Jack wept as his best friend died in his arms on the field of battle. Both were fresh-faced 20 year-olds, conscripted to fight a war nobody wanted nor understood.
They’d grown up together, Dave and Jack; they went to the same school, witnessed each other’s first loves and first heartbreak, snuck their first beer, and got in their first fist fight. They were practically brothers, so neither were surprised when they got drafted into the same Royal Australian Army Regiment. In fact they were relieved.
“I’d take a bullet for you,” Dave told Jack in the weeks leading up to their deployment.
“And I you,” Jack returned the sentiment.
Neither knew how close to being true this statement would become.
To this day, Jack wishes he had taken that bullet for Dave.
Almost fifty years later, he still torments over that fateful day.
He recalls the terror of being fired upon by an invisible enemy while crawling through red mud to find cover, their team members’ shouting fading into the haze of the messy battlefield.
Dave was hit in the chest and his body immediately crumpled. Jack remembers the sound of his friend trying to breathe, and the smell of blood, as he held him close telling him – “It’s gonna be okay,” and “I love you” over and over.
The mud became a different shade of red that day.
Returning home to Melbourne wasn’t the end of Jack’s battles. In fact, he believes he faced an even harder one – the war which continued in his head for many years to come.
At least on the battlefield the threat was tangible, it was clear – it was kill or be killed. In his head was uncontrollable, relentless chaos, and it came close to killing him.
Add to that, he didn’t return as the patriotic, war-hero he’d imagined, and was abused when he wore his uniform in public.
“I fought in a war to fight for a country I no longer felt welcome in.”
He rapidly fell into a state of depression, and for years tried to numb the mind-chaos with alcohol. Many times he drank too much and ended up in hospital.
He could see the look of sympathy in people’s eyes. His family gave up on him. His sister looked at him like the enemy. She’d spent years protesting the war, and their differences of opinion drove an irrevocable wedge between them.
He was labelled an alcoholic, and it seemed people forgot he’d even fought in a war.
On rare sober days his over-exaggerated fear response heightened even further, and the smallest noise made him jump. He couldn’t watch violent TV shows or movies as he’d be sent into a state of panic. Having a single clear thought was impossible, clouded by constant terrifying chatter. He didn’t like to sleep because when he closed his eyes he’d be taken straight back to the battlefield. When he eventually did fall asleep from exhaustion he’d wake up screaming, sweating, and not knowing where he was.
So he drank more.
He became reclusive and barely left the house. The enemy was everywhere. He couldn’t even open his mail, so it piled up in the hallway. The smallest everyday tasks became hellish.
He often wished he was the one who’d been killed that day.
He felt a triple-dose of guilt – for being the one who survived, for marring the memory of Dave who’d fought so valiantly, and for failing at the life he’d been blessed with.
And the self-destructive cycle continued.
What could he have done differently that day? If they’d left on patrol a second earlier, or later, would Dave still be here? Why did he have to die so young?! It all seemed so senseless.
And so he drank more.
He woke up in hospital, as he often did, with a doctor standing by his bed. Expecting the usual synthetic sympathy or patronising lecture he ripped out the IV line and tried to stand but immediately fell, fracturing his hip.
He spent two months in hospital recovering, and it would be the biggest turning point of his life.
The same doctor spoke to him at great lengths about what she believed was going on. Nobody had explained, or even cared to explore his mind-chaos.
“You have post-traumatic stress disorder.”
He initially refused the label, feeling as if he should honour his fallen comrades – pushing on was a survivor’s obligation.
But the more he listened, the more it made sense. All of his symptoms – the flash-backs, the nightmares, the anxiety and depression, the triggering of panic attacks – he had it all.
The doctor explained this was also linked to his alcohol abuse.
“Your brain is still at war, and you’re trying to hide from it and pretend it’s not happening. You’re numbing your psychological pain.”
The area of his brain associated with memories had a disproportionate emotional response triggered by certain stimuli. He was in a permanent extreme fight or flight mode.
A silent, insidious, post-war epidemic.
She was interested in getting him into therapy as soon as he was physically able. And so the healing finally began.
After many years of self-destructive behaviours he began rehabilitation through group and individual therapy.
At group therapy is where he met Beverley.
Her husband had also been to Vietnam but had chosen to end his life a few years after returning. He was never formally diagnosed with PTSD, but all signs pointed to it. Beverley had turned to alcohol for a temporary reprieve, which turned into a chronic habit.
Their dating life began with a promise of honesty and openness, as her late-husband hadn’t been open about his struggles.
“Are you trying to save me because you feel guilty about your husband?” Jack asked Beverley early on.
“I don’t feel guilty. I just don’t want it to happen ever again, not on my watch.”
She was a strong-willed woman, and together they were able to beat the urges of self-medication on dark days.
They travelled the world together and forged many beautiful memories that were able to all but replace the nightmares.
In the weeks before she passed away, Beverley made Jack promise he’d keep travelling and not fall into old patterns of self-destruction.
It is now six years on and he’s still travelling with his little dog, in a caravan, driving around Australia with no destination in mind but to just drive, telling his story and leaving his mark wherever he goes.
Almost as if he knew why I too was driving around Australia in a van with my dog, like a mirror-image of his younger self, he left me with these final words – “You’ll face some battles yourself, but never give up, never give in, because no matter how hard it gets it always gets better.”