'There is a wave of sadness coming our way, and the system - DVA and Defence - needs to be ready for it. I wonder whether we are.'
Major-General John Cantwell, former commander of Australian forces in the Middle East

Main feature

When the war comes home

By Scott Hannaford

IT WAS around midnight when Nicholas Hodge stepped into the middle of the road, lay down on the white line and placed his identity card on his chest. A passing taxi driver was the first to spot him and pulled over. The driver picked up the card on Hodge's chest, reached for his phone and began dialling.

Soon, a police patrol arrived and two officers made their way towards to the large, powerfully built figure lying face-up on the bitumen. One of the officers recognised Hodge: a factor, he says now, that – combined with the way ACT Policing handled him that night – probably saved his life.

Under the gaze of nearby diners in the trendy Canberra restaurant district of Kingston, Hodge begins to sob. "I was hoping a car would run me over," he explains. "I just started bawling my eyes out, saying, 'I need help, I need help'."

Hodge clamps his eyes shut as he tells the story and he freezes momentarily in his chair. After a long pause his tightly clenched face eases a little and he lets out a low sigh, as if waking from a trance. "Sorry, it's this medication I'm on. It makes me twitch and close my eyes every so often."

Today is a good day for Hodge. A fortnight ago he asked a friend to call and postpone our interview. Hodge had been overwhelmed by an anxiety attack after getting into a shouting match with a passing motorist while riding his bike. Now he's leading me down the corridor of his home to the "war room" – the label his wife has given it.

In one corner of the room hangs a blue United Nations beret. In another, the butt of a MAG 58 machine gun is mounted on a board. Plaques, glass-framed certificates, awards, photos and scraps of newspaper articles adorn every wall.

Walking into the room feels like stepping into a monument to a cherished, lost way of life. So how did it all unravel so quickly? How did this promising career, hallmarked by a rapid rise through the ranks, end by the age of just 37?

Hodge, a veteran of multiple deployments with both the army and the Australian Federal Police, is one of the hundreds of Australian soldiers who, on returning home, find themselves haunted by post-traumatic stress disorder.

With Australia's decade-long war in Afghanistan coming to an end, all but a handful of the troops are returning home. For most who made it back in time for Christmas it will mean a welcome return to the routines of family life and work. For others, it will mark the start of a new, silent war that they cannot return from, played out in the homes they find themselves unable to leave, medically discharged from the jobs they love in their early 30s, and wracked by night terrors, panic attacks and isolation.

Post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] is one of the most common psychiatric disorders in Australia. Most Australians are likely to have at least one traumatic experience during their lives, and 5-10 per cent of those who do are likely to develop PTSD, according to the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health. The Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) says 1713 veterans of recent conflicts are suffering from PTSD, and of those, 955 are veterans of either the Afghanistan or Iraq conflicts.

But Katie Tonacia, a co-founder of PTSD support group Picking Up the Peaces, says the real number is likely much higher, with many sufferers developing symptoms years after leaving the service.

"I think it's a bigger problem than any of us really know," she says. "We will see a lot of people falling apart at retirement age, because it's that organisation, that structure that has kept them upright, kept them getting out of bed every morning. The stigma of not wanting to be labelled as having a disorder also makes it almost easier to be alone at home and withdraw, [rather] than face that fear of going out."

Of the more than 45,000 Australians who have served in conflicts since 1999, the Department of Defence estimates that nearly one in five will suffer a mental disorder. Around half will come forward seeking treatment in the short to medium term. But expert evidence provided to the Australian parliament in 2013 suggests the actual numbers seeking treatment may be closer to 25-30 per cent, in line with the United States experience.

"Our efforts to educate and encourage our people to seek help as early as possible may also gradually increase the number of those seeking treatment," says a Defence spokesman.

