Who thought having fun with fellow vets could be excellent for your mental health?

When it happened, it happened fast. About a dozen veterans, from vastly different branches and of both genders, boarded a commercial sailing vessel for a Soldier On Social Connections event. At first, people shook hands and introduced themselves in a quiet reserved manner. Some gave a brief rundown of their service background while most remained tight-lipped.

The day was pleasant; the conversation polite, but scant. As the turquoise water slipped by, people pitched in and sailed the vessel through some basic manoeuvres. It was fun. There was some light laughter and a bit of banter. People were loosening up, becoming socially confident, and operating as a team. Put simply, they were connecting, socially.

And then it happened. In what was possibly a rehearsal for Anzac day, a F/A-18F Super Hornet, probably from Amberly, flew down the Gold Coast strip. As the grey dart sped by the noise was thunderous, bowel-rattling and strangely reminiscent. There it was, I thought, one of the most powerful and deadly warplanes on the planet, capable of delivering devastating destruction upon an invader, the tip of one of our country’s many spears. I felt a flush of patriotism and pride. Like that young pilot above us and all the vets on the boat, I was once a part of something bigger, although in a different service and different branch.

Like meerkats, every veteran on that boat stood and watched the fighter scream past. Ex-RAAF vets gave running commentary; while most simply marvelled at the aircraft’s terrifying power.

When the fighter vanished into a white dot on in a vast blue sky, the conversation began to flow faster and personal details were swapped. Service stories were told with that dry, self-deprecating gallows humour found across all branches of the Australian military. Everyone seemed to be getting on famously; far better than had the day been a cruise with diverse civilians.

I felt a curious and heart-warming mixture of pride, kinship and belonging. I was with my people, kind of thing, but not that. I couldn’t pinpoint it.

“It’s safety,” says Joe Losinno, National Psychology Services Manager at Soldier On, in a casual chat after the event. “That feeling is re-integration in a safe, supportive environment. What you were doing was excellent for your mental health. It was like a DIY therapy session. Who would have thought having fun was good for your health?”

Apparently, it is, in a big way. A raft of prominent studies supports the idea of social connection as a strategy to help veterans transition from the military to civilian life. Across the militaries of the world, and as far back as the 5th century BC, when Ulysses wrote about how veterans coped with combat trauma, veterans have had a difficult time crossing the divide between soldier and civvie. It’s a big leap for most; and a potentially life-threatening one for some, with the veteran suicide rate considerably higher than the civilian population.

One answer, it seems, is social connection. If veterans remain connected to their military identity after service, they fare better in the world. Anecdotally, this is evident across the world with the plethora of ex-service organisations, clubs, reunions and marches, but is also borne out by research. A recent study in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, wordily titled Transitioning to civilian life: The importance of social group engagement and identity among Australian Defence Force veterans cites “those who maintain a military identity alongside their new civilian identity, may be more likely to experience fewer difficulties when transitioning to civilian life.”

Chatting to other veterans on the boat, this certainly seemed to ring true. Everyone I spoke to sang the praises of connection programs, and not just Soldier On’s. The stories were as diverse as their service experience, ranging from mental health, legal advice and housing to business and employment connections as well as just good friends. As people exchanged stories of service there was that strange, otherworldly connection that only a veteran would know or understand: it’s one of family, of brotherhood and of genuine mateship, that cornerstone of the Anzac spirit.

“That happens on every single social connections event,” says Sarah Hartley Soldier On’s National Program Manager of Participation. “It breaks down a barrier for everyone. It puts everyone back on the same level. No one has rank anymore.”

Her passion and commitment clearly apparent, Sarah relates several rapid-fire anecdotes about how she’s seen extreme changes in veterans on Social Connection events, which isn’t surprising considering Soldier On conducts numerous social connection events a year. “The trouble is,” she laments finally, “everyone thinks we’re just having fun, that it’s just a fun day out. It’s not. It’s so much more than that.”

And it is. There is a growing corpus of research examining how veterans’ engagements with social groups influence their mental health outcomes. One study found that “Joining the military involves a process of acculturating to military life and often forming a military sense of self. For those who take on particularly salient military identities, the transition to civilian life can be challenging.”

Another found that “weak social group identity among Canadian veterans was associated with difficulty adjusting to civilian life and mental health challenges”

The general theme of the problem is that a significant number of veterans experience identity conflicts when attempting to reintegrate into civilian life. They are two very different cultures, after all. Military culture tends to be forged on principles of obedience, chain of command and cohesiveness with peers; in contrast, civilian life has expectations of autonomy, self-interest and self-advocacy. After a considerable time in military culture, changing to a “civilian mindset” can be extremely difficult for some, and nigh-on impossible for others.

“Social connections provide a secure, shared-experience, lived-experience environment to open up and talk about issues that they’re facing, and see that they’re not alone,” says Dan Vincent, a 16-year veteran of the Army and now Director of Health and Wellbeing at Soldier On. “Social Connection is the first point of contact. For many veterans, that simple day out with mates leads to other jobs, education, better mental health … a sense of purpose. In that sense, Social Connection activities are a one-on-one lifeline.”

Back on the boat, as we headed into Runaway Bay harbour, the sun dipping low, people began to share numbers, socials, handshakes and even hugs. A casual observer would probably assume we’d known each other for years, such was the camaraderie.

One of the quieter veterans I’d been chatting to, pulled me aside as we said our goodbyes and quietly said, “You know this sort of stuff. It’s saved my life.”

I, like every other vet who’s stepped off a base for the last time, knew exactly what he meant.

X
X