Soldier On will host more than 50 activities across the country as part of this year’s Veterans’ Health Week.
Veterans’ Health Week is a Department of Veterans’ Affairs program that aims to generate interest in, and raise awareness around, improving the health and wellbeing of former and current serving Australian Defence Force personnel, their families and carers.
Veterans’ Health Week 2021 runs from 16 October to 24 October. This year’s theme, Get Moving, encourages veterans and their families to increase physical activity.
With the support of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Soldier On will host various face-to-face and online activities across the country to provide diverse opportunities for movement and social connection for all members of the veteran community, regardless of fitness levels, locations, or restrictions.
From rock climbing to lawn bowls, water sports to virtual cooking classes, there is an activity to suit every member of the veteran community.
Soldier On CEO, Ivan Slavich, said the Get Moving initiative promotes positive habits that have the potential to improve all aspects of health and wellbeing. “Physical health is closely connected to our mental health and overall wellbeing.
With the effects of COVID-19 restrictions continuing to impact the lives of our veterans, this year’s initiative is a welcomed encouragement to get active and see the ripple effect that physical movement can have on all aspects of life,” Mr Slavich said.
“With a wide range of activities on offer, we encourage the entire Defence family to get involved and stay connected,” Mr Slavich added.
Soldier On’s Veterans’ Health Week activities are funded by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
On 29 September 2021, The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) released its fourth annual report on suicide among permanent, reserve, and ex-serving ADF members, including numbers of suicide deaths between 1 January 2001 and 31 December 2019 and rates of suicide from 1 January 2002 to 31 December 2019.
The findings of the report support previous discoveries whereby ex-serving male and female personnel are shown to have a significantly increased risk of suicide when compared to that of the Australian public. The report also provided valuable insights into suicide rates within specific groups.
Soldier On CEO, Ivan Slavich, said the report sheds a light on those groups who are in need of greater support.
“Every suicide is a horrific tragedy. Every statistic included in this report is a human life. These are our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, and our mates,” Mr Slavich said.
“The conclusions drawn from this report will allow Soldier On to better understand the needs of the veteran community and we will be targeting our programs to address the needs of those groups which have been identified as most vulnerable, providing greater support where it is needed most,”
“Among many others, It is clear that those individuals who have separated from service involuntarily are at a significantly higher risk than those who separated voluntarily. This tells us that greater support is needed for those individuals whose transition was not of their own choosing, many of whom may not be prepared for such a significant change,” Mr Slavich added.
Findings of the report also indicate that personnel who have served for a shorter period of time are at a higher risk of suicide. This may be an indication that greater support is needed for our ADF personnel in the early stages of their military career. This may be further supported with statistics showing that our younger veterans are at a greater risk of suicide.
The expansion of this study to incorporate those who had served from 1985 to 2001 is also a welcomed inclusion and acknowledges the lasting impact that service can have on members of the veteran community. In some instances, individuals can experience significant impacts long after their service has ended.
Soldier On hopes that the findings of the report will inform the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide on the shortfalls of current practices and the specific areas that are in dire need of change.
Soldier On intends to be an active participant in the Royal Commission and has established a working group to achieve this. Supporting thousands of veterans and their family members, Soldier On will work closely with its participants to continue to inform the Royal Commission and National Commissioner of the needs of our veteran community now and into the future.
Soldier On strongly encourages its participants to make a submission to the Royal Commission and share your experiences with those who will be leading this inquisition. For those who may not be comfortable submitting their views directly to the Royal Commission, Soldier On will be speaking with its participants to represent their views and experiences within its own submission.
In the meantime, Soldier On continues to advocate for a Veteran Wellbeing Centre in the ACT to accommodate the large number of service personnel and contemporary veterans in the region. Soldier On is currently engaging in discussions with stakeholders, government representatives and other Ex-Service Organisations to advance the delivery of support services across the ACT, as well as other locations across the country.
Covid is not a mere pause in our lives or an inconvenience. It is a rupture; a forced transformation and assault where the taken-for-granted assumptions of our world have been shaken at their very roots. It is very difficult to normalize Covid; for most, it just cannot be done. It has disrupted, shocked, completely disturbed, and profoundly and irrevocably changed our lives; it has left no facet untouched.
