The hidden battle facing our veteran community
HE FACED the threat of gunfire and rocket attacks in the Middle East, but it has been the battle after the battle that Ipswich veteran Alex McDowall has struggled with most.
A story from the Springfield Lakes father of four's return to civilian life probably best sums up his journey in adjusting to the world after his overseas deployment.
"For a while after I came back from Iraq I was struggling a bit," he recalled.
"I was driving the car one day, stopped at the lights, and out in the distance there was this cloud that reminded me of an explosion.
"The light had turned green, but I had gone off into another world, and I didn't realise I wasn't moving."
Unfortunately, stories like Mr McDowall's are all-too familiar for Australia's current and former service personnel; a group prone to resisting the urge to cry out for help when they need it.
Support groups have focused on helping those leaving the defence force as they complete their "transition" out of the highly regimented defence world and into the open slather of the civilian world, but the stories suggest many are left behind.
Since his return to the world post-defence, Mr McDowall has turned his efforts to helping other veterans dealing with similar problems to his own.
He volunteers as a project manager at Wounded Heroes Australia, a small charity group at Wacol that offers equine therapy, food vouchers, emergency accommodation and moral support for veterans doing it tough.
"I went along the first time and did some PT, we had a barbecue and at the end of the day we were sitting in a circle talking about our feelings, which was the last thing I wanted to do because I still felt weird talking about it," Mr McDowall said.
"Then I started talking about my experiences, rather than my problems. By doing that I found it helps me deal with it all in a way."
After tossing up between a trade and a defence career after school, Mr McDowall jumped at the Defence Force when they were first to offer him a job.
He eventually joined the 6 Engineer Support Regiment, which was how he ended up in the Ipswich region.
This resulted in deployments to Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines and Iraq, among others.
It was in Iraq that he experienced what he referred to as the most "action" in terms of personal danger.
"I was put out in the middle of nowhere," he said.
"One night, 10 Isis suicide bombers snuck into the compound.
"Eight of them were blown up, but two remained on the run.
"I was keeping watch up on a tower when I started noticing what I thought were shots being fired over my head.
"One of the snipers came running up and told me the bullets were missing by about 30cm, but we could not work out where they were coming from."
The threat of rocket attacks was also part of the Iraq deployment.
Despite being out of defence for a few years, Mr McDowall is awaiting his official discharge on medical grounds early next year.
He says he suffers physically and mentally as a result of his service.
"Now it is a question of how do I improve myself and be a decent role model for my kids?" he said.
"Working as a plumber now is allowing me to earn money, but I still find myself asking if this is really what I want to do.
"I think that's the thing a lot of former defence people struggle with; that loss of purpose, the loss of structure in your life."
Ipswich RSL sub-branch welfare officer Ross Wadsworth said one of the major barriers to helping veterans was their will to battle on without asking for assistance.
"For various reasons, some of them don't wish to acknowledge the circumstances they are in until the wheels have well and truly fallen off," he said.
"Some see it as a failure in themselves to have to ask for help."
Mr Wadsworth said he had seen veterans ill-prepared for life after the military deteriorating to homelessness, living out of cars and disengaging themselves from the community.
"About 5000 people transition out of the ADF each year, and of those 20 per cent are for medical reasons," he said.
"These people are generally looked after pretty well. They get a rehabilitation case worker, they get assistance to transition out. They are linked in medically and financially.
"But when you are discharged, you go from being part of a culture and an organisation, to just being you. You suddenly have to manage yourself.
"There is a cultural adjustment for individuals and families."
Mr Wadsworth said it was vital for departing defence personnel to plan their transition to civilian life.
"People who are not in defence don't have an understanding of what people in defence go through," he said.
A recent report from the University of NSW into veteran homelessness found about 5,800 ex-servicemen and women have been homeless over a 12-month period.
It identified factors specific to veterans, including relationship breakdowns, being medically discharged and being unemployed for more than three months after leaving the ADF.
While mainstream homelessness services may be able to help those experiencing short-term homelessness, the study found chronically homeless veterans needed tailored policies and services around permanent and supported accommodation.
RSL Queensland has reported a 26 per cent increase in demand for their veteran homelessness program year on year.
Wounded Heroes Australia CEO Martin Shaw has first-hand experiences in some of the desperate situations that veterans can face.
From fearing what your average person might consider an every day interaction, to suffering from feelings of isolation after being separated from their old way of life, he has come to the aid of veterans who have hit rock bottom.
He echoed Mr Wadsworth's words about veterans often waiting until the 11th hour to call for help.
"When a veteran rings up and tells you they are hungry, it is because there is no food left in the house," Mr Shaw said.
"I have seen families with no electricity, no food, and the wife has already hocked all her jewellery to pay the bills.
"Here in southeast Queensland we have a cluster of homeless veterans, from Ipswich down to the Gold Coast, all because of the location of the bases."
Mr Shaw said gaining trust was the biggest hurdle to getting help to where it was needed.
Since its inception several years ago, the charity's equine program, Horses for Heroes, has helped 500 former soldiers deal with mental anguish as a result of their service.
The threat posed by COVID-19 has taken a significant chunk out of funding for Wounded Heroes this year.
Since then, the charity has started an op-shop to raise further funds, as well as putting on gel-ball - run by Mr McDowall - to provide veterans with a fun way to release any tension.
"We are all about providing hope and purpose," Mr Shaw said.
"Once we get the trust, we can look at ways to help."
In recent positive news, organisations that support defence families in the Blair electorate will share in almost $50,000 in Federal Government grant funding to deliver programs and services.
Federal Member for Blair and Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel Shayne Neumann said the Family Support Funding Program enabled defence families to interact among themselves and the wider community.
Amberley Defence Families Inc received a $19,600 grant to support defence families with services and community connections to address their challenging and unique lifestyle, including playgroup, family events, youth workshops, and health and wellbeing activities.
Amberley Support Hub Inc received a $30,100 grant to support individuals, partners, and families by offering opportunities for the development of support networks, friendships and sharing of knowledge.
The funding will support start-up costs, including venue hire, for a safe space for families, office supplies, equipment, resources, and costs to cover family events and social activities.