PTSD the price of keeping the peace

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Rodney MacCormack remembers pushing a supermarket trolley towards the check-out. He stopped when he saw the queue snaking its way around the counter. Abandoning the trolley, he left as quickly as he could.

Dr Rosalind Hearder'Where's the shopping?' his wife Lesley asked when he returned empty-handed. 'What's wrong with you?' 'The crowds,' he said. 'I couldn't handle it.'

For former navy peacekeeper MacCormack, social avoidance was symptomatic of his post traumatic stress disorder diagnosis, along with hypertension, sweating, isolation, substance abuse and horrendous nightmares.

After joining the Royal Australian Navy in 1968, MacCormack's active service brought him into close contact with death and violence. He remembers hauling dead bodies from the shipwrecked MV Noongah off the New South Wales coast in 1969. On Christmas Eve 1974, Cyclone Tracey pelted sandstone bricks around him and ripped the uniform from his body while he manned the Darwin naval telephone exchange.

Along with other peacekeepers, MacCormack has faced a lack of recognition of the traumatising situations peacekeepers can experience and their susceptibility to PTSD. He believes the role of peacekeepers often becomes lost in Australia's commemorative calendar.

In the shadow of Canberra's Australian War Memorial, Australia's first peacekeeping memorial has been completed on ANZAC Parade to address this lack of recognition. This Thursday 14 September will mark 70 years of Australian peacekeeping with a commemorative service and dedication of the memorial by Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove.

Australian peacekeepers are defence force personnel and police deployed by the United Nations to provide security, political and human rights assistance to conflict-ravaged countries transitioning to peace. Up to 60,000 service personnel since 1947 have served throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Missions include Rwanda, Timor-Leste, Persian Gulf and the former Yugoslavia, and non-UN deployments such as the Regional Assistance Mission in the Solomon Islands.

Dr Rosalind Hearder (pictured) worked with the Official History of Australian Peacekeeping and post-Cold War Operations project and has researched and written about PTSD. She believes stereotypical perceptions of war and peace can leave Australians with a misguided understanding of peacekeeping.

 

"I was picking glass out of my skin for a year. The vehicle was travelling at 125km an hour when it crashed. That's the equivalent impact speed of an explosion causing traumatic brain injury." — Paul Copeland

 

'It's not the same experience as combat. Instead of fighting an enemy, peacekeepers' role may be to stop former warring groups from fighting each other,' she says. 'That doesn't mean that peacekeeping is easier — the demands may be different but the long-term effects can still be damaging psychologically.'

Paul Copeland is past president of the Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans Association and has suffered from PTSD. He served as a peacekeeper in Sinai, Tonga, Vanuatu and Israel. In 1993 he was deployed in the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. This mission organised elections, military security and civil administration, and maintained law and order and human rights. He explains how peacekeeping can escalate from a benign situation to the language of war. 'It's like a powder keg, if someone lights up a match it will explode. It can change to a war zone at the drop of a hat.'

In one of many life-threatening situations, Copeland was nearly killed when a military vehicle he was travelling in crashed. He was the first person to be aero-medically evacuated while on active service since the Vietnam War. Copeland spent six months in hospital and convalescence after shattering his femur in three places and sustaining facial injuries and mental trauma. 'I was picking glass out of my skin for a year,' he says. 'The vehicle was travelling at 125km an hour when it crashed. That's the equivalent impact speed of an explosion causing traumatic brain injury.'

Copeland was shocked when he did not qualify for a RSL-conducted wounded servicemen convalescence scheme as his injuries were not deemed to be 'serious enough', nor to be of a 'military nature' as this was a vehicle accident and he had not been shot.

Since then, as a peacekeeper advocate, Copeland says he has faced discrimination in having peacekeepers recognised as veterans with the same physical and mental health needs as those who have served in combat. As past president of the Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans Association, he has struggled to attain equal access for members to medical services for the mental trauma that can result from peacekeeping missions. 'We've had to battle for everything,' Copeland says.

 

"Peacekeepers are as susceptible to PTSD as service personnel deployed to war zones. Feelings of demoralisation and helplessness and a lack of pre and post-deployment support have been shown to be key contributors."

