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The Sunday EssayApril 21, 2024

Lest we forget? The shame of our two-tier veteran’s system

Images by Tina Tiller
Images by Tina Tiller

Our laws are leaving many veterans who served after 1974 out in the cold. I know, because I’m one of them.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

As I write this story, I am in constant pain. My hands shake with adrenaline, and the muscles in my back have tensed up. It is the fight or flight response kicking in. I am not exactly sure what has triggered it this time, as it is quiet here, and apart from the birds, there is nobody around. But the hyper-vigilance of post-traumatic stress disorder isn’t logical. It’s a distortion of the body’s natural sensor system, which is designed to allow us to detect, interpret and respond to threats. 

Hyper-vigilance is a normal response to abnormal circumstances. If you are a soldier in Afghanistan, East Timor or the Solomon Islands, or any of the other places the New Zealand Defence Force has deployed to in recent decades, it’s vital to be alert to your environment. What was that noise? Was it a car backfiring, or a shot? Why were there kids playing soccer here yesterday, but not today? Why is the guy in the market, who is normally so friendly, refusing to make eye contact with me?

In the army, there’s a term for this: “absence of the normal, presence of the abnormal”. You are specifically trained to be hyper-alert the moment you put on your helmet and body armour and head out on patrol. Hours later, you return to base, have a rest, and get ready for the next patrol. You keep up this routine, day and night, for weeks or even months on end. And the more your brain learns to be hyper-alert, the harder it is to relax when you’re back home safe and sound. That’s one of the reasons one in three contemporary veterans have symptoms of PTSD, and why my own body has persisted in fighting itself for nearly a decade.

But there’s another reason contemporary veterans are struggling, and it has nothing to do with what they experienced in uniform. It’s because of the two-tier system employed by Veterans’ Affairs, which, unlike the more generous system in Australia, leaves many veterans out in the cold – fighting the battles inside their head, without meaningful support. 

My grandfather, Desmond Graham, volunteered for the Royal New Zealand Air Force as soon as he was old enough. The Second World War was well underway, and every man and his dog had stepped forward to defend King and Country. He soon got to grips with a Tiger Moth and obtained his pilot’s wings in 1943. He was scheduled to depart for Canada for advanced training, but came down with pneumonia while guarding a crashed Hudson bomber in a rain storm. Nevertheless, the RNZAF looked after him. He got the best hospital treatment and made a full recovery. 

As part of his demobilisation at the end of the war, my grandfather was able to transition smoothly into a job with the Bank of New Zealand. He stayed there for four decades, rising to the position of branch manager. Shortly before his death from cancer at 83, he returned to the skies, piloting a glider over the central North Island. 

But my experience as a contemporary veteran suffering from service-related injury has been rather different. It has taken me nearly a decade to obtain meaningful support from Veterans’ Affairs, despite serving on deployments to East Timor and the Solomon Islands, as well as the NZDF’s response to the Christchurch earthquakes. 

In my hometown, in an environment of total destruction, I led my section of ten soldiers in assisting traumatised people, securing homes and businesses in the Red Zone from looting, and managing an evacuation system for workers who later went into the cordoned-off area to begin demolishing the hundreds of buildings that were structurally unsound. Day and night, there were breaches of the cordon by would-be looters or ordinary people who were drunk, lost or confused. We secured billions of dollars worth of infrastructure, all the while dealing with the unsettling effect of the thousands of aftershocks that rocked the city for more than a year. 

A year or so later, I became aware that I was suffering from the symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as PTSD. I sought help from Veterans’ Affairs, but my application for treatment and rehabilitation was turned down. This was because the earthquake response was deemed to be “routine” rather than “operational” service. It’s hard to see what was routine about the destruction of an entire city and what the NZDF trumpets on its own website as “New Zealand’s largest ever humanitarian assistance mission”. 

