Brendan Hardman is the Relationship Officer at the Hospital Research Foundation in Adelaide. He spent nearly eight years in the Australian Army as an artillery officer and deployed to Afghanistan. He thoroughly enjoys his job, and has come to terms with being medically discharged from the Army. But it wasn’t an easy process.
It sounds kind of cliché but I wanted to be an officer in the Army so I could help others. I wanted to try and develop the people who work for me. I joined a little bit later than most people do, I was 22, and I felt like I’d found my place. These skills to help people were developed early at the Royal Military College, and I focused on leadership and being able to relate and being able to communicate with people.
I hurt my back while serving. Transitioning out of the Army – well, out of the military in general – is a pretty hard process [even] for someone who doesn't have any medical ailments. When they're discharging and then transitioning into civilian life it's a huge shock. For someone transitioning with physical and, for me, mental injuries as well, it’s really hard. I really struggled with it.
I had two spinal surgeries so when I actually discharged I couldn't really walk properly. I was confined to the house for a few months and I had a walking stick for quite a while. I was also suffering from severe depression and severe anxiety, which helped confine me to the house. It was a struggle to just get out of bed. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress that I realised I’d spent a long time letting things get bottled up.
It was during this period that I was heavily medicated on opioids and developed an addiction to them. I had a long road to recovery; these things all had a big impact on my life. But certainly from where I was then and where I am now is a hell of a lot different.
When you're medically discharged, you go from having a career one day to having nothing the next day. It was like there was a huge gap in my life and it became increasingly challenging for me. It didn't really matter how my physical rehabilitation was going, my mental rehabilitation became really challenging for me. It kind of built up to the point in 2017 when I nearly took my own life.
Making a plan
But that then meant that although it was probably one of the most challenging periods in my life, the next few months became one of the proudest because I really got stuck into my rehabilitation both mentally and physically. I said I don't ever want to be in that position again
We set up a plan through my rehabilitation program, with my rehabilitation company as well as with my psychologist that we were going to get myself off of medication. I wanted to get myself back into physical activity again. I haven't looked back since that day.
Through my rehabilitation company and then through DVA I had a lot of access to things like physical rehabilitation so I [went] to the physio five or six times a week, doing Pilates, hydrotherapy, mindfulness and physio. Also I had access to some really good help from my psychiatrist, which was again through DVA.
Working with DVA
Were there challenges going through the process? Probably yes but I think that’s probably an administration type of thing rather than a DVA thing. But I do think I do feel that the direction they’re going in now especially the online claim form and so forth [shows] a real positive shift in mindset.
[When it comes to making a claim] it’s not a matter of making up things, it's just a matter of assessing what it is you need in your life. And how do I go about doing that? Some great assets that you can use are things like rehabilitation companies that DVA assigns you when you discharge because they have a really good understanding of the process.
Advocates, if you can find a really good advocate, they’re great to use. Unfortunately I’ve had some good and bad experiences with advocates throughout my time, which delayed the claim.
I would say if you have people that you really trust who've been through the process then that is also an asset as well. However, don't rely on those people because everyone's case is completely different and something that applies to you might not apply to me.
But the other thing is, just give DVA a call. Half my issues have been solved by just getting on the phone to DVA and saying I don't understand what this process is. And DVA were great. I had a rep that day send me the information I needed. They then called me at every single stage of the process.
Changing your mindset
The biggest issue that veterans have is that we block everything out. We don't talk about things. We go through our whole career where we are taught to push things down, because you need to be always ready to go at a moment’s notice. And make calls that sometimes can affect people's lives. And so you don’t have time to deal with emotions.
So my wife was really the first person who said to me, you need to go get help because something isn't right.
A big thing for me was that I had to learn how to deal with my emotions. I had to learn how to be able to restructure my thoughts. The one I used to tell myself is, this is a now thing, not a forever thing. This is what I'm going through now. But I'm not going to let this be with me forever.
And I had a great support network through my rehabilitation like through my psychiatrist. Also, earlier this year I did a course through The Road Home called the Stair Program, which is aimed at teaching veterans how to deal with their emotions. They allow you to develop a tool bag that you can use any time to be able to deal with challenges that you get every day.
I was with fit in the Army until I started to have back problems so slowly things started to get taken out of my life. Like I can't run any more. I can’t jump. So I can’t play ‘everybody sport’ any more. But there are so many other things in the world you can do. So you just have to identify something that you love and something that you’re passionate about and it's just as fulfilling.
I was very lucky that a week after I had [contemplated taking my own life], a friend of mine who runs programs at The Road Home reached out to me and said, do you want to try wheelchair basketball. That was a huge turning point for me.