Addressing the inquiry into the care of personnel wounded or injured on operations, former commander of Australian forces in the Middle East, Major General John Cantwell – himself a PTSD sufferer – warned of a flood of soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq presenting with serious psychological damage in the coming years. "The numbers will grow, and grow exponentially," he says. "We have exposed thousands of young and old Australians to some pretty brutal experiences. There is a large wave of sadness coming our way, and the system – DVA and Defence – needs to be ready for it. I wonder whether we are?"

Chad Dobbs doesn't think so. the signals specialist was deployed to Iraq in 2006. At the age of 26, after switching from command post duties, it was exciting to be sent into the field on patrols. Then the roadside bomb attacks began. "I was in a convoy of about 40 vehicles, in front in the commander's vehicle," Dobbs says. "The Iraqi security forces led us down a road as their escort, they went through the checkpoint and we didn't."

Two bombs ripped through the convoy, destroying two vehicles and showering Dobbs in debris, pinning his group down for the next 24 hours as they attempted to evacuate a colleague whose leg had been shattered by the blasts.

Seven months later and back at base in Darwin, life was slowly getting back to normal. Following a successful round of further training and a promotion to the rank of lance-corporal, Dobbs received a summons from his squadron commander. His skills were needed again, this time in Afghanistan with the 7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment.

It was during that trip that his friend Corporal Mathew Hopkins was gunned down. Hopkins had been on a patrol near the village of Kakarak, 12 kilometres north of the Australian base at Tarin Kowt, when he was shot in the head during a firefight with the Taliban. Days later, a heartbreaking photo of the 21-year-old soldier nursing his newborn son, Alexander, was plastered across Australian media. The two had spent just four days together during a break from deployment.

"On a day-to-day basis not a lot happens on patrol," Dobbs says. "A lot of young guys just cruise around in Bushmasters and ASLAVs [Australian Light Armoured Vehicles]. They don't get out on foot, so their war experience is driving around the desert, waving at locals and sitting back in the car. I think for a lot of them, Mathew's death really brought home that we were in Afghanistan and that we were at war."

Reeling from the loss of his friend, Dobbs returned to Australia in 2009, exhausted both physically and mentally by his experiences. It wasn't long before his world began to fall apart.

"I didn't really notice the changes until I got home," he says. "I was having anxiety attacks; there would be times when I just couldn't get out of bed. There were times when I would drink before work, I couldn't control my anger."

After several days of not sleeping and heavy drinking that almost ended with him deliberately wrapping his car around a pole, he reached out to the senior soldier at his unit for help.

"Instead of the words of encouragement and avenues of support I expected from a person of that rank, I was met with, 'Harden the f… up and get over it' ." Alone, with a relationship crumbling around him and unsure where to turn for help, he descended into four months of isolation where he withdrew from family, friends and workmates, until one day he found himself in hospital, coming out of a week of heavy sedation and being prescribed aggressive-behaviour counselling to try to bring him back from the edge. Not all his comrades have been so fortunate.

Dobbs says he's aware of a spate of recent suicides among returned Iraq and Afghanistan veterans that has gone largely unreported. Official figures show that since 2000, 92 ADF members are suspected or confirmed to have died by their own hand. But Defence doesn't keep any records of those who die from suicide once they leave the armed services. A seven-year, $13.5 million study into the impact of service on the health and welfare of the families of deployed ADF members is expected to be published in 2014, although another report, published in 2000, found the children of those deployed to Vietnam were three times more likely to commit suicide than members of the general community. A 2005 study also found national service veterans were 43 per cent more likely to die from suicide than non-veterans.

Veterans' affairs says it has no formal system for tracking those who have left the ADF, relying instead on its At Ease website and YouTube videos as a way of keeping in touch with and supporting former personnel suffering from PTSD. It also covers medical and other costs for those diagnosed with PTSD. Both Veterans' Affairs and Defence have also significantly increased their research and expenditure on mental-health issues in recent years, completing or commissioning a number of research studies. Veterans' Affairs spends more than $166 million a year on medical and support services for veterans. Defence has also increased its mental-health workforce by 50 per cent since 2009.

