“Have you put your weapon down?”

Change step: transitioning back to the ‘real’ world

By Eamon Hale

Did you ever see the posters in the Med Centre that asked “Have you put your weapon down?”

There were three of them, one each for Navy, Army and Air Force, featuring different scenes of a Sailor, Soldier and Airman looking out into an environment that wasn’t home.

It’s a brilliant question. It asked whether you had transitioned back to the “real” world, the world you’re living in now, not the world you lived in before.

So, to cut to the chase, have you metaphorically put your weapon down?

Many haven’t. They are still carrying their weapons and they are still wearing invisible body armour. They’re mistaking their suburban Australian streets for Iraq, East Timor, Afghanistan and half a dozen other warzones.

They’re still living their deployments or bush exercises or are still at sea. They haven’t moved on or accepted their new realities.

And we all need to.

Your service is important. It’s relevant to the person you are and the world you have helped shape. But we need to define ourselves by more than just one part of our lives.

I’m proud to have served. I’m proud of my trips, my regiments and my mates. I’m proud of it all and I will be for the rest of my life. But I’m also more than that. We all are. We’re fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters. We’re firefighters and office workers, politicians and bin men. We’re still in the Army, Navy, Air Force or we’re working a thousand other jobs and fulfilling a thousand other roles.

None of that takes away or diminishes from your service and you should be in no doubt that you achieved something. From kicking in doors with the SAS, to simply signing the dotted line at Defence Recruiting, regardless of how you served you should be proud of it. But it needs to be said that a period of your life is not your entire life. Our civilian achievements merge with our Defence achievements to complement all the other aspects that shape the entire person.

There comes a point where you really need to put your weapon down.

The importance of maintaining the friendships and connections with those who have done similar things is paramount. It’s critical.

Maintaining friendships and connections with those who have experienced service life helps us normalise our experiences. It’s the reason that the RSL was originally formed and many RSLs still operate primarily for this function. We were never alone when we served and we never have to be alone after. There is always someone out there who understands and shares your lived experience.

Your eternal battle buddy

It’s your mates that will understand you and always have your back. It is one of the key differences we find with civilian and veteran friendships. That mate who stood next to you on deployment or shared your hootchie at Shoalwater Bay or sat with you at scran on your ship, they were there for you then and whether it’s been 10 days or 10 years since you’ve seen them, they’ll be there for you again.

They are your eternal battle buddy.

Not only will your veteran friends help you normalise your experiences from serving but they will help you normalise your experiences in the civilian world. This will help you with that integration and transition.

For many, transition isn’t easy and isolation only makes it worse. Supporting each other is what the ANZACs did and it has been the best model ever since. It’s the reason that mateship is such a key tenet of serving in the Australian Defence Force. We look after each other through thick and thin. And when the problems of our mates go outside what we are able to handle we can direct them to professionals who know how to help.

Mental health in the ADF and once you leave it isn’t perfect. Perhaps it never can be. But it has come a long way from those before us who returned from deployments with a pat on the back and a train ticket to get them home.

We have a plethora of options available to us and we must use them if we need them. If one doesn’t work, try something else.

I decided early in my career that I didn’t like Army boots. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t as good as I wanted them to be. So, I went looking for a better pair. Why shouldn’t your health be like that? If you are talking to someone you think doesn’t get you, call Open Arms, DVA, Defence Psych or whoever and ask to speak to someone else.

Are you taking medication and don’t think it’s working as it should? Tell your GP and ask to change it. The worst thing a veteran can do is give up. There’s always hope and there are always alternatives to despair.

Volunteers, not victims.

The mentality of clinging to the past and not accepting change is damaging to those who do it and it will stop them from moving forward. This isn’t the culture we were trained in. In the ADF we keep old ideas and practices that work and we retire old equipment and ideas when we find things that are better.

We know that clinging to the past can get you killed in the future.

The vast majority of Australian veterans chose to serve in the ADF. They were not conscripted. They are volunteers, not victims. This is a significant mentality difference.

This piece comes from caring for my mates and the sadness of losing them. Like countless of my generation and every generation that’s come before, I’ve seen friends who couldn’t let go of the past and they have been consumed by it. My friends have killed themselves because their demons got too much for them. Their choices were eroded until they only had one left.

I am not for a moment suggesting that changing your mindset will cure depression or stop thoughts of suicide. If only it were that easy. But perhaps identifying the issues earlier can help. There are plenty of resources out there that can help you do that. And you can take comfort from the fact that you never have to be alone if you have served in the ADF. Your fellow veterans will always be there to stand shoulder to shoulder with you.

So, I’ll ask again. Have you really put your weapon down?

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