From the experiences of Chaplain Gary Stone and many others
All who serve their nation in the Defence Force, Police or Emergency services will experience consequences to their health and wellbeing as a result. Their families will also experience consequences and may struggle to comprehend what is going on in the life of their loved ones. Whilst in uniform, a range of support services and mutual support is readily available, and various safety nets can catch people struggling with issues before they become acute.
Once discharged from active service, the Veteran and their family, must take self- responsibility for their health and wellbeing , and be quite intentional in maintaining a healthy life. This need to self- manage health and wellbeing is not well understood , and we have seen that many veterans do not fully understand the key ingredients of a healthy life. Their service life has been underpinned by systemic safeguards involving regular medical checks , enforced exercise, disciplined routines, and monitored behaviour. All this disappears on leaving the service.
The issue of Veterans Health is quite complex. Most veterans have experienced wounds, illness or injury to their bodies, minds, souls and relationships. Added to this is the conundrum of discovering a new identity, life purpose, and community of belonging, once they leave the service. Moreover all of these components impact and interact with each other, which can lead to escalating experiences of distress, and inappropriate coping measures normally involving self- medication with alcohol or drugs. Addictive responses compound the problems and people’s life can become chaotic.
This resource seeks to provide information on:
Over many years as a Chaplain to the Royal Australian Regiment Association and as a member of the RSL , I received too many notices of the death of veterans, mostly from cancer, and some from suicide, but dying well before the age that they should have the lived to. Like others in the veterans community, the early passing of these friends saddened me, but I did not consider that much could be done about it. Many of these men had struggled for many years with a plethora of other health issues stemming from their military service.
Then in September 2012, at age 60, I received a diagnosis that I had cancer. To say I was shocked is an understatement. I have always maintained a very fit and active life. I have never smoked. I have never even been drunk, though I enjoy couple of glasses of red wine of an evening and an occasional beer. There is no history of cancer in my family. My parents and grandparents lived into their 90s. After biopsies were taken, the doctor indicated to me that my cancer was growing aggressively and indeed would soon be inoperable and that I would be dead soon after without immediate surgery. Indeed from a medical perspective, surgery was the only response offered to me. The powerlessness of waiting for surgery and the fear that cancer could be growing in other places prompted me to get to understand more what is going on inside my body, and see what I could do to help myself.
I am open to complementary therapies and a range of tests conducted by a naturopath, remedial masseur and reflexologist identified that my body was highly acidic, that my liver and kidneys were clogged with toxins, and that my body was deficient in a number of vitamins and minerals as well as the “feel good” Serotonin hormone. I prayed for God’s guidance, and started searching the Internet for articles about cancer and its causes. After reading numerous books, and meeting cancer survivors who had utilised a range of complementary therapies I became aware of a range of healthy living recommendations that I previously had no awareness of. This gave me hope, and lifted my spirits.
I became more aware of how interconnected the body, mind and soul are, in terms of health. Like many other veterans, I had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following my service in the Iran Iraq war. Doctors then, prescribed medication and cognitive behaviour therapy. These treatments helped manage the symptoms of anxiety and depression, but these did little to diminish hyper-vigilance, hyper-arousal and hyper-activity. These had become a feature of my life. I also had a range of other physical problems that got worse whenever I was under stress. I came to realise that accumulated stress was killing me!
What I was to learn through my own research was that my PTSD symptoms were releasing cortisol and causing inflammation in my body, immobilising my immune system and allowing cancer to grow. At the same time a diet with too much sugar, wheat and dairy products was clogging up my digestive system causing me to put on weight and develop a range of other illnesses. The distress of anxiety saw me living with a “battlefield in my mind” that spilled over into my body and soul, and saw me react inappropriately at times with those around me.
As a Chaplain of course I have ministered to many people with a whole range of problems, but I was also aware of how disparate and parochial the various health providers can be, particularly in dismissing alternate or complementary therapies, and how most veterans with multiple health issues were not getting integrated care plans. Moreover, involvement with some health care providers focused on “treatments” for immediate symptoms with less emphasis on preventative health measures – promoting wellness into the future. I became convinced that a coordinated holistic approach to health was needed, starting with myself, and my taking responsibility for my own part in rehabilitation and restoration of wellness.
