In 1994-95, Australia sent two contingents of medical and support units into Rwanda after the United Nations withdrew troops and peacekeeping forces amid mounting violence. One of the nurses sent to help was Robyn Green, a now retired Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) veteran who is enjoying life after active service and a career that took her to four continents across the world. While Robyn says her transition from service was a positive experience, it wasn’t as easy as she expected.
Early days in the Australian Defence Force (ADF)
Robyn joined the Army Reserves in 1986 and subsequently entered the army on full time duties, and then transferred to the RAAF in 1991, as her partner was transferring to the RAAF from the Royal Australian Navy. As a nursing officer in the RAAF, she was trained in aeromedical evacuations and advanced trauma nursing, but her specialty was as an operating room nurse. Robyn had worked to set up the army’s Parachute Surgical Team for the Army Reserves, and was selected to help develop the RAAF’s air transportable surgical suite. After that, she moved to the RAAF base in Edinburgh, South Australia to commission the establishment of a day surgery operating theatre, which was a fabulous experience. ‘I felt lucky that I was able to work in the field of my speciality in the Australian Defence Force (ADF)’.
Being deployed to Rwanda
Then 25 years ago, after having just completed the advanced trauma nurse course, she was selected to go to Rwanda for the peacekeeping operation – Operation TAMAR. ‘I was based in Rwanda’s capital city and headed up a team in Central Hospital Kigali, running three wards; an orthopaedic ward, and male and female surgical wards. I did a lot of hands-on care and trained a lot of the local staff who were not fully qualified. Because there were so few of us, we often did two or three different jobs and I moved between the Central Hospital and the main hospital, as well as doing aeromedical evacuations.’
Robyn also helped create the Rwandan Nursing Education Program, which was funded by the Australian Government. ‘That was pretty awesome because it’s not something you’d normally get to do in your home country.’
Living abroad the final years of serving
After Rwanda, her husband was posted to the United States of America (USA), so she took three years leave without pay to be with him. While there, Robyn obtained an equivalent American licence and worked in a large trauma hospital in Philadelphia, where she gained an incredible amount of knowledge and experience that she was able to apply to her work later within the Australian military.
Robyn then went to East Timor with the RAAF where she was the Senior Military Adviser to the military and the United Nations, and also ran the local hospital’s operating theatre, resuscitation team and aeromedical evacuation team, which she still remains a member of today.
In 2005, Robyn retired from the ADF after 18 years of service. ‘Leaving the ADF, you just hand in your resignation and about two months later you’re out. That was it. There was no one waiting to talk to me, if I wanted help I had to go find it. I also found it really challenging to talk to my family and friends about it because they were scared to ask and didn’t understand the depth of the work. It was hard to relate, so we just didn’t talk about it. I knew I had to address what I went through, but I didn’t recognise I needed help at that stage, so I kept myself busy with work for the next nine years.’
Asking for help when you need it and helping others
It wasn’t until her husband retired from work that she decided to as well, and she soon realised that she wasn’t keeping her mind preoccupied, and had time to let everything sink in. ‘I was actually doing a random phone survey when the man on the other end of the line said he thought I needed to speak to somebody, so that’s when I reached out to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) for support.’
‘I met with DVA in person which encouraged me to think about how I was actually doing, which wasn’t great. I ended up leaving that meeting with a referral to a psychiatrist supported by DVA, who I’ve been working with over the past few years and they’ve helped me realise that not everything has to be overwhelming and that I can get involved in social activities and be energised by them.’
In the past few years Robyn has been going on cruise ship holidays. One of the things she likes to do is put an advertisement on the noticeboard to get people together to sit and chat while doing craft like hand sewing, stitching, and knitting, to encourage social interactions for those who might be feeling lonely or just want some company.
‘It’s really nice hearing from people going overseas with the ADF and who are now using the equipment I helped develop. While I’d love to be there working there again, I’m also happy knowing I helped and made a difference.’
Robyn’s biggest piece of advice for anyone considering leaving the ADF is to seek professional help and really ask yourself why you’re leaving. ‘If you’re leaving because you’re struggling with mental health, there are things you can do now to help the transition to becoming a veteran a more positive experience. Running from the problem doesn’t always work in the long term, so talk to someone now, so you’ve got a brighter future ahead.’
Robyn now feels she is at a point in her life that she is now able to talk about her experiences without getting too emotional, and she only sees her psychiatrist about twice a year to check in. ‘I’m actually now looking to do some casual volunteer work where I can help other people, but also allow myself the time I need to rest and relax and enjoy my free time. I’ll always think highly of my service with the ADF, I really enjoyed it and am thankful for the experiences I had, but the support I received after service was crucial to my ability to function in society as a veteran.’
If this story has raised any issues for you, please contact Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling, on 1800 011 046 (international: +61 8 8241 4546). This free and confidential service provides support to current and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
For information about Open Arms and the services they provide, including access to a Community and Peer Support Advisor, visit www.OpenArms.gov.au.