I don't need to play everybody sport now. I play disabled sport.
A big part of being in the military is that you're part of a team where you feel you can rely on those people around you. Team sports and the military – there's a huge [similarity]. Obviously the context is completely different. But the way that the camaraderie is, the way that the teams function, the bonding that they have is very, very similar.
Some advice to anyone going through [the transition to civilian life] is you need to replace [that military camaraderie]. Team sports is definitely a way you could do that.
I want to do things that could make me better as a human being and basketball is one of those things. It makes me fitter and it make me healthier. It adds to my lifestyle and helps my mindset.
I was able to go and represent Australia for the Invictus Games last year. I've also just represented Australia at the Warrior Games. And I hope to represent Australia again next year in the Netherlands.
If you’d have looked at me 18 months ago you would have said there's no way I could possibly be doing what I’m doing now. And half of that is down to being part of a team sport environment.
As a part of my rehabilitation I got access to the recognised learning pathway. And so I was able to use the skills that I had already developed in the Army and I was able to apply those to gain educational certificates, and DVA funded that process.
I think there'll be a time when I do further study because I think it will add to my career and add to that mantra of always trying to develop myself. I definitely know those certificates helped me get my foot in the door for jobs. It's one of the things are really hard to do – translating the skills from the military and putting them on paper and turning them into what a civilian job looks like.
When I first discharged from the military, DVA put me in touch with my rehabilitation service provider. They were able to help me get a lot of vocational training and vocational assessments. Plus ergonomic assistance when I actually got a job.
They also matched me with jobs, especially back when I was suffering from bad anxiety, and I do still suffer really badly from anxiety. They were able to call those places for me and just get my foot in the door and say hey we've got this veteran here who’s really good at this. He has a bit of anxiety around coming in and speaking to someone so can we organise a meeting. And they would happily go with me to the meeting.
Advice for anyone transitioning…
Transitioning is tough. My advice is: work out where you want to be in ten years’ time and then work backwards from there. We do a lot of planning in the military. Everything we do is structured and planned out. And when you get out of the military, that entire structure disappears and it's just you. So a lot of people fall in a heap and I did the exact same thing for years.
And so you need to understand that [being in the ADF is not] who you are. The way I should have looked at it was that I'm Brendan who just happens to be an Army officer. However, I'm also a great family person, I’m a great friend. I loved playing footy, I loved being involved in sport. Your work isn't necessarily the be-all and end-all.
And so once you restructure that in your mind, it's just a matter of putting one step in front of the other, and keeping that momentum going. And as soon as you do that then things will start to change in your life.
…and for those who’ve been medically discharged
The advice I'd give to someone who is medically discharged is firstly that when you’re going through the process understand what it is that you are claiming for. So, go to a doctor and get the proper diagnosis so you can access the right treatment.
The second thing I would say is that don't [just consider] the things that are bad now. A lot of people when they come out of the military go one of two ways. They either try and claim for everything because they’re worried about their future or they claim for nothing because they're too proud to put up their hand and say they've got something wrong. The thing you need to think about is in 10 years’ time or in 15 years’ time when you're trying to kick around the footy or something with your kids and you can't do that. That's what you're protecting against.
And so, have a clear mindset when you go through the DVA process of what it is you're claiming for and what it is that you need to be able to demonstrate to get that claim across the line.
Remember that no-one at DVA hates you. It's not their job to sit there and say that you don't deserve this or you don't deserve that. Don’t take it out on the staff because they will help you as much as they can.
Also, use the online services (MyService) because it is really simple to use. Not every advocate out there is going to do the best job for you. Not every advocate understands what it is that you're suffering from. So they’re a great way to get you in the door but if you can educate yourself about what it is that you need to do then you can actually be in control of your own process and your own life. Because in the end, this doesn't affect anyone else; it affects you.
Find a purpose
You need to be able to restructure the purpose in your life and find something that you want to achieve. Set yourself some goals. My purpose is I just want to continue to help people. Okay, how can I do that? So I do a variety of things. I run my own podcast. I work for a charity. I volunteer my time to help veterans, whether it's through a mentoring program, whether it's through sport and in helping the coach and helping to facilitate people getting into wheelchair basketball. I live a purposeful life that I have set myself.
So it's being able to understand that there's a greater purpose to my life. And then having that tool bag that I have, that I can call upon anytime to deal with emotions. That's what gets me through.
If this story has raised any issues for you, please contact Open Arms – Veterans and Families Counselling, which provides support for current and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families. Free and confidential help is available 24/7. Phone 1800 011 046 (international: +61 8 8241 4546) or visit www.OpenArms.gov.au.