I remember the slow bank of the C130 as it circled the island of Guadalcanal. I couldn’t see much – just the fuselage and the red line indicating where the propeller blades were. Not long after completing the bank came the familiar ‘thud’ of the plane touching down. I was on my first deployment, finally.
Previously, in August 2009, I’d enlisted into the Army Reserve as a Cavalry Scout and was posted to 3rd/9th Light Horse (South Australian Mounted Rifles). I’d lapped up every opportunity, every course, exercise, support task, anything that I could do to spend more time in the green. I earned the unit’s “best recruit” award for completing all my qualification courses within my first year at the unit.
Fast forward to March 2012, when I stepped off the C130 in the Solomon Islands. I deployed as part of Operation Anode – Australia’s contribution to the Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands – to help restore the peace following Solomon Islands’ near civil-war of the early 2000s. For four months, we filled our time with off-island patrols, training, and working with the police contingent and our military partners. I returned to Australia in late-July with a renewed passion for soldiering and transferred to the Regular Army in October 2013.
The next two years flew by. I was having the time of my life – I had a meaningful career, I married my fiancée, and nothing could stop me. Then it all started to unravel. I sustained a back injury during an exercise, tried to shrug it off and kept going, but as a result, I finally pushed myself too hard. In November 2015 I was medically downgraded.
I entered one of my darkest times. I found myself struggling mentally as I was constantly medicated and a shell of my former self – I barely left the house, the days passed in a foggy mess and I didn’t really care about anything. Physically, my fitness, sense of worth and self-esteem nose-dived as I couldn’t do any of the things I loved. At work, I could barely manage the most basic of driver tasks and I was eventually transferred to the Soldier Recovery Centre (SRC) to help with my physical and psychological rehabilitation.
It was through SRC that I discovered StoryRight – a veterans’ employment support program that had started offering personal development workshops in Adelaide. It was not a moment too soon: shortly after the workshop I was placed on permanent medical leave until my discharge in August 2018. For the first time that I could remember, I didn’t know what to do, I had no mission and no goals. I had hit rock bottom.
After I’d clawed back a little sense of self, I reached out to the StoryRight team to see if there was any way I could give back to the program that had profoundly influenced me. Then things really started looking up. Through StoryRight’s networks I undertook a public relations internship and began volunteering regularly at the Jamie Larcombe Centre Partnership Hub. I got to know the wider veteran community and it was like a breath of fresh air. Talking to other veterans about our shared experiences really opened my eyes to the fact I wasn’t alone, I didn’t have to bear this weight by myself.
I’ll never forget speaking with one veteran who was the same age as me with multiple tours of Afghanistan behind him. He told me about his battle with post-traumatic stress and his current undertaking to use his combat experience to change the narrative surrounding teen mental health and masculinity. He’s educating the next generation of young men that it’s OK to talk to someone about your problems.
I’ll also never forget meeting a young tank crewman during a StoryRight workshop. As we chatted throughout the day, it struck me how similar our respective paths were. It was great to see him walk away at the end of the day with a renewed sense of self and watch him experience his own lightbulb moment – the turning point that many veterans experience during the course of the workshop.
That day, it felt like I had found my new mission. I remember thinking, “If I can give just one person the same help, the same sense of purpose and worth that I received, then it’s all worth it.” Up until that point, I’d only had inklings and fleeting glimpses of a purpose but now it was cemented in my mind. These are only two of countless veteran encounters I’ve experienced since discharging, all of them are inspirational, but these two are the ones that I’ll likely remember for some time.
The experiences, skills, and confidence that StoryRight has given me coupled with the exposure to the wider veteran community through the Partnerships Hub, helped me to claw my way out of my darkest moments. As a direct result I’ve returned to study, my health, fitness and social life are improving and most importantly, I feel that I am able to start making a difference in the veteran community through my involvement with StoryRight as a trainee workshop facilitator.
It sounds cliché, but I don’t want to know where I’d be if this opportunity hadn’t found me. Words can’t express how grateful I am to the StoryRight team for the incredible support and opportunities that they’ve afforded me as a graduate. It has given me a sense of purpose to drive me through my transition. I encourage all veterans to give it a go.
StoryRight is now based at the Jamie Larcombe Centre Partnerships Hub. To find out more contact Justin Brown on 0414 661 269 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The next workshop will take place on 06 March, call now to reserve your place.