Despite the increased focus, Dobbs believes the two organisations are still underestimating the number of soldiers affected by PTSD, due to the stigma of coming forward to seek help.

"I have a lot of friends who have had anxiety issues and depression and haven't spoken out about it because it's a career killer," Dobbs says. "My career was put on hold for 21/2 years while I actively sought to leave Darwin."

One of the other barriers facing many young war veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq is that they don't feel they belong in the RSL clubs or support structures set up following the World Wars and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, leaving them unsure of where to turn for help.

One group that has had more success than most at getting through to younger PTSD sufferers is Soldier On, set up in 2012 to fill that gap. Last year in Adelaide, the charity opened the first of what it hopes will become a national network of reintegration centres – places designed as a one-stop shop to help wounded personnel get in touch with support services.

Co-founder John Bale says the organisation was caught off-guard with the response; it reached its expected half-year target for walk-ins in just over a month. "We think thousands are going to be impacted," says Bale of the number of soldiers likely to be affected by PTSD when they return from deployment. "We were shocked, we really didn't expect as many as we got. There are people who have been isolated for way, way too long. In many instances, we really haven't learnt the lessons from Vietnam, and now is the opportunity for us as a community to make sure we don't have those same issues."

Bale points to US research that shows many PTSD sufferers won't show any symptoms until, on average, 13 years after their deployment, and in many cases it will be decades before a trigger sets off that trauma. A constant stream of Vietnam War veterans continues to come forward in Australia today, nearly 40 years since that conflicted ended. "I think it was the inability of the community to reintegrate veterans that caused many of those issues," says Bale. "And I don't think people have really grasped yet what's happened overseas [in Afghanistan and Iraq]."

Graham Walker, national research officer with the Vietnam Veterans Federation of Australia, agrees, and says the true extent of the trauma caused in Iraq and Afghanistan is unlikely to be fully realised for a decade or longer.

"For combat troops, the traumatic effect is cumulative. What happens is you go to the war, and when you come home, you kind of don't get back to where you started. So your mental starting point for the next deployment is not quite as stable and every time you go over, the traumatic effect of the war has a greater impact on you.

"Defence says the impact of this war won't be as bad because they're doing lots of things to try to identify troops with problems, which is well and good. But war is war, trauma is trauma, and in my opinion we are going to have the tsunami that people talk about."

Defence says international research on the effects of multiple deployments is inconclusive. But predicting who is likely to develop problems in the future is a complex and difficult task, with many veterans showing few signs on their return.

David Forbes, director of the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, says recent research has led to a rethink on late-onset PTSD.

"Previously there was a view that delayed PTSD was just symptoms that had been there all along and had gradually increased and hadn't been recognised yet," he says.

"There is clearer evidence now about delayed PTSD where the person doesn't exhibit many difficulties in the aftermath of these events, but there's a precipitant or an event that triggers these events later on, such as another trauma or loss."

Forbes says the military's culture of strong social networks can actually contain a soldier's trauma for many years, meaning PTSD can be triggered by their decision to leave the armed forces for a less structured civilian life. Defence points to the findings of the 2010 ADF Mental Health Prevalence and Wellbeing study, which shows personnel who have never been deployed are just as likely to have PTSD as those who have been sent abroad. "These findings support the argument that it is not the number or length of deployments, but the type of experience on deployment, in particular exposure to trauma or combat, that is the risk factor," a Defence spokesman says.

While the community largely remains oblivious to how many veterans are suffering from PTSD and have little contact with them, the director of the Australian War Memorial and former defence minister, Brendan Nelson, sees a constant stream.

"It's very common for me upon any day to be walking along the cloister towards where the Afghanistan panel is and to see a couple of young men with short-cropped hair, wrap-around sunglasses, standing there with tears streaming down," he says.

Nelson says the War Memorial has become an unofficial place of pilgrimage for many returning young veterans, a stop on their journey as they attempt to piece their lives in Australia back together.

