Children of the SAS

Army maps of Afghanistan. Photo: Georgy Nikel.

My dad always seemed to belong to everyone. When he was in Afghanistan he was serving his country and when he was home his time was split between everyone in his life.

When I was nine my class made Christmas decorations for our parents, but my dad had already gone on tour and wouldn’t be back until the following year. I made an angel from Styrofoam, and put it in a parcel to send over to him. It was already falling to pieces when I packed it and I wasn’t sure how interested my dad would be in a Christmas decoration that would probably arrive in January, but my mum taped up the box and posted it.

Almost a year later, after dad had come home, he had to stop into the training office at the barracks to pick something up before taking my brother and I home from his weekend custody. We tagged along. Canvas has a pungent smell when there’s a lot of it in a room, and there was a lot of it in this room. The floor was covered in army green ropes and straps and big plastic trunks. The walls were cluttered in overlapping maps and documents and posters of half-naked tattoo biker chicks. But behind my dad’s desk, my crappy angel was pinned to the wall, wings extended and perfectly preserved. I thought about my dad showing it off in Afghanistan and how he and his mates must see it every day and I realised something I wasn’t consciously aware of before: my dad loved me.

In 2001, following the September 11 terrorist attacks, President George W Bush declared a ‘War on Terror’: a campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Australian Prime Minister at the time John Howard invoked the ANZUS treaty and pledged Australia’s support to the US. In October of the same year all three squadrons of the SASR were deployed to Afghanistan to commence Operation Slipper, the first phase of Australia’s almost 20-year presence in the Middle East.

Throughout this time, the children of SAS soldiers, the majority of them in Perth where the SAS is headquartered, had to adjust to a life with frequent absence of their serving parent, not to mention living with the fear of their injury or death. Now, as adults, with SAS operations withdrawn from Afghanistan, these children are reflecting on how just how much Australia’s commitment to that theatre of war may have shaped not only their adolescence, but who they are now.

An expert panel was established in December 2002 to review the health concerns of SAS veterans after numerous accounts of servicemen coming home with a rash of problems. In the panel’s final review, it stated SAS veterans had reported suffering from “adjustment difficulties, rage attacks, difficulty sleeping, difficulty socialising, alcohol abuse, stress on families, divorce
and suicide”. Furthermore, counter-terrorist training had made some members “aggressive and insensitive to the suffering of self or others”. The panel also acknowledged that the deployment and reunion of parents was destabilising to families and induced stress by the continuous reordering of the household.

Generation Slipper

Heather is the daughter of an SAS soldier. She was born in 2001, two months after me, and we grew up together. I remember swimming in her pool and then playing with her LeapFrog while she sung and strummed the strings of her Hannah Montana guitar.

Heather’s Dad on tour. Photo: Georgy Nikel.

Heather says she always assumed her father had PTSD, but it wasn’t until her mother told her the story of a particular incident, that she felt she knew for sure.

“He was on his computer one day and mum tapped him on the shoulder and he didn’t realise she was in the room. And he turned around immediately and grabbed her around the throat and put her on the floor. And he was like ‘You can’t do that, you actually can’t sneak up on me and not make noise because that’s what will happen’. And I was like, oh, so he definitely has PTSD,” she says.

But Heather believes the stoicism of army culture ingrained in her dad prevents him from seeking a diagnosis or treatment for mental health issues.

“My dad won’t ever go to a psychologist or get diagnosed or anything like that. In his mind he doesn’t have it. But what do you think that is?” she says.

SAS soldiers are chosen on the basis of physical fitness, intelligence, mental toughness, teamwork and leadership skills. The selection process is famously rigorous. They are required to undergo training to withstand torture, often including beatings; sleep deprivation; and light deprivation. They are trained to conceal their emotions and – as Chris Masters puts it in his book No Front Line –”conditioned to wear the pain”.

Heather thinks this process conditioned her dad to be emotionally closed off from her family and caused problems in his adjusting to his family life.

“I mean, these people are literally trained to be sociopaths. Like they’re quite literally trained to not feel a single fucking thing in the world because they can’t because emotion will get you killed,” she says.

“These people are literally trained to be sociopaths.”

She also remembers the strain his absence put on the relationship between her dad and her brothers. One of her brothers was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia and struggled throughout his school years. She says her brother needed his dad there for him during that time, and his frequent deployments have damaged their relationship to a point they are no longer speaking.

