A veteran military medic says post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is far more prevalent than Australian Defence Force (ADF) figures suggest and is urging fellow sufferers to reach out for help.
Flight Sergeant Frank Alcatara, who served in war zones across the world during a 35-year career, told a PTSD seminar in Brisbane on Saturday that he first felt the effects of PTSD after returning home from Rwanda in 1994, but never sought treatment.
“When I first deployed to Rwanda we had no psychological de-screening or anything when we got home, we were just told to essentially ‘suck it up’ even though we weren’t feeling normal,” Sergeant Alcatara told the seminar, hosted by the Royal United Service Institute and University of Queensland.
While on deployment to the Middle East in 2012, he suffered a breakdown.
He was sedated and evacuated for treatment in Australia.
“I felt really quite ashamed that I had to be flown home, particularly as a medic,” he said.
Unfortunately, I can’t go back to my original occupation of being a nurse and a paramedic because they are the triggers that put me back into my little space of demons.
Flight Sergeant Frank Alcatara
“I felt I should have seen the symptoms coming, I was just unable to look people in the face.
“It took me a good six to seven months to admit to myself that I need to come out of the closet, per se, and eventually I slowly started telling people about my journey with PTSD.”
Sergeant Alcatara is about to be medically discharged from the ADF due to his condition.
His wife, Lori-Anne Alcatara, said she knew something was wrong with her husband when he began drinking a lot more and became a recluse.
Sergeant Alcatara said he was one of the lucky ones and that there were thousands of people like him in the ADF who were still too ashamed to seek treatment.
Experts at the Brisbane seminar said PTSD affected many more servicemen and women than was widely believed.
Psychiatrist Andrew Khoo has been treating those who have served in the military for almost 15 years.
Dr Khoo said about 30 per cent of returned defence personnel suffered some form of psychiatric illness at some stage in their life.
“The biggest issue is the barrier of getting people to put up their hand and self volunteer that they are struggling psychiatrically and that’s very difficult to do with military personnel,” he said.
Health statistics years out of date: Assistant Minister
Assistant Minister for Defence Stuart Robert told the seminar the last substantive figures from the Health and Wellness study in 2010 indicated 8.3 per cent of fighting men and women suffered from PTSD in the previous 12 months.
Mr Robert said the ADF was moving from paper to electronic medical records which would help provide more updated and accurate statistics.
“By the end of the year the defence force will have a full electronic record across all our bases,” he said.
“The first large-scale use of electronic health records in the country … will certainly help us understand and report better on the issue.”
Sergeant Alcatara said he was hoping for a different future to the life he had led.
“I need to now find something new – unfortunately, I can’t go back to my original occupation of being a nurse and a paramedic because they are the triggers that put me back into my little space of demons,” he said.
“This is all I have done for 35 years.
“It will be a difficult journey from here on but I feel I have got the tools from the help I’ve been given and the amazing support from my wife.”
This article first appeared on ABC on 2 August 2014.