We have adopted a new language to reflect and understand our new way of being. In the blink of an eye, we became a world in ‘quarantine’, ‘isolation’, ‘self-isolation’ and everyone is ‘social distancing’, worried about ‘Community transmission’, and we all fear ending up in “ICU” and needing a ‘ventilator’.
Covid has seen the collapse of our everyday life-ordering, we have become disengaged from our old and familiar everyday living. It has deprived us of our liberty and seen the forfeiture of assumed freedoms. Our proximity to other humans and the architecture of our relationships have changed forever. Covid has devoured time; destroyed the normal continuum of the fixidity of time: our time sense. We thus lived our time out of place; on Covid time.
So, let’s be frank, COVID-19 is a Potentially Traumatic Global Event! A Global Natural Disaster!
Calling on Resilience—too often and for too long
Like most disasters and potentially traumatic events, we find that resilience has been the most common response to COVID-19. However, resilience can wane, fracture, and erode under the increasing weight of cumulative demands and impacts of the stress of Covid, especially given the uncertainty of a pathway out of this.
Even before Covid, we were living in a world marked by chronic stress. Often without any respite or recovery. We were already tired, stressed and for many of us overwhelmed by our life circumstances.
Now we share work settings, schooling and home life in a single space. With too much contact with some, particularly family members, overcommitment to work (for those who can work) and disconnection with friends and our broader communities. We are forced to continually accumulate and hastily assimilate new knowledge from the ongoing impact, new ways of being, fear new variants, and new…, new…, new…, too much new information and demands, some competing, some obsolete even before we are ready to comply. Our minds and body finding it difficult to shift and shape to keep up … making it difficult to adjust.
This has opened the fault lines and cracks within our communities, society, and organizations – some along racial, economic, and religious lines. Cracks we thought would never reopen or open as deeply as they have. We are exposed to constant scapegoating, blaming, all the while losing faith in our social institutions, and we may even be defending positions we may not have held before the start of the pandemic. There is much mending and healing to be done to bring together our communities and society and to bring faith back to our institutions. We cannot wait to do this work. It must happen now, or the divides will deepen! And it is a responsibility that befalls on us all.
We must refrain from the urge to inflict humiliation on those that hold opinions and world views different or abhorrent to ours. Humiliation can feel annihilating, and as such, people will resist, some intensely and with violence. We must stop this psychological fighting—to want to dominate and ‘win’ by making others feel powerless, shame, and by belittling and ridiculing them. We need to live together, so the ideological and political bridge needs to be made up of bricks made of curiosity and understanding, melded together by respect and dignity to ensure safe passage for all those who cross it.
Resilience needs to be engaged and worked on to hold together scaffolding to our lives under constant and accumulating stress. It is very hard to find equilibrium and balance in these times or have ‘readymade’ solutions to all our problems, many we never confronted before.
The science backs this up!
Covid has had a serious impact on our mental health and our day-to-day lives. Recent research has shown that there has been a large increase in psychological distress including depression, anxiety (e.g., about getting ill, dying from Covid and family members or people we care about getting ill) panic disorder, anger, confusion, large increases in unhealthy use of drugs and alcohol and reduced quality of sleep (Antičević, Bubić and Britvić, 2021). There has been an increase in family, domestic and sexual violence with Victorian police call-out rates at the highest level ever and with people presenting at a much more critical stage with more severe injuries. Delays, likely due to the restrictions, are making it hard for our most vulnerable to leave dangerous situations.
As if that wasn’t enough, the science also shows that we are also preoccupied with our future, fear aroused through media coverage, insufficient guidelines about what to expect and concerns over inadequate supplies of food, water, clothing, and medical supplies.
We are a society experiencing flash forwards with the projection of so many Covid affected future threats, intrudes on our present, rendering many of us hopeless. Especially children and young people who have not lived long enough to learn one of life’s most important lessons, that like most events in life – no matter how difficult or painful – will pass.
It is not surprising that the research has also shown a profound increase in anxiety and psychological distress and an increasing loss of hope for our children and young people. This comes at a time in their life when they need that naïve confidence to launch them into the next stage of life, which may include adulthood. Our disconnected young people are calling crisis lines in record numbers.