“He just really does not like my dad because he was never there. He really struggled not having him around and now he’s just full of anger,” she says.

Emma can relate to the strain her father’s deployment had on their relationship.

Baby Emma. Photo: Georgy Nikel.

Emma’s dad and mine are good mates. My dad’s troublemaker personality found a match with her dad’s straighter edge. They brought out the weird school boys in each-other. On a family beach camping trip we watched them walk far out into the ocean, hold hands and squat. From the shore Emma and I could barely make out what they were doing out there for so long. We thought maybe it was some sort of SAS meditation exercise. But when they got back they proudly told us they had just pooped together into the ocean. They were in their 50s.

Unlike me, Emma can remember a time before her dad re-joined the SAS, when they were extremely close. Her dad used to come into her room at night and tuck her into bed. He would tell her stories and wait until she fell asleep. But when his deployments began things changed, and she was left wanting more of him and missing him.

“I think for a girl that’s different. You have like, you want that more emotional connection and like you need them to be there for you and want to be there for you. And there’s always like, like a daddy’s girl thing,” she says.

She says their relationship was further strained by her increased household responsibilities in his absence. She felt she had to fill the void her father left while on deployment. She had to grow up fast and suppress her own anguish so she could take care of her younger siblings and support her mum.

She says her mother struggled with her father’s decision to be a part of the SAS and subsequent frequent deployments. She says it felt like he chose to be away from the family because he didn’t want to be around them.

“Mum would tell me things like ‘your dad’s going to come back and we’re going to be gone’, ‘we’re not going to be here because I can’t do this’, ‘he can’t keep doing this to our family’. And like, that’s, I think really fucking traumatic to hear at 13 or 14 years of age being like, ‘Your dad was never there for you or your family, so now we’re not going be there for him.’ That was a lot. So, for like a good couple years. I really thought they were going to get divorced,” she says.

She says the biggest blow to her relationship with her dad happened when he caught her doing drugs in high school. After years of struggling with mental health issues and changing schools she fell into a bad crowd. Years before she had a mental breakdown and took 10 days off school. After being recommended to begin taking anti-depressants by a GP, she says her dad never recognised her issues, calling them nothing but teenage angst.

“I think emotionally, he doesn’t understand some things,” she says.

“He came from a family that didn’t talk about issues like very toxic masculinity. And my dad’s dad was also in the army. So, I think it’s literally just where he came from.”

Emma attended counselling sessions throughout her childhood, despite her parent’s unwillingness to acknowledge she was undergoing serious problems with her mental health.

“I’ve been to a number of different sessions over the years, starting from about six years old,” she says.

“The first session was because of my mum’s dad who had passed away. And then after that, it was kind of like, you go to all these funerals of dad’s friends, dad’s parents, mum’s parents, like just people dying, you know, and then having to live with the fact that that could be your dad next.”

“Just people dying, you know, and then having to live with the fact that that could be your dad next.”

It is impossible to talk about the SAS without acknowledging Blaine Diddams and his death. It seems like everybody involved in the SAS knew Didds.

Sergeant Diddams, became a member of the SAS in 1995 and served in Somalia, East Timor, the Solomon Islands and Afghanistan. He was on his seventh tour of Afghanistan when he was shot during an engagement with insurgents in 2012. He was 40 years old when he died.

Emma recalls visiting his house and climbing into the back of his truck with his kids for a ride around his property.

“He would just be like, ‘Get on the truck!’ and then he would just roll you through the dirt. He was a lot of fun,” she says.

“What Would Didds Do?”. Photo: Georgy Nikel.

“There was a rough time when dad’s friend, Blaine Diddams died.”

She says the way she found out about his death was extremely traumatic for her and lots of other kids with parents on deployment, because they found out on the news, with no name given.

“I remember hearing that on the radio. Mum was driving me to the bus stop at like seven o’clock in the morning,” she says.

“And it’s the last thing I heard. Getting out of the car and getting onto the bus. And I remember I was so stunted the entire day. Because I just had no idea who it was. All it said was like, Perth soldier shot in action in Afghanistan.”

