The toll, Mark says, can result for some in a wound, officially known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
What’s in a name: Modern service, proactive support and PTSI
From 1991 to 2014, New Zealand has created Veterans in a greater number than any other time since the end of World War Two. Of the estimated 41,000 returned veterans, 30,000 and growing have served overseas since the end of the Vietnam War. Yet the vast majority of New Zealanders have little or no experience and consequent appreciation of what the many of these men and women, who served in the post-Vietnam era, encounter, nor the impact those experiences have on them and their families when they return home or are discharged from the services and enter civilian life.
Terms like ‘peace-keeping, stability and support, incident’ are used these days to describe ‘tours of duty’ in Angola, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Bougainville, Solomon Islands and the like, replacing words which in earlier generations carried greater significance; words like ‘war, conflict and battle’.
It’s fair to say there is a perception that we may carry of an easier road, a more controlled environment our service personnel experience active service in yet, according to Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association National Support Services Manager, Mark Compain, quite the reverse is true.
“The nature of operational service has changed since the 1960s due in part to the way modern conflict is fought in today’s operational theatres. Our service men and women go in to environments where the enemy cannot be easily identified, where there is no frontline, while still carrying significant weight on their back and around their bodies that their forebears knew,” says Mark, a former veteran of five overseas deployments and 21 years in the regular army.
“They can be exposed to a range of environmental risk factors while constantly on guard from threats that hide among the local population and erupt with little warning - like IEDs that can be activated at distance with the flick of a switch – or constantly processing vast amounts of information to prevent illegal activity, on the land or sea or in the air. This is what the day to day reality of contemporary operations is, and operating for months at a time in this environment without a break can take a toll. This can then be amplified by our people conducting multiple operational tours.”
The toll, Mark says, can result for some in a wound, officially known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which manifests, impacts and plays-out in the physical and mental health of not only veteran personnel, some who may still be serving, but also as secondary trauma among their family members. Describing a raft of symptoms as a Disorder, when in fact research shows that those suffering from the condition have sustained a brain injury, is again symptomatic of a ‘dumbing down’ of just how profound the condition can be.
“While the RSA recognises there is a broader mental health picture to also consider, we have made a decision to focus on Combat Trauma and PTSI advocacy. Trauma can physically change the brain’s processing pathways, a person cannot help this, so the RSA wants to change the incorrect perceptions and stigmatisation associated with PTSD by referring to it as a wound, and using the term Post Traumatic Stress Injury - PTSI. This much more properly describes what the service person has sustained and gives long overdue validation to their wounding and suffering, including the long term impacts on their families.”
Mark acknowledges the RSA relies heavily on the good work undertaken by volunteer support advisers aligned to RSA Club’s to keep in touch and support those who have left the defence force in their area but it is clear from the numbers of the post-1974 generation that are not engaged with their local RSA, and their perceptions, that the ways this support has been experienced and/or delivered is not meeting the needs of a large segment of returned service personnel. Therein, he says lies the opportunity and the challenge!
“Until recently, the RSA nationally has done little to proactively identify their concerns and raise the consciousness within local RSAs and the public generally about the reality of modern operational service including the silent casualties of PTSI within their communities, some who suffer in isolation from the traditional support networks such as family and friends. These men and women float under the radar, and despite the best of intentions, the RSA has not yet cracked the problem of being the safe, trusted ‘go to’ organisation of choice for them, and to be able to understand and offer relevant support in timely ways,” Mark says.
*This article originally appeared in RSA Review.