The mental health obstacle

Brian Heilbronn knew he wanted to join the Army from a young age. He served in deployments to both East Timor and Afghanistan and is still serving as an active reservist. He has experienced loss and death during his deployments.  

Through all of this, despite battling with mental health issues, he always looks for the good and says he wouldn’t change a thing.  

The notion that an obstacle preventing us from achieving our goals might be the very thing required to achieve those very goals is not only a personal philosophy for Brian but one that transpires in his work.  

In 2014, his former Platoon Commander took his life after losing his battle with PTSD. To help honour his legacy and raise awareness for PTSD and mental health, Brian developed the concept of a Memorial Shield in his Platoon Commander’s name. This event saw soldiers from the First Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment compete in a Townsville marathon whilst wearing body armour to help raise PTSD awareness and raise funds for Soldier On.  

Many studies show a positive relationship between physical and mental health.  

Body armour for the marathon was capped at 10kgs for the safety of the runners, which is much lighter than soldiers carry on deployment, but still a significant weight. Brian explains, “Imagine having someone sit on your chest and trying to breathe. It makes simple things like standing up or running quite a challenge”.   

For some people, battling mental health is a similar sensation to wearing body armour. For others it’s a tool of the job and is there for protection.  

Brian has been through his own mental health battles. For him, aside from the physical benefits of fitness it provides an escape. “The hour I would spend at the gym was a chance to escape, leave everything at the door, and just focus on making myself a better person.”  

He has experienced how easy it is to succumb to survivors’ guilt, but this has led him to be able to appreciate the preciousness of life. “It could have been any of us, we were all fighting for our country, for the same cause. I honour that sacrifice. I honour them by trying to live a good life”.  

Trying to attain perfection is near impossible, but for the continual improvement process, improvement in small increments added up over time results in gigantic leaps towards one’s goals. He uses this mentality to coach others, explaining that the attitude needs to focus on helping yourself.  

“You need to do the work to get better. That starts with getting into a routine and discipline to do something physical each day”.  Whether it be a physical or mental step, it’s cumulative and keeps building.  

In 2016 Brian completed a degree in Exercise Physiology and utilises his position as a Human Performance Officer to contribute to the Human Performance Centre and has worked with the Invictus Games team.  

Brian is currently a Lecturer and Clinical Educator at James Cook University (JCU), where he teaches the Sport and Exercise Science, and Clinical Exercise Physiology programs. He is currently developing a program aimed at improving veterans’ health through physical activity and exercise, and is also undertaking his PhD to research injury prevention of tactical athletes through applied strength and conditioning.  

The recently created program through JCU follows a student-led approach to a Veterans Physical Activity and Sports Performance Program, which offers general health and performance testing, individualised training programs, one-on-one training sessions for wounded, injured and sick servicemen and women.  

Brian said, “Providing a program like this for veterans which helps them maintain or build their physical activity back up after they discharge from the military is very important”.  

Brian understands the need to start small and then build. He encourages his students and his clients to have goals, but to know there is a realistic path for them – “find the right path and understand it’s not linear”.  

The idea that ‘the obstacle is the way’ is a concept that Brian thinks will be relatable for many veterans, as they have faced numerous adversities throughout their careers. Brian believes that this mentality made him who he is and allows him to continue to learn how to keep our soldiers safe.  

Embracing the obstacle has helped him find his purpose.  


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