos and was on Oxycodone every day.

I felt completely isolated. When I could get on a plane, I ended up flying to my mum’s place in Melbourne and lived there for about a month. I had some friends that would come around and visit me, but the social disconnectedness was just terrible.

Getting up with nothing to do was a major challenge

I was really motivated in the Army and I went from that to feeling like I had no purpose anymore. Getting up with nothing to do, that was a major challenge. I had no goal. I didn’t know what career I wanted to go to.

I really missed being around motivated people all the time. All of a sudden I was unmotivated and I felt socially disconnected from all my mates. I was just going off having operations by myself and sitting at home injured doing nothing.

I wanted a lifetime career in the Army but couldn’t do that. So I went away and thought about what else I could do and a lot of negative thoughts crept in. At the end of the day, I just thought I’m better than this.

Working to my strengths

I got out of the Army with absolutely no idea of what I wanted to do. I had some really stupid ideas, like I wanted to be a plumber…with these knees. I just wanted to get out and start afresh with no thought of whether my body could handle it or not.

I was pretty fortunate actually, I was always really good at English as a subject at school and quite a good writer. Twelve years as a Private in the Army though, I didn’t work on my writing skills. So it took some time to get my computer and writing skills back up.

I decided that I wanted to study business for a start, so I was able to put together a really good case as to why I wanted to do the business course and it started from there really.

The main reason though I got back into work in the first place, was that it wasn’t good for my mental health being unemployed. I knew I had to do something.

Putting my suit on

After I finished my course, I had a few rejections from jobs I applied for which was a hit to the ego. I applied for a few low level jobs and was knocked back. It was very demoralising, because I thought well if I can’t get a really basic job, what can I get? I just thought, I am 35 years old and I can’t even get a start in a low level sales or marketing job.  

I then decided to put my suit on and go and see the recruitment agencies. I found out then that my resume wasn’t that good and that it was all military. A big thing about getting a job, was also transferring what I did in the military and transcribing that into civilian language. It’s all good to say I can read maps and shoot guns but how does that help for a civilian job? The business course that DVA put me through helped a lot with those things though.

Working in construction

DVA were really good with my rehabilitation and retraining in the civilian world. Most of the delay was me having no clue what I was going to do when I got out. When I first got out, I blamed the system, which made things worse. Then I realised that the system is there to help you get back into work, but it will only work if you put in the effort to get back to where you want to be.

I am now a Health, Safety and Environment Coordinator for Probuild Constructions in Sydney after recently moving on from Richard Crookes Constructions and I am lucky to be working as part of team building the highest residential tower in Sydney. I am responsible for advising the site team across a couple of projects and on the health and safety side of things.

Studying opened up my eyes

Doing the study on business and marketing really opened up my eyes to these things. I sat on my lounge for 6 months doing nothing, when I could have been running my own business from home. Getting some income coming in, keeping busy, and learning new skills.

I wish I knew what I know now and I probably could have looked into running my own internet business when I was off my feet. I really think you can learn the skills needed to run a business from home, even through social media.

There are other things out there to do, to keep you busy. I’ve really got into LinkedIn Learning at the moment, which offers online courses you can do at your own pace.

Living with my injuries

I live with my injuries now, but they still cause me a fair amount of pain on some days. I used to be very physically fit. My passion was running. Unfortunately I can’t do that anymore. I can play with the kids, but I can’t run around and kick the soccer ball much with them anymore. That is frustrating.

I will need a knee replacement in the future, so that worries me a little. I try not to think about it too much, but I know there will be a time in the future, when I will have to get that done. I do feel a huge amount of responsibility as well, not doing activities that could hurt my knee, because I’ve got a family to support, so I know the days of downhill mountain bike riding and running may be over.

I’m at a stage in my life, where I feel like I’m re-starting. My career has just started. I loved the Army, but I have got to learn to leave it behind me.