It’s not nothing!
We are being asked to lock down and do nothing. This extraordinary measure constrains, demobilizes, and requires us to be still. For many, it may feel like being asked to put out a fire by doing nothing; or like an ambush that hasn’t been sprung. This is particularly difficult for a military person who is trained to act… do something… anything to rise and meet the challenge of extraordinary events. It is a reflex, one that has left many feeling confused, even demoralised regarding what to do and how to contribute.
But the restrictive response to Covid-19 and the tasks we have been asked to do is not nothing. It is many things and many sacrifices. We are asked to be disciplined, shift habits and go cold turkey on our addiction to many of our assumed freedoms. The measure of success of this mission is ‘not doing’– the only action—get vaccinated. This is how we have been called upon to participate.
But this is not nothing, it is many things – it takes many skills, many resources to do nothing, resist many urges and suffer many things: and it is the ultimate act of courage in this time of Covid—being still is not stillness.
Remember, you have been asked to adopt many new routines, sometimes asked to reset them without notice at briefings at 11am. What is really being asked of you is to repurpose or adopt new skills, new attitudes, and ways of being. It may feel like you are being asked to be a different person or an unfamiliar version of yourself. And you may want to resist, seeking the safety of more familiar ways and to avoid the tension of being stretched too far. Against the backdrop of experiencing Pandemic Fatigue, our ability to bounce back is wearing thin with every new lockdown and restriction — with the increasing short fuses, feelings of disconnectedness and fatigued and the growing sense of the diminishing light at the end of the tunnel.
So please, during this time, be kind to yourself and those around you as they are being stretched too. My advice, try not to put too many demands on yourself. If we just manage to survive a bad day at home, then that is enough from humanity’s perspective.
The current struggle
Our Veteran community is telling the Psychology Services Team they are struggling. Those who were depressed, anxious and already carrying the burdens of trauma told us they have been surprised by the transition into Covid lockdown, finding life unexpectedly complex and destabilizing and further threatening their sense of self and self-worth. They said they were self-isolating prior to Covid and thought they were well placed to adjust to a Covid world of lockdowns. But choosing solitude and withdrawing, (even though for most depressed it may not feel like they had much choice) – is different to forced isolation, with its sense of feeling trapped.
An exercise—where do you feel trapped
To demonstrate this point, I would like you to do an exercise with me. Firstly, when you bring to mind the word trapped, where do you feel it in your body? For some, they have said they feel a constriction in their chest and/or throat. Now, I will invite you to redirect your focus to your thoughts, after 10 seconds shift your focus to your emotions; then your urges. Some have said they felt sadness, agitation, and helplessness. A Veteran said it was like “watching an internal CTV footage of my motivation being robbed”. Many said they felt the tension between the urge to want to fight or abscond, but only to feel stuck likened to being in quicksand, knowing the only way out is to accept what is happening, stop struggling, soften the body and float! Tough times indeed!
After listening to many stories of Veterans describing their experience of Covid, I have come to describe the emotional experience of living in a world marked by Covid as ‘emotional inflammation’. If we think of a physical inflammation, we know what that looks like. It is red, inflamed, it hurts when we move it or touch it, it stops us from doing things we would do naturally. If we take all these attributes and apply them to our current emotional life or psychological states, we are left with ‘emotional inflammation’. And just like physical inflammation, it hurts sometimes, sometimes it stops us from acting and sometimes it exhausts our consumption so much of our limited resources that we can’t do what we want to do. Just remember, this is not a normal state to be in, and it doesn’t feel good.
Willpower and your resources will exhaust, so do what is necessary to fuel your willpower and conserve your resources the best way you can. Engage in things that nourish and restore you. This is not self-indulgence. This is how we show up for those we love and care for and for ourselves.
Many may seek to get through the loneliness, boredom, and isolation by trying to forget, to numb by excessive use of alcohol, tobacco, gambling or other forms of distraction and addiction. It may feel like they work in the short term, but we all know these ways of getting by deplete your resources quicker, with less to manage in the long run, and ends up making you more and more dependent on these external agents to get by. Please reach out for support if this is applicable to you.
