Sharing their stories with Veterans' Affairs

This article has photo gallery Published on LEUT Ryan Zerbe (author and photographer)

Topic(s): Health, Fitness and Wellbeing

Defence personnel participating in a panel discussion in Melbourne as a part of the Department of Veterans' Affairs' 'It's Why We're Here' program. (photo: LEUT Ryan Zerbe)
Defence personnel participating in a panel discussion in Melbourne as a part of the Department of Veterans' Affairs' 'It's Why We're Here' program.

Three Navy personnel from HMAS Cerberus participated in a panel discussion in Melbourne recently as a part of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ (DVA) 'It’s Why We’re Here' program, sharing the challenges they faced upon returning from deployment, and their experiences engaging with the DVA to get help.

Lieutenant Commander Susan Copeland-Heath, Command Warrant Officer Michael Connors and Able Seaman Marine Technician Chris Madson joined peers from Army and RAAF to relay personal stories about being away from home on arduous and sometimes dangerous operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and at sea as well as the subsequent physical and mental pressures they faced and how it could take some time to realise they needed support.

Participants from the DVA were able to ask questions and try on a full marching kit to understand the types of physical wear the body can face when deployed in a warlike area.

Lieutenant Commander Copeland-Heath has deployed to the Middle East region four times as a Psychologist and found that, despite her training, separating out emotional impacts and dealing with them was not easy.

“It doesn’t matter how traumatic an event is. Whilst you can try and make sense of it cognitively over time, the emotion connected to that event will always remain,” she said.

“You can develop PTSD because you were in a war or because you were held up at the bank; there will be similar physical, emotional and psychological reactions.”

“It can impact anyone, no matter how resilient you think you are and important thing is to speak up and get help early.”

“I think the DVA team will walk away cognisant that there is a human being behind the uniform, and how much we appreciate feeling humanised during the DVA process. It is so important to maintain a sense of connection with someone.”

Able Seaman Madson deployed to Afghanistan as an Airfield Defence Guard during his career in the RAAF and explained the type of interactions and dynamics that worked best when working with the DVA to process his case. 

“It can take a long time for someone to identify that there is a problem that they’ve suppressed and it was good for us to explain how murky it can feel when all comes out to people that will be helping us through it,” he said.

“We all have smartphones and a regular phone call from a familiar contact at the DVA with an update on how a case is going and a chat about how to complete the paperwork the right way can make a huge difference for the client.”

DVA Senior Project Officer Charlie Wolf described an amplified respect for the work and experiences of Defence members following the panel discussion. 

“One that thing that I was already aware of but was really driven home today was the physical and psychological demands that members can face regardless of what role they fill,” he said.

“Each representative had their own story and shared a cross-section of challenges. I leave today with a sincere appreciation of what it took to talk to us about that.” 

“There is a sense of goodwill between the serving members we heard from today and the public servants at the DVA and there are things both sides could remember to help make the process smoother.”