Heroes. This is often how the men and women who have served our nation, both past and present, are seen on ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day.
Broken. Today, this is often how they are seen every other day.
Stigma. It’s intertwined in so many things and it creates a faceless community. The stigma that comes when one wears the uniform, particularly for our recent veterans, is shrouded with concerns of mental health injury, especially PTSD and suicide. This generalised view of veterans as ‘broken’ or ‘victims’ could have a generational impact.
There is no doubt that it is becoming more acceptable to access mental health support, but there is still public stigma surrounding mental health, particularly for those who have served. I have conducted numerous interviews throughout the years and all too often I am asked if I have PTSD, because I have been to war.
So how can we start to break some of this stigma and find a middle ground? How can we stop ourselves from putting these men and women up on a pedestal on days of significance, and feel sorry for or pity them on others?
Those that serve Australia do so for a variety of reasons, but it is unquestionable that they are and have been a force for good. Through our humanitarian efforts, peacekeeping, stabilisation and nation building efforts, those that serve do so to make their country, their region and the world a better place.
Many veterans who have recently discharged out of the Australian Defence Force have deployed to the Middle East, peacekeeping or border protection operations are now employed, or soon will be, outside of the military.
The stigma around veterans is so considerable that some have down played their service in job interviews or once employed. Others have spoken of being asked point blank, just as I have, if they have PTSD because they have served. Not a question that other candidates would be asked. Veterans should not remain faceless because they have worn the uniform, they should be treated as individuals, just like all other highly skilled candidates.
There is no question that war and peacekeeping take its toll, as does military service in general. This toll is paid by the entire family, not just the individual. As a fourth-generation soldier I am well aware of this. Like my great grandfather, grandfather, and father, I deployed to war. Unlike my forbears, I did not see combat or get wounded. Their scars deeply impacted our family. Their generations thought that bottling up their emotions or hitting the bottle was the best way of coping. My generation, rightly, is becoming more open to talk through these issues. But, we cannot take this as weakness nor can we let it define who we are.
Recently we have heard that close to half of those discharging out of the ADF have mental health injuries and that over 80 veterans took their life last year. There is no doubt that these are devastating statistics and important to acknowledge, but it is time to share some of the focus to the positive. While the public continues to only see stories that consistently portray all veterans as ‘broken’, we will only continue to feed this perception, this stigma and add to the helplessness felt by those who have served.
Despite these shocking numbers, proper, holistic support for veterans and their family can ensure mental health injures can be treated just like the millions of civilians who have mental health issues.
The system of support for veterans must drive a recovery mentality and must involve the family. While pensions and compensation have their place, they must be balanced with the focus on recovery, further education and employment. Veterans of today have changed. They are younger, and they have so much time and reason to keep on living the fullest life possible. Securing the future of our veterans and their families is more than their financial wellbeing, it is their livelihood. They have made a difference and they can continue to do so after their service.
The process of making a hero or a victim, either accidently or deliberately, dehumanises the person. Heroes and victims are for myths and narrative. We hold them up or we pity them, but we don’t really want to get to know them.
If we are truly going to understand, support, and ensure the futures of our most recent veterans are in good hands, we must dive beneath the myth, change the narrative, and get to understand the people. Stigma needs to take a back seat.
Perhaps the middle ground is treating them as the individuals and families they are. Thank them and respect them for all they have done for our country and be humbled that they have done their bit to keep Australia safe.
Written by John Bale, CEO and Co-Founder, Soldier On.