His encounters with damaged soldiers have convinced him of the need to tell the story of Australia's involvement in Afghanistan and the Middle East as soon as possible. "Looking back on the Vietnam experience, I suspect if the War Memorial had been able to tell the story of Vietnam sooner, more deeply, then possibly some of those men might not have suffered quite so much as they have."

Chris may is one of those whose pilgrimage led him to the Australian War Memorial. Deployed to Afghanistan at the age of 19, it was the realisation of a dream to fight for his country. But before he had hit his late 20s, the war had broken the young Victorian, leaving him damaged both physically and psychologically, unemployed and unsure what to do with the rest of his life.

It began on August 22, 2011, when the phones and internet went dead in Tarin Kowt. All the soldiers on base at the time knew what that meant – bad news. Really bad news.

video icon BAD NEWS

When an Australian is killed in action the chain of command immediately shuts down all non-essential communications to buy the military precious time to contact the family back home and break the terrible news to them before it leaks out of the base.

So when the telephone and internet suddenly stopped working that day, a sense of dread came over Chris May. "We all knew it meant there'd been a death, we all got brought in together and it was kind of like an unlucky lottery; everyone was kind of biting their lips and holding on to the hope that it wasn't one of their friends," he says.

As the name of Private Matthew Lambert was read aloud, a group of soldiers from the combat unit burst into tears. For May the nauseating wave of adrenalin and the racing in his chest subsided as the name of a stranger was read out.

"You kind of feel sick and feel really sorry for them, but at the same time you're letting out a sigh of relief it wasn't one of your close mates."

It wasn't until one of Lambert's friends showed May a photo of his fallen mate that the reality came crashing down. May realised he had briefly met him just weeks earlier while commanding his Bushmaster through an area where Lambert's unit was patrolling. May had been called to pick up a dehydrated group of diggers. Sharing a can of Coke with the exhausted soldier, May and Lambert began reminiscing about their lives back home in Australia, and the things they were looking forward to doing on their return.

"Only knowing him for a very short time and not getting a chance to meet him again was pretty hard. If I could go back and have my chance again I might have asked him a bit more about his family." It was a hard blow for May, but worse was to come.

During a later patrol, his vehicle approached a narrow point – an obvious place for a hidden roadside bomb.

The convoy stopped, and the engineers on board jumped out and began scanning the road on foot with metal detectors. May, positioned in the gunner's turret at the top of the vehicle, snapped off a couple of photos while he waited.

After an hour of searching, the engineers turned around, gave May the thumbs up, and he began to manoeuvre the vehicle across the culvert. As his wheel hit the pressure plate of an undetected bomb, it triggered a massive explosion that lifted the front of the 12-ton vehicle into the air, tossing the unrestrained May around inside the vehicle's metal interior.


"This is where I slammed my head against the floor of the vehicle," he says, as he picks up the still dusty Kevlar helmet on the living room sideboard and fingers a long, deep groove in its side.

"They wanted me to give this back, but there was no way I wasn't going to hold onto this." The rehabilitation from the compressed spine and the brain injury sustained in the attack took many months, leaving May with severe shakes, a bad stutter and unable to clearly piece his thoughts together. But it was the mental trauma that eventually convinced him he could no longer continue in the job he had spent his youth dreaming of doing.

Lying in the field hospital in Tarin Kowt after being evacuated by helicopter, a colleague delivered a few of his personal items, including his camera. "I was going through my camera and I realised I had actually taken a photo just before the incident. In the photo, one of the engineers is stepping over the approximate location of the pressure plate and another engineer is standing roughly in the location of the actual main charge."

Racked by guilt and feelings of having let his mates down by not completing his mission, May became overwhelmed with a sense of failure. He also had to deal with the grief the engineers felt at allowing him to drive over the undetected explosive. On returning to Australia he found himself adrift, no longer comfortable around friends and family at home, and feeling like he had abandoned his mates in Afghanistan, but unable to face returning to the place that had nearly taken his life. Offered the option of attending a soldier recovery centre near his old base in Townsville, the sight of other soldiers driving past in the Bushmasters he used to command became too much to bear.