There are no resolute strides towards a quick recovery from Covid. The prick of Vaccines will keep us beyond the sliding doors, wards, ICU’s and ventilators of hospitals. As a society, we must walk the line to long-term survivorship well into the future. What will the new Safe, Stable and Secure look like and what about the fate of the unvaccinated or more familiarly known as our Children under 12 years of age.
Covid has been an excruciatingly painful and spectacularly wretched experience that continues to linger like an unwelcome guest. T. S. Elliot once wrote, “And at the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”. For all of us, the Covid journey has not yet ended. It is unfolding at this very moment; this story remains unfinished. And there seems to be a long way still to go.
Separate Tip Sheet.
One thing I can do now– Reach Out to Others–It is not only ok it is important to reach out for life. Covid has left many of us feeling scared, lonely, and isolated. Now is a good time to call friends or family, let them know you care about them and be there for one another.
Acknowledge that living with Covid is psychologically taxing, and so we must not forget our and other’s emotional needs. Don’t try to eliminate fear, that only amplifies it and makes fear become fearsome.
Sleep. If you can’t get to sleep, try the tips in the information sheet below. If that doesn’t work, get help.
Don’t forget to get your other health care needs looked after—for those other symptoms that may not be indicative of COVID-19
Consume less media. Recent studies have shown an association between media consumption levels and depression and anxiety. Chose a reliable resource of media for your information
Seek mental health support as required
Embed yourself amongst supportive people via social media, telephones, and video conferencing such as Zoom and Skype.
Antičević, V., Bubić, A. and Britvić, D. (2021), Peritraumatic Distress and Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms During the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Contributions of Psychosocial Factors and Pandemic-Related Stressors. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 34: 691-700. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.22701
Morabito, D.M., Bedford, C.E., Woller, S. and Schmidt, N.B. (2021), Vulnerability to COVID-19–Related Disability: The Impact of Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms on Psychosocial Impairment During the Pandemic. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 34: 701-710. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.22717
Veteran and current serving RAAF Reservist, Lachlan Woolford, has donned his weighted vest for a second year in support of regional veterans and their families.
Having served 12 years in the RAAF as an Avionic Technician, and now currently serving in the RAAF reserves, Lachlan Woolford understands the challenges that veterans face in their transition to civilian life.
Lachlan’s own transition experience, along with the shortage of regional veteran support services, inspired him to take action and raise funds in support of his fellow service personnel and their families.
In 2020, Lachlan created the ‘Vested for a Cause’ fundraiser as a community fundraiser for veteran support service provider, Soldier On. The month-long fundraising initiative saw Lachlan challenging himself to wear a 10kg weighted vest continuously, only removing the vest to shower and sleep. Throughout the month, Lachlan would work, train and even play cricket while wearing the vest.
“In wearing the vest, I am acknowledging and simulating the load that our personnel still have to carry with them once returning home. The weight of PTSD on returning servicemen and women is something that is constantly carried around and cannot simply be taken off,” Lachlan said.
“I set myself a fundraising goal of $2,000 and thanks to the amazing support of my local community, I was able to raise more than $11,000 by the end of the month,” Lachlan added.
Returning again in 2021, the initiative has seen Lachlan tackle the 30-day challenge during the month of September with an increase in weight to 16kg. Lachlan has also expanded the initiative, with teams joining the challenge.
This year’s challenge involves 10 teams joining forces to support their local veteran community. Each participant wears a 10kg weighted vest for a portion of the month before passing it on to their fellow team members to share the load. Each team is sponsored by a local Narrabri business. Without the support of the local business community, the expansion of this initiative would not be possible.
Soldier On CEO, Ivan Slavich, said the organisation is thrilled to have the support of passionate community members like Lachlan.
“It is wonderful to see members of the veteran community getting out there and showing their support for their fellow service personnel. Lachlan’s passion and commitment to the betterment of our regional veterans is a true embodiment of comradery and mateship,” Mr Slavich said.
