Fighting for each other

A ‘sense of duty’ is a common motivation for Australians deciding to join the military.

Structured routine, financial stability and an opportunity to see the world also appeal to the patriotic mindset.

Unfortunately, the atrocities of war can take their toll on even the toughest of soldiers.

It happened after Vietnam, it happened after Iraq and Afghanistan – and it’s happening still.

“Don’t sneak up on him and put the plate down quietly, he gets startled easily,” my manager warned, as I prepared to serve dinner to one of the locals.

It was my first job at a Cottesloe pub where I met Vietnam War veteran John Grace. He was polite, gentle, and loved to have a chat to anyone who would listen.

I wasn’t fully aware of the severity of John’s post-traumatic stress disorder, until he described what he saw in the war over a schooner of Swan Draught.

Vietnam War Veteran John Grace was conscripted at just 20-years-old. Photo: Katya Minns.

Still plagued by memories of combat nearly 50 years later and the debilitating psychological effects of trauma, John Grace found solace in books, routine, and socialising at the Albion Hotel.

“While I was in the army, you had the sergeants’ mess – you go in, you have your drinks and then you go home,” he says.

“I found the pub is very similar, it’s just like a family where you can just relax and talk.”

Despite the trauma associated with war, he still finds purpose in service – spending his free time volunteering as a Justice of The Peace, even after a major health scare just months ago.

So why do veterans try to recreate military life that once caused so much anguish?

Perhaps it was all they knew when trying to return to civilian life?

In April last year, a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide was announced after lobbying from the families of veterans who died by suicide after returning from service.

Since then, the inquiry has heard harrowing accounts of systemic issues and delays in support systems for those navigating life outside of defence service.

Josh Hawes works as a psychologist in Fremantle, specifically for veterans. As a veteran himself, he says there needs to be a more effective handover from Defence to the DVA.

Josh Hawes formally served as a clinical psychologist in the Australian SAS. Photo: Katya Minns.

“It’s their job to actually make culturally appropriate and timely access support for the veterans,” he says.

I spoke to several veterans who served in different wars spanning over 70 years about their experiences of returning home. 

All described the camaraderie they experienced in the army and have since immersed themselves in professions that assist other veterans in the Perth community.

Ryan Wilson returned from the Australian army and established a veterans’ club at the Whipper Snapper Distillery in East Perth – hosting regular events for current and ex-serving defence personnel to enjoy.

Ryan Wilson established the veterans club at Whipper Snapper Distillery after serving in the army. Photo: Katya Minns.

Like many others, he says we should be doing everything we can to make sure our veterans are safe and well.

This is their story.