"That just made me feel like I wasn't part of the team any more," he says. "I was so close, but I was so far away at the same time. That kind of exacerbated the whole issue of me feeling worthless."

A few weeks after our interview, May drops by to deliver some photos from his time in Afghanistan. As we flick through the files on his laptop, I ask him whether he thinks the Australian community is prepared for the number of soldiers coming back psychologically scarred by the war.

"It's a different world when you come back," he shrugs. "You see everyone getting hyped up over reality TV or the State of Origin. People don't really appreciate the bigger problems of the world. In 12 months everyone will have forgotten about Afghanistan, and what then? All the guys know that's what's going to happen. Things will go back to the way they were before, and people will forget that we were ever there."

Chris May

'Those memories are stuck in there and they will come to the surface.'

A dream cut short

Chris May's friends could tell he was always going to be a soldier.

"I can't put into words how I feel about doing this job," he would tell them.

"My mates had always given me a bit of stick saying I was going to be the [Regimental Sergeant Major] of the army one day. I always played it down, but they could see my passion."

By the age of 19 he was living his dream, deployed to Afghanistan with the First Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment.

Stepping outside the compound on his first mission, the reality of what he was doing hit him immediately.

"Straight away you saw Afghanistan for what it truly was, a different world. You see the difference in people's perceptions towards the Australians, some of them didn't want a bar of us … you didn't know who your enemy was."

In the end, it wasn't the enemies outside that ended his military career - it was the demons within.

There wasn't one specific event that triggered the mental trauma he experienced on his return to Australia, but there were a number of jolts May can point to. Like finding out that one of the Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan used to play football against him when they were both kids back in Victoria. Or being blown up in an improvised explosive device attack while on patrol.

'Those memories are stuck in there and they will come to the surface.' - Chris May

"After I was injured, I wanted to go back, it was one of my biggest things to go over and see the job out."

After being posted from Townsville to Canberra so he could access better medical treatment for his injuries sustained in the IED attack, his feelings of isolation began.

"Being separated from all of my mates at the unit as well as the guys I went overseas with straight away took its toll."

After more than a year of recovery, intense psychological testing and physically ready, he was given the all-clear to go back to work, use light weapons and command vehicles again.

But the feelings of guilt, of having abandoned his mates and of having failed refused to subside.

Heading outside he would jump at the sound of back-firing cars. The thought of going to public places filled him with dread at dealing with crowds and while attending the scene of a car crash found himself barking orders at family members.

After much soul searching and many deep conversations with his partner and another close friend, May made the heart-breaking decision to walk away.

"I've had a lot of good experiences, but I've also had a lot of bad ones. Those experiences, when you weigh them up comparatively … would have been degrading to my mental state and my psychological well-being."

Part of his recovery has been sharing his story with elite sporting clubs and a number of organisations. He says too many soldiers fail to adequately face their demons and keep on soldiering because it is sometimes easier than coming home to deal with what they have experienced.

"I've got a lot of mates who have been over, four or five times, to Iraq or Afghanistan, including some to East Timor and some of them are really burnt out, they are running on the smell of an oily rag, so to speak.

"Some of them are really tenacious and they've got the perfect mindset for soldiering, but others resort to it as a coping mechanism. I've got mates that have had broken families as a result of deployments."

While there will always be a part of Chris May that wants to be in the army, he's now at peace with his decision and looking forward to moving on with a new chapter of his life.

"I want to see how I can develop myself personally and professionally. But I don't think I will ever completely leave that part of my life behind."

Chad Dobbs

'No one really cares that you've deployed. It's as if time stood still.'

A structured life falls apart

It wasn't a burning passion to serve his country that drove Chad Dobbs to join the army.

"I was bumming around for a few months after university; I couldn't get a full-time job so I thought I'd give that a go".

