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MY JOINING THE NZ ARMY WAS A CHOICE I FREELY MADE. CONTINUING THE FAMILY TRADITION AND COMING FROM A POOR BACKGROUND, A JOB THAT “PAID WELL” AND WAS GUARANTEED FOR LIFE.

My leaving the NZ Army was a choice made by other people with no consultation or discussion or any real motivation to take me back after the accident that killed my friend and left me with burns to 40% of my body. Trapped inside an upside down tank for 2 hours I burnt alive for 30 minutes. I try not to, but at times I can’t help it, if I stop to listen, I can still hear my own screams. It terrifies me. As I wrote that last three word sentence, I started quivering and tears formed on my eyelids. The body’s physical reaction to a painful memory. I was 21 years old.

I knew that I had a lot of rehabilitation to do, years in fact, but the months after my discharge from hospital were solely focussed on returning to the Army in some capacity or another. So much so that I had already begun pack walking around my block to regain muscle strength and fitness. The Army had Physical Training Instructors, physiotherapists and doctors that could help me back so I was confident on returning to the green machine. Leaving had simply not crossed my mind and I was gonna do my best to meet them halfway if not further!

Now, I realised that I was not likely to return to my previous trade but I was more than willing to take on other roles as long as it kept me in uniform. But no one bothered to ask me. They just turned up on my doorstep and told me I was no longer fit for service and was to be medically discharged. For the third time in less than 6 months my world was turned upside down. Not only was I not going back to the job I loved they were telling me I was not good enough and that they couldn’t be bothered even trying to help me back, some piss ant excuse about petrol and oil being bad for my skin and that I wouldn’t be able to meet the fitness requirements. You know what? I left that hospital 2 months early, walking on my own two feet and was pack walking around the block when the family were told that;

  1. I wont survive the accident, well I did.

  2. The paramedics on the helicopter said I wont make it alive to the hospital, well I did

  3. The doctors said I wouldn’t live through the night, well I did

  4. That there was to much muscle atrophy and tissue damage and I would not likely walk again, well guess what!

And fuck that. My brother lost the use of his legs to the Army and he wasn’t about to let me lose mine. All they had to do was support me. They dumped me. All they had to do was look at what I had achieved, against all the odds. They didn’t. They didn’t even take one step toward meeting me. The final insult coming when I learned I had finally been discharged when my pay stopped. No phone call, no letter, no visit. My pay just stopped. I’d been forgotten about. Wham bam thank you ma’am and good bye.

So with my purpose in life gone that productive time I was spending on getting fit I now spent on getting drunk.


“I had no hope, no career prospects, was scarred from head to foot, no prospects of a relationship and trying my hardest to keep the nightmares at bay by drinking myself into a coma every night for 5 years”.


Five years, because thats how long it was until I found employment again. I went looking because, well, I needed an income to keep drinking. No lofty ideals on getting my a into g. I just need cash to piss up against a wall. If I had to work for it so be it.

But, as it turned out I found I actually liked what I did.


“My focus began to turn, I found a new purpose and as I began opening up to my new colleagues about my story I found empathy, trust and a willingness to help at individual and organisational levels”


This organisation that asked nothing of me but to turn up on time and do a good job was doing more for my welafre than the one that demanded my loyalty, insisted on obedience, preached camaraderie and then when I needed it, turned its back. Betrayal is the hardest to deal with becaue it always comes from those you trust the most. I felt betrayed and let down in the worst possible way. I gave up my youth, and got nothing in return.

So my transition was not an easy one. I think when the choice is taken out of your hands it always will be. Fortunately for me I stumbled into a job that I enjoy. Sure, I still have ups and downs and 25 years later I still face demons from my past and like many battle with PTSD and related mental helth issues. A suicide attempt led me to seek professional help. When I sat down in his office he asked one question. “So, whats wrong?” Twenty odd years of emotion were finally released and I cried without pause for the entire one hour session. I said nothing. Just cried. Other sessions followed and I learnt to deal with the complex range of emotions I was feeling and when to recognise the triggers that would send me on a depression spiral. Funilly enough, after those session my career took on a whole new dynamic. An invisble barrier seemed to have been removed and I begain seeing more and more career success.


“For me though the biggest single step in healing was meaningful employment that aligned with my  own ethical compass and provided purpose. Without purpose who are we? Without being valued how do we value ourselves?”


Without recognition of our effort why should we try? Three simple things that any person looks for but more so the soldier. Purpose gives us the mettle to endure. Value, the courage to look inward and recognise our weaknesses. Recognition, the motivation to strive for continued success.

If only those that judged me unworthy took such a view, perhaps I’d still be in uniform. Who knows. But what I do know is if they had engaged with me as a person, not a balance sheet liability, leaving the army might not have been so difficult and my transistion to civilian life a more sobering experience.

 
Katharine Holgate