An Iraq veteran has spoken out about his experience with mental illness following his service abroad, saying he felt suicidal every day for eight years.
Alex Kasmarek has told the ABC his life spiralled out of control after he returned from an eight-month rotation of Iraq, left the military and found himself homeless.
His comments come after a Senate inquiry found nearly one in four returned soldiers had experienced a mental disorder in the previous 12 months, and the rate of suicidality – which the Federal Government defines as serious thoughts about taking one’s own life, suicide plans and suicide attempts – was double those of the general population.
“Every day of my life for eight years I had an undesirable will to shoot myself. Every single day. And I just didn’t know why,” Mr Kasmarek said.
“I didn’t know what PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] was exactly, and Army doctors told me I was fine. I just thought I was going mentally insane.”
The mental health of Defence Force (ADF) members and veterans was put in the spotlight due to the sheer regularity of anxiety, depression, PTSD and suicide among current and former military personnel.
Since 2000, 96 serving members have killed themselves and a further 13 veterans have taken their own life.
Because of the difficulty in tracking returned veterans, the number was believed to be even higher.
The Senate committee heard harrowing accounts of veteran’s experiences.
“I realised my friend had been killed. There were bits of his body, his body armoury and kit strewn across the field. There was a child who had his toes blown off from the blast that had began running away at that point.” — Combat First Aider, Afghanistan (name omitted)
“She appeared to have been doused with petrol, set alight and shot in the head … Fused to her was the baby she must have been holding at the time of the execution. I see this woman and child whilst sleeping … I feel ashamed I was not there fast enough to stop what happened.” — Serviceman, East Timor peacekeeping mission
Recommendation for annual mental health screening
The Senate committee report’s top recommendation was that every single ADF member must undergo annual screening for mental illness in order pick up on problems and mitigate the stigma of “seeking out” help.
As one veteran explained to the inquiry: “As soon as you are injured you are like a dog — you are kicked out of the pack and there is no way of getting back into that pack.”
Mr Kasmarek agreed that culture was deeply embedded.
“We didn’t accept people with psychological conditions very well, we didn’t treat them very well, and unfortunately I was also one of those people that didn’t treat people with respect … through no fault of my own; that was how I was trained,” he said.
Senator Anne McEwen was on the committee and said the inquiry focussed on what Defence and the Department of Veteran Affairs could do to address the ongoing problems.
“It’s not good enough for the people who go and fight to protect our country to not receive attention for their mental health issues,” Senator MacEwen said.
Calls for a national identification number for all members
For Mr Kasmarek, his saving grace was one-on-one support from an RSL officer and veteran advocate, Mark Keynes.
“Mark pretty much picked me up out of the gutter, got me the help, the support, and basically set me up to get where I am now,” Mr Kasmarek said.
“It’s hard to even put into terms and think about where I was two years ago compared to where I am now.”
Mr Keynes himself experienced mental health issues but believes he was treated differently by Defence because of his rank as a Major.
“I was eventually diagnosed with depression; I put my hand up for help when I thought things weren’t going well and I received help immediately,” Mr Keynes said.
He believes mental health issues in the Defence Force are fuelled by a “harden up” mentality.
“Our forefathers just suffered in silence,” he said. “The horrific stories that must have come back from WWI and WWII, they just drank themselves into oblivion, and too many one-way trips to the woodshed. And we still have people doing that now.”
Mr Keynes added a national identification number for all members would help streamline the process, and was a recommendation also made by the Senate committee.
After Afghanistan shows complex emotions of returning soldiers
Australian artist Ben Quilty created a War Memorial exhibition, After Afghanistan, in 2012 to express the dangers the soldiers encountered in Afghanistan and the complex emotions they felt on returning home.
To create the portraits, Mr Quilty asked solders to come to his studio, where they spoke openly about memories they would otherwise have found difficult to share.
This article first appeared on ‘ABC’ on 22 March 2016.