With both his father and grandfather having served in the armed forces, it seemed logical to carry on the family tradition.

Little did he know it would be a decision that would push him to the edge and leave an indelible mark on his psyche.

After completing his training and deploying to Darwin with the Second Cavalry Battle Group, it was 2006 when he got the call-up to go to Iraq.

At first based at the command post, handling communications, he soon found himself out on patrol, working on the armoured vehicles as the signaller for the commanding officer.

At 27, Dobbs was one of the older soldiers in his patrol. When they were hit by an ambush, the bravado of the younger soldiers soon evaporated.

"We struck an IED and the driver broke his leg. It was pretty intense to deal with that, we had to co-ordinate the vehicle recovery and evacuate him by chopper.

"A lot of the younger guys didn't get it until that point - for a lot of them their experience of war is just driving around the one valley and not seeing very much."

'No one really cares that you've deployed. It's as if time stood still.' - Chad Dobbs

Not knowing who was friend or foe meant those sent on patrol were constantly on edge, and the long hours took a heavy physical toll, especially after returning from a second deployment, this time in Afghanistan.

"I was always known for being a bit of a smartarse before I left, but I came back a lot more serious, I was quite on edge."

Returning to Australia in 2009 and attending a family welcome-home barbecue in Brisbane, his brother-in-law jokingly grabbed him from behind.

"I just flipped; I don't remember the incident I just remember being pulled off him.

"It surprised me massively, I couldn't control my anger, I was in a relationship at the time and that was starting to struggle."

Dobbs, who had never been much of a drinker, started hitting the bottle, spending days at a time struggling to get himself out of bed, and trying to find a new routine to replace the structured life he had had on deployment.

Finally it was his father, a Vietnam War veteran, who convinced his son something was wrong and that it was time to seek help.

"My sister sort of knew what was happening but I still wouldn't talk about it. I had a few friends who knew as well … but there was perhaps a four-month period where I basically hid from everyone."

His immediate chain of command was very accommodating when he finally decided it was time to seek help, but the further up the chain he went, the less understanding his superiors became.

"It's a big thing in the army, harden up princess, take a bag of concrete, that sort of thing. I got told that mainly from higher ranks that hadn't deployed, or had deployed but hadn't done the same sort of jobs that we'd done."

Realising he could no longer continue in a comtbat role, Dobbs decided to leave and turned to charity group Soldier On for support. The process of raising money for Soldier On to support other injured soldiers helped give his life a new direction.

Today, Dobbs has a promising career in IT, has recently been married and is positive about the future.

While the anxiety issues and associated symptoms of his PTSD have not completely abated, he has become better at managing them. But he worries about the mental health of his fellow Iraq and Afghanistan vets in the coming years.

"You see it with the Vietnam veterans, a lot of the incidents won't rear their heads for a few years yet, maybe decades, there can be triggers that set things off.

"They may not want to talk at first, and pushing them to do so is a mistake. Just give them time if they don't want to talk, just let them know you're there to support them."

Nicholas Hodge

'I just started bawling my eyes out saying, 'I need help, I need help.''

Getting off the racehorse

IT'S not the images of war that stick most vividly in Nicholas Hodge's memory – it is the smells.

"It's the smell of charcoal burning, it's the humidity and the muskiness - you can just smell that a country has been through a hard time".

Hodge arrived in East Timor as a soldier with the multinational INTERFET force designed to contain the security and humanitarian crisis sparked by the country's independence battle with Indonesia.

One deployment became two, and before long Hodge found himself again on peacekeeping duties in East Timor in 2001 under the banner of the United Nations.

It was during his third deployment in 2003 to the Solomon Islands where he came in contact with the Australian Federal Police serving in the peacekeeping efforts.

Impressed by those he was working with, he joined the AFP as an unsworn member, and later applied to become a trainer to the International Deployment Group.

Promotions came quickly, and soon Hodge found himself leading a team responsible for the pre-deployment training of police officers prior to commencing offshore deployments.

