Australian author Tony Park has seen the impact of war on soldiers first hand.
Major Park, who serves in the Army Reserve and is an Afghanistan veteran, served as a public relations officer for the Australian Army in a bombed-out former Russian aircraft hangar at Bagram Air Base.
He said he witnessed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among soldiers at the base.
“This is Australia’s longest war. We had guys having multiple deployments, sometimes three or four, and you could see this was wearing down people,” Major Park said.
“When they went back for their second and their third [deployments], those same experiences became magnified and it was almost like the highs of combat got higher, but the lows got lower as they came back.”
And the statistics among Defence Force veterans are stark. Walking Wounded, a charity which helps soldiers with their psychological rehabilitation and recovery, said 245 veterans had taken their own lives since 1999, including six this year.
So many people in life have experiences, but they have kept it bottled up.Army veteran Peter Butland
Major Park, an author of 19 books, is now trying to help veterans find a way to deal with PTSD by writing about their experiences.
He was invited to Perth this weekend to lead a creative writing class as part of the Military Art Program, an initiative to help former and current Australian Defence Force veterans living in WA.
The program began with painting, drawing and photography classes, with Major Park’s experience in the military making him the perfect candidate to explain the benefits of the written word.
Art as therapy for demons of war
The Military Art Program was created by Leza Howie, the wife of a former SAS soldier, who saw a need for veterans and even their partners to use creativity as a type of therapy for the demons of war.
“Most family members don’t understand the issues and the pain and the grief and the things that they’ve seen, and some of us never will,” Ms Howe said.
Former SAS soldier Gerry Bampton was left paralysed after the 1996 Blackhawk helicopter disaster in Queensland, which killed 18 of his SAS mates.
He was among those to attend Major Park’s class, and said it might one day allow him document his story.
“The truth hurts, you know? Given time and I suppose the right mindset on my own behalf, there’s a good chance something may well come out in the future,” he said.
Army veteran Peter Butland also said learning to write would help him deal with his PTSD.
“I guess it’s getting it out. It’s telling your story,” Mr Butland said.
“So many people in life have experiences, but they have kept it bottled up.”
Vets need more help: Walking Wounded
According to Walking Wounded, one in 10 homeless people is a young war veteran, and hundreds of former servicemen are in jail after PTSD led them to a life of crime.
The charity’s founder and former soldier Brian Freeman said veterans were expected to return to life in Australia and be a good partner, parent and citizen, however some could not cope with the transition.
“The Army has a duty of care to those in active service, but the fate of retired soldiers is passed onto the Department of Veterans Affairs which is failing these men,” he said.
Mr Freeman said there was also a reluctance among active soldiers to open up and seek help, as they believed it could result in them being discharged as medically unfit.
A Department of Defence spokesman said $41 million was spent on mental health services in the past financial year, including PTSD.
Major Park meanwhile said the Army was looking at more innovative ways of dealing with PTSD.
“These days as many soldiers will turn to substance abuse or alcohol as a means of coping or getting away from their problems,” he said.
“I don’t think that writing and art would take the place of professional therapy for people, but by their nature they are therapeutic.
“These are productive, constructive uses of people’s time.”