“Through Lachlan’s efforts, he is not only raising much-needed funds but is stepping up and spreading an important message about the needs of our regional veterans. The funds raised by Lachlan and his supporters will allow Soldier On to provide our regional communities with greater access to support services,” Mr Slavich added. Donations can be made to Lachlan’s fundraising page – https://fundraise.soldieron.org.au/fundraisers/lachlanwoolford/vested-for-a-cause-2021
Soldier On has welcomed Australian Catholic University (ACU) as its newest Education Partner.
The three-year agreement will see ACU working alongside Soldier On’s Pathways Program to remove the barriers that veterans and their families often face when pursuing higher education.
ACU has established a strong relationship with the Defence and veteran communities through its veteran support mechanism which has successfully supported almost 150 student veterans since 2019. ACU’s Veterans’ Entry Program (VEP) and Student Veterans Support Program (SVSP) work to assist current and ex-serving personnel in their admission to higher education, as well as their progression through studies. Access to ACU’s support services will open doors to higher education and limitless career possibilities for former military personnel.
ACU, in partnership with the Australian Students Veterans Association (ASVA) and supported by the Australian Defence College, has also recently completed the “Credit Where its Due” project, creating the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) framework. This aims to support those transitioning out of the military by formally acknowledging rank and training completed during their service as part of the application process. The RPL framework has the potential to reduce time and cost of tertiary education at ACU and will launch a new cohort of confident, skilful, and job-ready veterans into their new careers.
“We understand the challenges facing our veterans and the complex backgrounds and experiences from which they come. For this reason, ACU is enormously proud of its commitment to help veterans make the leap to civilian life,” said ACU Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Zlatko Skrbis.
Working in partnership with Soldier On, ACU will provide greater support to a wider range of Australian veterans as they transition into civilian employment.
“By partnering with Australian Catholic University, we are building a stronger support network for veterans and their families, with dynamic education options, enabling veterans to upskill and choose new career pathways,” Soldier On Education Manager, Daniel Vincent said.
“Completing tertiary study is like winning Willy Wonkers Golden Ticket. It will open new doors that you didn’t even think existed. I encourage everyone to give it a go,” Daniel added.
Soldier On National Program Director, John Hardgrave, has been selected to sit on the Australian War Memorial’s Veteran Advisory Group.
The Australian War Memorial has formed the initial three advisory groups to provide relevant guidance on gallery content as part of the Memorial’s expansion. Of these groups, the Veterans Advisory Group will advise the Memorial in exhibition content development, particularly regarding how to reflect the diverse experiences of veterans and their families.
“Through our ongoing program of engagement and consultation, advisory groups will help the Memorial ensure that the stories we tell in the new galleries are relevant and that the spaces themselves are accessible and inclusive for all members of the public, our veterans and those still serving,” AWM Director, Matt Anderson said.
With 17 years of service in the Infantry, John Hardgrave has seen operational service in the Solomon Islands, Timor Leste and Afghanistan, as well as deployment in domestic operations such as the Queensland Flood Assist.
After leaving the Army, John went on to gain formal qualifications and experience in the private sector and continues to serve on Local Boards, Consultative Forums and Steering Committees for State and Federal departments. John also continues to serve in the Army Reserve. As National Programs Manager, John manages Soldier On’s Pathways Program, working to support veterans and their families with employment and education opportunities post-service.
“The experiences of our servicemen and women, together with their families, are incredibly varied. Each shares unique and powerful insights into Australia’s involvement in conflicts, as well as the rewards and sacrifices that come with service. I am honoured to be part of the Veterans Advisory Group and I look forward to representing my fellow veterans throughout the process,” John Hardgrave said.
“Many of our veterans who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq have already suffered psychological damages. We know that there are instances of PTSD, we know that there are instances of suicide is far too high. There are people who are inherently vulnerable to these developments right now. There will also be soldiers, sailors and aviators out there who will be experience shock and confusion over the developments. I get a sense of loss. A sense of loss for might have been in Afghanistan, a sense of loss for those who have been killed, wounded and psychologically damaged. For those who are bothered by what is happening, don’t do anything rash, seek out help from the many resources available to you. Soldier On is here to help.”- Peter Leahy, Soldier On Chairman
Soldier On provides ongoing support, however, we do not deliver crisis support. If you are in a crisis, please contact one of the following organisations:
Nearly two decades after Australia joined the war in Afghanistan, the Nation’s capital has fallen under Taliban control.