 

Hearder says extensive international literature demonstrates that peacekeepers are as susceptible to PTSD as service personnel deployed to war zones. PTSD 'presents itself in the same way ... there's a strict criteria. People may have different experiences but it's the same diagnosis,' she says. Feelings of demoralisation and helplessness and a lack of pre and post-deployment support have been shown to be key contributors of PTSD for peacekeepers. 'Peacekeepers have constant contact with local people during missions and build strong relationships. If they go home and feel their service may have been for nothing once the mission personnel leave, it can lead to feelings of demoralisation,' Hearder says.

Copeland explains how stereotypes about peacekeeping service can compound this demoralisation. 'I've heard World War II veterans say, 'Peacekeepers? All you did is stand on street corners in blue berets and hand out lollies to kids.' It upsets a lot of us that we're viewed in that light,' he says.

Former Victorian State President Major General David McLachlan has said peacekeepers do not face exclusion by the RSL. 'If you've served in the Australian Defence Force you're entitled and welcomed into the RSL,' he says. 'There is no difference between someone who has served in Afghanistan and someone who's served in Cambodia as far as the RSL is concerned. They have both served our nation and are welcomed accordingly.'

This week's 70th anniversary memorial dedication takes place during 'Peacekeepers Week'. Commemorations will include Australian War Memorial activities to promote peacekeeping, Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans Association conferences and the annual conference of the United Nations Association of Australia.

While views differ on the current position of peacekeepers in Australian commemoration, it is clear that rightful respect for peacekeepers as part of the veteran community remains an emotional as well as practical issue. The memorial on ANZAC Parade must be more than a ceremonial symbol. It needs to represent a commitment to ongoing medical, practical and community support for those who keep the peace.

For MacCormack and Copeland, this recognition and the new memorial will signify official inclusion at a national level. 'This is a memorial I can go to and look at and think yes I was part of this,' MacCormack says. 'I'll be very proud.' Copeland sees it as recognition that 'keeping the peace is fraught with danger'. 'There will always be peacekeepers,' he says. 'This is a living memorial, it's past, present and future.'

 


 

Kate ManiKate Mani is a freelance writer with published pieces in The Age, The Australian, Mojo News, Lot's Wife and Viewpoint literary journal.

Topic tags: Kate Mani, peacekeepers, war memorials


 

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Existing comments

I have the greatest respect for service men and women, whether peacekeepers or veterans of other kinds of service to our country. I want to ask if an article can be written about PTSD among Forgotten Australians and their families. Everyone in our family has severe PTSD. Sustained abuse in childhood doesn't just cause PTSD in victims, but if they survive long enough to have families, their partners and children often have PTSD as well. It is impossible to exaggerate the effects of this on a Forgotten Australian family.
ForgottenAustralianFamily | 13 September 2017


This article along with the ABC Compass program last weekend where two army chaplains were interviewed about working with service personnel presents a picture & raises awareness - which is sorely lacking by many individuals & groups - about the stresses & pressures on those who service in the varying arms of defence. I suggest that anyone reading this also watch the Compass program on iView - well worth companion to this article.
Lorraine Brosnan | 13 September 2017


In my view Peacekeeping can be much harder than combat. It carries a different skill set which soldiers would not normally be trained for in the same sense. It requires almost superhuman control and awareness where the enemy is hidden in the crowd. A wrong decision in a slit second can be disastrous. Given this new form of warfare PTSD among our returned soldiers is not surprising. However then for the powers that be to discriminate and nit pick on who does or does not get support is despicable.
Peter | 13 September 2017


Thanks for this excellent article, Kate. It brought back memories of the time, twenty six years ago, when I met members of a peacekeeping force near the border of Israel and Lebanon. You have certainly brought forward an awareness of the situation peacekeepers face, especially at this anniversary celebration time.
Stancea Vichie | 18 September 2017


"This mission organised elections, military security and civil administration, and maintained law and order and human rights." Peacekeepers are regular military required by their civilian superiors to use swords as ploughshares. As such, being labourers worthy of their hire, they should be compensated in the same way as regular military who are required by their civilian superiors to use swords as swords, the instrument of use, by command of the civilian hirer, being the same.
Roy Chen Yee | 24 September 2017


Keep up the great work , I was X nam and we also helped in asia during the transition and DVA says get lost as you did nothing? and we drank 400% distilled agent orange as our ships use seawater distilling . Again DVA says no , what then were we drinking? Yes i was also X leeuwin and abuse did not stop there .
peter | 11 November 2017


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