He had little opportunity to stop and question whether what he was experiencing might have been slowly boring down into his subconscious.

"You don't really see it as a lot, whilst you're on the racehorse and your mind's ticking over. It feels pretty good to be selected to be overseas."

'I just started bawling my eyes out saying, 'I need help, I need help.'' - Nicholas Hodge

By 2005 and back in Canberra, a gnawing feeling all was not well led him to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and he was diagnosed with suffering PTSD from his multiple deployments.

Shrugging off the diagnosis and dismissing it as wrong, Hodge struggled along until 2009 when another breakdown brought the issue to a head.

"I was still in denial at that stage, but there was a lot of crying, I laid on the couch for about two weeks before I could get up. I was in a black hole, I was numb, just totally numb and I didn't understand what was happening to me."

That fortnight, and another breakdown in 2013, this time in front of workmates, was the start of the acceptance for Hodge. It was the culmination of a journey of ultimately managing the PTSD, anxiety, tinnitus, hearing loss and depression that become the unwelcome legacy of his ADF and AFP careers.

"To break that barrier and put your hand up and say, "I need help and to just let your ego be shattered … you just feel you've got nothing more to give but it is a relief as well."

Today, Hodge is comfortable admitting to others that he has issues that will probably stay with him for the rest of his life. He says coming forward didn't feel brave or good, just necessary.

He has since developed a series of techniques for managing his anxiety, and has embraced exercise as a way of helping him stay healthy mentally.

He hopes that by speaking publicly he will be able to educate the community about PTSD, and to encourage others yet to be diagnosed to come forward and not suffer in silence. While much of the publicity about the condition centres on soldiers, he says police officers from state and federal levels are often forgotten victims of PTSD as well.

"People need to know that we're not the elephant man with the mask on our head. It's very hard for someone to come forward, but it's also very hard for someone that hasn't been exposed to mental illness to understand because you can't see it, but it's something that can be managed."

Now medically retired, Hodge has found a new purpose in life, helping senior citizens at a nearby retirement village. "They can teach you a lot, as long as you're prepared to listen."

He hopes the community will be patient with the returning veterans and police, who may not yet want - or be able to - talk about the traumas they've experienced.

"Hopefully they'll be looked after when they return, and I think they will, but we've still got a long way to go."

David Tonacia

'Am I going to come home alive? Are all my workmates going to come home alive?'

Peacekeeping becomes a war zone

Before heading to the Solomon Islands, police officer David Tonacia thought he was going to mentor local police and helping them to engage with the local community.

Little did he know he was about to walk into the middle of a war zone. Four days after arriving riots erupted in the capital Honiara, and he found himself being pelted with rocks and sticks by an angry mob.

As rioters set to work looting and then burning the Chinatown district to the ground, the badly outnumbered Australian police retreated to their compound.

"There was no warning whatsoever, none. Some of the things I still think about today are, 'am I going to come home alive? Are all my workmates going to come home alive? Is someone going to get hurt?'."

On returning to Australia, insomnia, paranoia and strange dreams weighed heavily on Tonacia.

"I knew that I wasn't sleeping well, I was agitated. On my arrival home I had no idea about my mental status, I thought it might have been the malaria medication I was taking or something like that."

Night after night wife Katie would be woken by her husband thrashing in the bed next to her, covered in sweat. Soon alcohol became an overbearing part of his life, to the point where he started to scare his own family with his drinking.

"I was living with a sense of hopelessness, forgetfulness, flashbacks and night terrors. I was also just drinking myself into oblivion just to get some sleep."

As the pair searched for answers to what was wrong, doctors came back with a diagnosis of chronic PTSD, major depressive disorder and general anxiety disorder.

That diagnosis, while confusing at the time, allowed the family to start searching researching what to do next.

"One of the mistakes we made, was thinking that for me, recovery was all about getting back into uniform," he says. "I thought I had to get back to work, and that stress actually inflamed my condition."