“I had to go to school for the whole day, and not know. And then at the end of school, I go to my locker, I open up my locker, and I have all these missed calls from my mum. And I’m like, shit, I’m like, immediately, just like, something’s happened. And I was so scared. And I remember, like, I picked up the phone, and I called it and I didn’t even like I didn’t even in that moment, I didn’t even care that someone else had died. You know? I was just happy that it wasn’t my dad.”

Emma finding out a soldier had been shot in Afghanistan.

My dad was home at the time. He came to my mum’s house to see me after school, and I knew something was wrong, because my dad would never normally come to see my mum after their divorce, if he could avoid it. He was crying and I felt weird because I had never seen my dad cry while he was sober. He had driven his motorbike over and he only took off his helmet before he hugged me. I could feel the hard impact protectors in his jacket pressing against me and poking me in the ribs. He held me tight around my shoulders and I couldn’t move my arms and he said, “Didds is dead, baby.”

Before Didds was killed I never really thought there was any danger of my dad dying in Afghanistan. In my juvenile mind, the SAS were super soldiers. You would never hear about a member of the SAS dying and certainly never someone I had known. Someone close to my dad. In so many ways, someone just like my dad.

My brother, David, remembers our dad talking about his time in Afghanistan with his mates as some of dad’s best memories. Although he did not paint a pretty picture of the SAS.

My brother and I dressing up in cam. Photo: Georgy Nikel.

“You hear all the bullshit about like, legalities and hierarchy within the military. And like, it just sounded shit,” he says.

“Dad likes being the outcast and being cheeky. So, as you can imagine, in a governing body of the military, where it’s quite strict, when you’re pushing people’s limits, people are going to be like, ‘piss off mate’.”

“It’s fine for everyone to say focus on the job but it’s very hard with the uncertainty of relationships.

“This should be an adventure as well as a great ‘dash for cash’ for the family but at this point in time I can’t find any good reason to be here, as I stand to lose everything anyway. It would be easier not to come back than to come back to what I left, as there was no future in it as it was.”

Excerpt from my dad’s letter to my uncle while on tour during my parent’s divorce. June 20, 2007.

David thinks dad’s nature mixed with his time in the SAS contributed to a certain amount of paranoia.

He talked about a time our dad became convinced the house was bugged after he found the glass in a picture frame smashed and haphazardly placed back onto a side tabletop. For a while he started putting the vacuum cleaner on when he wanted to have more serious conversations with us, or tell us a story about the army. In reality, I had accidentally smashed the picture frame and was too embarrassed to tell anyone. My embarrassment was only worsened because of dad’s reaction, so I didn’t even tell my brother that I was responsible until a few years ago.

But ultimately, he thinks dad would have been the same if he had never re-joined the SAS.

My father first joined the SAS in 1979, but was removed from his unit and ended up completely leaving the military around 1993. He started a tree lopping business and did that for a few years, but he missed the SAS. My brother was born in 1999 and after I was born, in 2001, he re-joined.

“Dad’s real passion is just breaking the rules and the military let him do that sort of thing. Things that you couldn’t do in normal society but you could do it over there. Breaking the rules within the rules sort of thing,” David says.

“And maybe that would have made him paranoid in the end anyway, because he would have like, if it he stayed a tree lopper, he would have been breaking the rules by cutting down trees that he shouldn’t and doing all that shit. He would still be looking over his shoulder for the baddies out to get him.”

“I guess he would be less traumatised and different in the sense that, just everything that you do in your life that shapes you into the person that you are. So he would have had vastly different experiences and everything that would have made him a different bloke, but I think the things that make dad who he is he had from day one. Maybe the SAS enhanced certain aspects. But, it’s not like he was a normal bloke, joined the SAS and became a nutter, he was always a nutter.”

David says that most the children of SAS soldiers know the reality of what it takes.

“But to even want to join the SAS you need to have that. You need to be at least a little bit cooked.”

For ‘Generation Slipper’, the kids of the elite fighters, knowing the cost their parent’s profession had on their lives is a difficult question to answer.

It might give them a sense of pride, of purpose. Maybe it made them stronger people, and gave them a lifelong bond?

The children of the SAS will always wonder what it would have been like not to wake up every day wondering if your dad has been killed, or killed someone else.

And they’ll wonder what it might have been like just to have dad home.

My dad and I. Photo: Georgy Nikel.

Names in this story were changed to protect identities, including that of the author.

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