During this time, Soldier On’s primary consideration lies with the promotion of positive mental health and wellbeing for the veteran community, with the delivery of life-changing support services to those who have participated in this conflict, and those who still carry the wounds of their service, as well as the families who have been impacted.
More than 39,000 Australian military personnel have served in Afghanistan since 2001. Of these, many have suffered physical and psychological injuries, 41 personnel have lost their lives in combat, and many more have taken their own lives as a result of their service.
Soldier On CEO, Ivan Slavich, said the developments in Afghanistan may present new or resurfacing challenges for our Defence community.
“While our time in Afghanistan has amounted to great loss and sacrifice from our service personnel, as well as their families and the supporters of our forces, the impact on the lives of the Afghan people has been immeasurable. We must remember the tireless work of our brave personnel, the progress that their sacrifices have allowed, and ensure they remain supported,” Mr Slavich said.
“Now more than ever, it is important to encourage those experiencing difficulties to reach out for support. Whether it’s professional support or simply checking in on a mate, staying connected is crucial to our veteran’s health and wellbeing during these times,” Mr Slavich said.
Soldier On offers support to all serving and ex-serving personnel and their family members across the country, as well as online, and encourages the Defence community to reach out for assistance.
During this time, Soldier On’s Psychology team is available to support those who have been triggered by recent activity in Afghanistan or have a family member who may be experiencing difficulties. Soldier On also offers a range of social connection activities and programs to encourage service personnel and their family members to reconnect with themselves, each other and to build links with the wider community. While the COVID-19 pandemic may prevent many from connecting through face-to-face activities, the Soldier On team has established a variety of online activities to keep participants connected and social.
Soldier On’s Women’s Vet Connect program has kicked off across the Country, supporting female veterans in their transition to civilian life.
Women’s Vet Connect is a national program aimed at rebuilding a sense of family and camaraderie of service. Held over three weekends across the year, the program is designed to address the needs of female veterans transitioning or planning to transition from the Australian Defence Force, into civilian life.
Transitioning from Defence can be distressing and isolating for service personnel, posing significant challenges in all aspects of a veteran’s life. This can often include loss of identity and purpose, career uncertainty, social isolation, mental health difficulties, trauma, and an increased risk of suicide. Soldier On works closely with the veteran community, providing holistic support services focusing on health and wellbeing activities, employment support and education programs, as well as activities centred on connections with family, friends, and the broader community. The Women’s Vet Connect program encompasses activities and support which reflects this integrated approach, ensuring that social connection, learning and change can occur in a supportive environment.
Soldier On National Program Manager, Sarah Hartley, said the program has been a remarkable success, with participants taking enormous steps to improve their health and wellbeing throughout the series of weekends.
“It has been fantastic to see a wonderful group of women form meaningful connections with their peers while pushing themselves out of their comfort zones, exploring new experiences and ways to look after themselves and their mental health,” Sarah said.
The free program takes a selection of female veterans to serene locations across their home states, teaching them mental and physical health strategies, relationship building and life skills, while also providing an opportunity to connect with other veterans on a personal level. From horse riding to yoga, massages, morning walks and peer support sessions, the weekend’s activities provided opportunities for connection, education, and mindfulness. Soldier On Psychologists were also in attendance, providing insights into the mental health challenges that are specific to the veteran experience and the conditions of their service. Psychologists were also present throughout the weekend to support participants through some of the more challenging activities as veterans confronted their own fears and uncertainties following their service.
Program participants said the weekend’s activities provided them with a greater understanding of their circumstances and gave them the tools to thrive in their transition to civilian life.
“To have it broken down to me to understand why our brains are trained for Defence life, and why I am feeling disconnected to my civilian friends, now makes so much more sense. After 16 years, I finally feel that I have a community I belong to, and it has given me so much hope,” a Vet Connect participant said.
“I am very appreciative and grateful to have experienced the program with other female veterans. The program was something that I really needed. I don’t get out often, I keep to myself, and I don’t do any self-care practices, so it was really nice to be supported, encouraged and spoiled over the weekend,” another participant added.
Soldier On’s Women’s Vet Connect Program is made possible by the support of the Thyne Reid Foundation.