'Am I going to come home alive? Are all my workmates going to come home alive?' - David Tonacia

Katie was awarded an Order of Australia medal in January following a Churchill Fellowship in 2011 for her tireless efforts to research and raise awareness of PTSD. She says watching her husband come to the inevitable conclusion that he could no longer serve as a police officer was harrowing, and seeing him medically retired from the job he was proud to do was one of the hardest things she has witnessed.

"I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy," she says.

Looking for support and fellow sufferers led to many dead ends, until the pair came in contact with the local arm of the Vietnam Veterans Federation of Australia.

Welcomed with open arms by the community they found, Katie and David became convinced of the need to extend the support offered by the former soldiers to emergency service workers, police and other PTSD sufferers and established the charity Picking Up the Pieces.

"They literally saved David's life," says Katie. "There's a huge amount of stigma out there, and people are scared to come forward because of that stigma."

While younger veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have been slow to seek out the support structures established by veterans of previous conflicts, Katie is hopeful they will realise that there is help, and that the older veteran community is keen to support them and ensure the mistakes of the Vietnam era are not repeated.

David says his advocacy and awareness work has made a huge difference to his life, but he is still distrustful, and suffers many of the lingering symptoms of PTSD, like hyper vigilance, fear of crowds and new places and episodes of anxiety.

"My resilience is a lot stronger than it was two or three years ago. It's hard to come forward and say, 'I've got PTSD' and everyone needs to look out for their mates, and their workmates. The important thing is not to be afraid to come forward."

Rebecca Clark

'It's just an illness - it's nothing special, it's nothing fancy.'

War echoes through the generations

REBECCA Clark has never been to war. She has never had a gun pointed in her face, had to take a life, or endure any of the other unspeakable horrors of combat.

Yet like a soldier, her life has been dominated by war, a battle that cast a giant shadow over her youth and left her a victim of one of its most insidious side-effects - post traumatic stress disorder.

Clark calls herself a second-generation veteran - one of the thousands of children of soldiers who have been affected indirectly by a parent's service.

Her father, who served in Vietnam, never spoke to his family about what he had experienced, and they knew better than to ask.

"There was a sudden volatility to his temper and mood swings. For years I knew there was something wrong with my family, but I didn't have the language to say it's this, or it's that."

It wasn't until reaching her 20s that her symptoms become acute enough to convince Clark to seek a medical explanation for what was happening to her.

"My heart was pounding, I would get the shakes by the end of the day - I was 22 years old. I thought, 'what the hell is going on here?'"

The diagnosis of PTSD came as a bolt out of the blue, throwing up more questions than it answered, but it allowed her to start researching the condition that had been haunting her.

"There's an uncontrollable rage that comes. I was finding myself in situations where I would just kind of snap out of it and I would notice that people would look scared, and I couldn't remember what I had done or said."

'It's just an illness - it's nothing special, it's nothing fancy.' - Rebecca Clark

It was not until reaching adulthood that she realised the anxiety and other symptoms she was experiencing were similar to those experienced by some soldiers returning from war.

"I had always thought my condition was related to my experiences in the home, but that connection [to her father's] combat experience I didn't make until later."

Having only recently reached the point where she can talk about PTSD without bursting into tears, Clark says she's very aware that she still has a lot to learn about managing herself, but she is getting better and dealing with the stigma she encounters all too often.

What her illness has taught her is that treatment needs to be active, it won't go away by itself, and that sufferers need to take action, even when it's difficult to do so.

"I'm talking about this now because I think I'll be right, I think I'll be fine, but I don't know if other people I know will ever be right, ever, and it's not fair.

I don't know how many of us children of Vietnam veterans are left, it's a lot but there have been many suicides, three times the rate of the average Australian."

"It's just an illness, it's nothing special, it's nothing fancy. I hope I can help bring some awareness into people's homes so that we can prevent this thing from happening again to the families of the guys who are coming home now."