Following surgery, (and a near death experience with Peritonitis caused by accidental rupture of my bowel in the surgery) I am now clear of cancer for the time being, but I am conscious that I must take “intentional” steps to provide for my future health and avoid cancer appearing somewhere else. I look forward to the future with some hope that I might be able to not only live a little bit longer myself, but also through sharing this information with others I might able to make a contribution to the improvement of veterans health generally. Adopting a self-managed holistic programme I have lost 12 kg, regaining and sustaining a fighting weight of 80 kg that I had as a 30 year old company commander, and I feel the healthiest I’ve been in 20 years.
I have had to ‘re-balance” and “re- create” a healthy lifestyle that involves less work , minimizes distress, and incorporates more self care for my body, mind and soul.
Many veterans have had years of exposure to an accumulation of stress, distress and trauma, both physical and mental as well as wounds to the soul involving guilt and shame . The turbulence of soldiering on families has often impacted in broken and troubled relationships. This domestic stress adds to operational stress, and compounds people’s problems. It causes the release of too much cortisol into our systems. Pride and ego cause us to want to “soldier on” despite our disease, in the vain illusion that we can tough it out and we’ll get through this maze of problems. But our bodies minds and souls are little different to the vehicles and equipment that we spent countless hours servicing and maintaining in the military. We need maintenance, repair, and sometimes even a rebuild , but we don’t seem to realize this until we breakdown completely!
In addition to a plethora of more obvious physical injuries to backs, knees and feet, a growing number of veterans have undiagnosed and untreated psychological illnesses , which manifest in secondary issues of degraded workplace performance, sleep disorders, poor dietary practices, obesity and addictions including alcohol, sex and drug abuse and consequential outcomes involving loss of jobs and criminality.
Unfortunately a stigma associated with mental health, sees most people with psychological or moral injury issues attempting to mask these issues. Even family or friends will not generally be aware of the “submerged” issues that some people have. Evidence indicates that many veterans have experienced physical or sexual abuse as a child and the trauma of these experiences resurfaces in traumatic experience in the military. It is difficult to identify a genuinely “wounded soul” or to know how to respond. Traumatised people camouflage their pain with masks of normalcy, whilst being chaotic internally. Withdrawal from society is also a common response, where a person deteriorates without others knowing. The reality is that veterans wounded in body, mind and soul and can slip into a victim mentality, angry with others and the world, and can, unintentionally, hurt those that love them and try to help them.
Some veterans don’t trust medical systems and will rarely present themselves for treatment. People don’t know what they don’t know, and don’t understand what is going on in them. In this unknowing, they can choose inappropriate responses or miss out on simple therapies and behaviours that would help them. We at Veterans Care seek to provide the education and information that can assist all involved.
Most veteran’s health issues have their sources in the additional stress that service life entails. An understanding of what happens to veterans can assist in countering distress, developing resilience and maintaining wellbeing.
Stress, and the memories of past trauma, tenses our muscles, deposits toxins in our bodies, and can build up to chronic levels which impacts on the body’s immune system and can become life threatening. Stress assists in improving performance initially, but sustained or intense stress leads to distress whereupon performance starts to degrade, leading us to anxiety and depression, and tempting us to self medicate with alcohol or drug abuse. Secondary outcomes can be anger, violence, withdrawal, relationship conflicts and suicide.
The physiological impact of stress in the body includes adrenalin release to stimulate our muscles, heighten our awareness, accentuating hyper-vigilance and increased heart rate as the body prepares for fight and flight. This is a natural inbuilt survival mechanism . Cortisol is released to shut down other body functions, so the muscles can fight. This is useful if we really have to fight physically, but otherwise leads to distress when we don’t. The physiological outcomes of distress include serotonin depletion (our “feel good” hormone), survival responses, mental overload, confused thinking, performance degradation, and physical exhaustion. We become vulnerable to a range of infections and other health problems from a degraded immune system.
