Frank Alcantara

Frank Alcantara was 14 years old when he joined the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in 1975 as a junior Navy Cadet recruit at HMAS Lonsdale in Victoria.

3 April 2020

Frank continued his Navy service by enlisting into the Full Time Navy at HMAS Cerberus in 1980. Serving as A Navy medic at several shore establishment and sea postings, till 1984, when the HMAS Melbourne, the vessel he was serving on, was decommissioned. Eleven years later he transferred to the Air Force in 1986. Between 1984 and 1986, awaiting transfer to the Air Force, he decided to undertake further Nursing Studies at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne.

Frank served all total 40 years in the ADF and worked his way up to the rank of Flight Sergeant. He deployed 13 times during his career, including: Rwanda for Operation TAMAR; East Timor; Kuwait; Iraq; Baghdad and the provinces; and all three destinations in Afghanistan (Taring Kowt and Kandahar, and Kabul). As well as numerous hundreds of hours of Aeromedical Evacuation Missions abroad, including amongst the first respondents to the Bali Bombings in 2002. In his closing years in the ADF, Frank was employed as a the Senior Medic at Health Operational Conversion Unit, teaching fellow Medics, Nursing Officers and Doctors in Aeromedical Evacuation studies and techniques.

Frank was part of the first crew to be trained in the Airforce in transition from the then current C130 Hercules, to the newer C17 Globemaster aircraft at Hickham Airforce base in Hawaii. This resulting in a very busy year of follow up cross training, of ADF personnel back in Australia on the new aircraft platform, its aviation engineering requirements and use of new medical equipment for the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO). In essence what the Airforce now had was a complete flyable Intensive Care Unit in the Air. As well, Frank helped then train current serving junior Medical Assistants, to newer and greater responsible duties as new generation Advanced Paramedical personnel. This allowing the ADF to utilise their greater training more effectively on garrison and deployed areas of operations.

Whilst in the Airforce, Frank was on several occasions loaned back to the Navy for specialist duties overseas due to his past Navy training, as well as medical and Linguist abilities. This including a large maritime chase, across the Great Southern Ocean, and South Atlantic in order to apprehend foreign Illegal Fishing Vessels. As well Frank is a fully qualified SERE Survival Instructor, serving three years at the ADF School of Survival Training.

During Frank’s deployments he witnessed terrible atrocities in Rwanda, East Timor and in Indonesia after the Bali bombings, which sadly resulted in his diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and medical discharge from the ADF in 2015 which made it very difficult to transition back into civilian life.   

‘One day I was in uniform and the next morning I woke up as a civilian, not really knowing what that was. I had been in uniform since I was 14; I actually still struggle with it today.’

‘I try and focus on the positive and try and turn the page on past events. I am a firm believer in embracing and understanding on what happened, whether it be bad or good. You can't really change the way you think if you apply yourself to a life of Mindfulness.’

Transition

‘A lightbulb went off one day and I decided to seek help, and I told myself I'm the only one who can turn the page and make a difference.’

Frank sought professional help and reached out to organisations that support veterans, such as Mates4Mates, Soldier On and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA).

‘I’d like to say that DVA has been wonderful. I won’t lie; it started off on a rocky boat on my day of discharge for some reason. My pension and everything didn't kick off for about 7 months and I was living off my own savings. Once the paperwork was finally concluded after chasing up an advocate and sorting everything out, DVA gave me the pension in retrospect and have been wonderful ever since.

‘I've got some physical health conditions now, stress fractures to my legs, loss of hearing, and Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia which I get treated for. DVA has always been there for me and my wife (who is my Carer), to attend specialist appointments and follow up treatments even if they are out of our home locality.’

Through Mates4Mates he completed the Kokoda Trail in New Guinea and made great new friendships. It was the first big milestone on his road to recovery.

Today, Frank focusses on his family and his five grandchildren. During his 40 years of service, he missed out on a lot of time with his wife and family as he was continuously deployed overseas. 

‘I’ve got five lovely grandkids now and I try to keep myself busy and useful surrounded by the five of them, helping the family out and trying to be here now. At least if I wasn’t there as a dad I can be here as a grandad.’

Looking to the future

Frank knows the importance of having something to look forward to, so he plans on organising a trip each year for himself. Due to Frank’s ex-navy, ex-linguist and medical background, he landed a spot on the HMB Endeavour and sailed from Sydney to Captain Cook’s beach at Taronga in New Zealand in 2019.

‘I think I need to set aside a trip or something, an event once a year that I can say this is for me, I'm doing something for myself, I'm not doing it for other people I'm doing it for my own mental health well-being.’

With both the Kokoda Trail and the HMB Endeavour now ticked off, Frank’s next adventure might be a trek to Mount Everest in Nepal. Something he has always wanted to do.

Advice for transitioning

Frank is a big advocate of seeking help and utilising services available to veterans. He also says it is crucial that members have to want to be helped.

‘You really need to just give the system a chance. If you need treatment then basically embrace it, go through the steps of self-healing and you will get rewards out of it. But it has to be that you want to do it.

‘If there are people struggling out there, all they have to do is put their hand up, pick up the phone, call one of the health centres and say “I need help”, and then follow through with that help.

‘Check in with organisations such as Soldier On or Mates4Mates. Get a GP referral so you can get yourself onto trauma recovery courses and PTSD courses, alcohol abuse programs, anger programs, that’s the first step. You need to go through that myriad of treatments first and get yourself better before you can try to do anything after that.’

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.