One veteran's view of the Australian War Memorial redevelopment

 smh.com.au  11/10/2018 1:00:07 PM 

Firstly, the Department of Veterans Affairs system failed me. Secondly, the process of being medically discharged and a failure to connect with civilian society messed up my sense of self and identity. Finally, the public is unable to understand what I did during my service and what I experienced after it.

When people ask about my military service and we get to the part where Iraq comes up, the conversation awkwardly hits a dead end. People don't know how to talk about it with me, and I have a hard time talking about it without feeling like I'm doing a bad job of explaining how an internal combustion engine works to a dog.

"What did you do in Iraq?”, a well-meaning person asks.

My response: "I was an Arabic linguist and helped track down people who tried to blow us up with roadside bombs or by lobbing rockets at us."

They then follow up with a vague platitude or two. Awkward silence ensues.

Unfortunately this means we never get to the part where I'm comfortable saying what I feel: "The whole thing felt like total bullshit and like we didn't accomplish anything. It felt like the reason these people were trying to blow us up in the first place was as a negotiating tactic with an Australian polity that was so nervous about casualties they took our rifles off us after each patrol in case we hurt ourselves."

If they asked me how to spend $500 million - the amount being spent on an expansion of the Australian War Memorial - on how to better address the needs of veterans today, this is what I’d say.

I'd like to see more money spent on fixing the Department of Veterans Affairs. They are understaffed and have terrible systems and processes, particularly their computer systems. They know it, and they do their best, but they don't get the support they need. I can see it getting fixed eventually, but it's largely too late to mitigate the worst of the damage done to this generation of veterans and families.

I can't see how such a spend is justified on the Australian War Memorial when this is the case.

I see a lot of opinions saying that the money could be better spent on services for veterans, but not much about what those services might be beyond vague notions of counselling or crisis support.

It worries me that the focus on crisis and counselling constrains our thinking to a solution that provides too little too late. Suicide prevention starts long before someone enters crisis. I should know - I've been there.

Mark Toogood developed a program at Tharwa Valley Forge to help other veterans.

Mark Toogood developed a program at Tharwa Valley Forge to help other veterans.Credit:Sitthixay Ditthavong

As with all crises, it was a case of the straw that broke the camel’s back. But what got me to the point where I attempted suicide began years earlier.

Aside from the support of the nurses at Ward 17 at Austin Repatriation Hospital and the support of my family, I'm alive today and leading a meaningful life because I figured things out for myself.

I wish I'd had the support to figure things out for myself much earlier.

There needs to be more done to address issues around veterans' identity and social engagement with the Australian community. Only talking about counselling and crisis is too reactive and fails to consider the suffering of people with chronic but sub-critical embuggerances. Measures that help veterans and their families be part of the Australian community, without the alienation of being placed on a pedestal, would go a long way toward addressing veteran suicide.

I feel that the public has a hard time relating to my military and post-military experiences for two reasons: the ANZAC mythos and the degree to which news coverage was controlled while we were deployed. In the absence of any clue about what was going on in Iraq, everything seems to get viewed through the lens of ANZAC. I'm concerned that what is proposed for the Australian War Memorial will perpetuate this but with different language.

I've heard war memorial director Brendan Nelson use the phrase "Invictus Generation" and I worry that it is an attempt to extend the ANZAC-as-national-identity stuff via contemporary conflicts.

It also feels really mawkish. My wife is a veteran and still serving and we had an uncomfortable laugh about how awful the label "Invictus Generation" sounds to us.

The "veterans are uber citizens" vibe of the Australian War Memorial proposal and accompanying rhetoric annoys me. Idolizing military service helps foster learned helplessness and a misplaced sense of entitlement among parts of the veteran community. I also worry that this sort of jingoism squelches public debate about when we should engage in conflict and our national identity, among other things.

Overall, I'd like to see the Australian War Memorial tell the stories of 1999 to today better, but I don't think it takes $500m to do it.

I’d rather that the war memorial spend some money on commemorating contemporary conflicts but that more money goes toward fixing the repatriation system and supporting veterans and their families.

Lifeline: 13 11 14.

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