Experience of a life threatening event and/ or sustained exposure to distress can bring about a permanent automatically triggerable distress response (also known as PTSD). Normal bodily functioning is reprogrammed to be ‘on alert “for further life threatening events indefinitely. The physiological outcomes of post traumatic stress include sustained hyper-vigilance, hyperarousal, and hyper-sensitivity. In the absence of any actual stressors, sights, sounds, experiences and smells similar to those experienced in earlier life threatening events, trigger hormonal releases in the brain and vital organs. The body sub consciously and autonomically reacts to these triggers, via the amygdala in our brain, that shuts out the frontal cortex’s logical thinking and readies the body for perceived life threatening attack, moving it into fight or flight mode. The individual starts re experiencing the fear / anger / guilt etc associated with earlier events. Repeated stress reactions overload the vital organs with cortisol, immobilizing the immune system.
Education/awareness of this process can assist the individual in taking counter strategies to calm the physiological response and limit the wash of cortisol into the system, before the symptoms become acute. But persistent (and unchecked ) PTS reactions, particularly when actual new stressors affect the person , exhaust the body and expose it to the development of the illnesses of anxiety ( worrying about the future ) and depression ( grieving the past) , which have a debilitating life of their own . In the absence of hope or spiritual frameworks, the person experiences wounded-ness of the soul, where life ceases to have meaning, the person loses a sense of identity and purpose, and indeed the will to live.
Years of stress responses manifest in breakdowns in many of the body’s systems and premature chronic illnesses and death. Yes stress is a killer, and is wounding many more service people than bombs or bullets on the battlefield.
As a result of our research, we believe veterans need:
The Veterans Care Association promotes the development of a Personal Health and Wellbeing plan. An example template is included at the end of this document .
A suggested and proven “Wellbeing” regime involves a range of components – in summary:
Desiring to be healthy, like desiring to lose weight, is easier said than done. Preferably we won’t have to have a “cancer scare “ to jerk us into sustained action, but most people reading this far probably already know they have problems to address, and hopefully this information will assist in making appropriate choices. We may need a coach or mentor, perhaps our partner, to help us get onto, and stay on, a healthy pathway.
Research indicates that it takes from at least 28 days to many months, to change behaviours and my experience is that if we can show that amount of commitment and patience – we will in time see measurable results, like loss of excess weight, better sleep and a calmer mind, which will give us the encouragement to keep at it.
It is also realistic to be aware that relapse into past unhealthy behaviours, is most likely, particularly if we have reached addictive level of response. In cases of addiction , professional assistance and rehabilitation will normally be necessary. Many veterans and family members have benefited from group support programmes like AA and AlAnon. Abstinence for at least 28 days is a good target in breaking out of addiction.
We, or our loved ones, get sick and “dis-eased” because we have chosen or let, stressful or toxic environments to affect our body, mind and soul. While stress and distress are normal elements of life, when experienced in the extreme they will have debilitating consequences, affecting our whole person.
Rather than just react to sickness when it occurs, a better way to live life is through a wellness model where we intentionally promote healthy living practices to avoid disease.
To develop resilience for future stressful situations, we must examine the way we nurture or abuse our body mind and soul, and make choices and commitments to engage in wellbeing practices as a matter of daily living .Upon experiencing distressing situations, we must recognize the potential for illness, and initiate wellbeing strategies immediately.
The Veterans Care Association is committed to raising the health and wellbeing of veterans and their families .
The range of support we offer can be found on our website www.veteranscare.com.au. Contact us on 0403270515 or at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us at our office and Drop-in Centre at 2 Victoria Park Rd , Kelvin Grove 4509.
May peace be with you
Gary served continuously in the Army from 1970, with 26 years as an infantryman and 22 years as a chaplain. He deployed on operations to Malaysia, Fiji Coup, Iran-Iraq, East Timor, Bougainville, Asian Tsunami, Solomon Islands and Timor Leste. He lives in The Gold Coast hinterland near Mt Tambourine with his wife Lynne. Their two sons Michael and Paul are also Army officers with extensive operational experience in Timor Leste.