But in that, I am not alone. There are many veterans who do not tick the right box and have been denied the sort of support that my grandfather received as a matter of course. This is because the Veterans’ Support Act 2014 is a discriminatory piece of legislation. Anyone who served in uniform prior to 1974 is eligible for support regardless of whether their illness or injury occurred in Vietnam or in Waiouru. But post-1974 servicepeople are not eligible for support unless they served on an overseas deployment which has been classified as a Qualifying Operational Service, and even then, only if their condition can be specifically traced to that deployment. 

Our system stands in stark contrast to the one employed by our ANZAC mates. The Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs considers anyone who served in uniform to be a veteran and will provide “treatment, rehabilitation and compensation” for any serviceperson who suffered injury or illness during their time in uniform, regardless of when it occurred. It doesn’t matter whether you are a regular soldier, a reservist, a cadet or even someone given honorary rank who “performs acts at the request or the direction of the Defence Force”: if you put your body on the line, you’ll get looked after. 

Likewise, our own Returned Services Association does not discriminate. It will help any ex-serviceperson in need, providing everything from grocery money to counselling for spouses to a job placement scheme. 

In 2019, Ron Mark, the then Minister of Veterans Affairs, began to refer to anyone who had served in the NZDF as a “veteran”. But the Veterans’ Support Act 2014 has not been amended. If you served after 1974, and your service-related condition was not caused by a specific overseas deployment, then you don’t get support. 

When I joined the army, the recruiting staff sergeant took one look at me and said: “infantry”. It was 2003, and the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment had just emerged from three intense years of patrolling the jungles of East Timor. Our instructors were all veterans of that deployment. They were tough, uncompromising corporals and sergeants who swore like sailors and threw pinecones at us when we didn’t show sufficient aggression during section attacks. It was a long way from the classes I had taken at university, where PhD candidates had droned on about American foreign policy in Guatemala in the 1950s.

Inspired by the stories our instructors told us about their own time in ’Timor, I wanted to deploy. To contribute to the ideals that Aotearoa stood for in bringing stability to the Asia-Pacific region. In 2006, when inter-ethnic violence erupted in the Solomon Islands, I got my wish.

At the age of 22, while my peers from university were getting used to working a “real job” rather than stumbling into lectures at whatever time suited them, I was patrolling the burnt-out streets of Honiara, the Solomon Island’s ramshackle capital. We were there to support the police, who had virtually disintegrated in the face of mob violence, and each of the 30 soldiers in my platoon was armed with a Steyr assault rifle or a C9 light machine-gun. I had 280 rounds of live ammunition in my webbing pouches and a weighty encrypted radio on my back. In my top-right pocket beneath my body armour was a Rules of Engagement card, which told me under what circumstances I could detain someone, or even shoot to kill. 

It was an enormous responsibility for a young soldier to bear, and this is one of the reasons young veterans can find themselves so alienated when they return home to a society that doesn’t understand or appreciate the raw physical courage they are required to display when deployed. How do you put that on your LinkedIn profile without scaring people off? 

When you first deploy overseas, you undergo what is called “acclimatisation training”. This involves your whole platoon doing a gradually increasing amount of physical exercise while drinking lots of water. But when you get home, you must re-acclimatise by yourself. My first memory of being back in New Zealand is of going to the shopping mall and automatically scanning the faces of people around me to see if anyone presented a threat. For a week, I kept thinking I’d lost my rifle, because it had never left my side in the 129 days I was deployed. 

Then there was the abrupt visual transition between the poverty and decay of Honiara and the abundance I saw around me. The streets of the Solomon’s capital, which is about the size of Timaru, had been strewn with rubbish; rain and faeces ran through open sewers and whole families lived in tin shacks. Drug abuse and alcoholism were rampant. At night, stray dogs roamed the alleyways, while young men got high on betel nut, a stimulant that stains the teeth red, and picked fights using nunchucks and machetes. When we went into the villages, we saw children who were so malnourished that their hair had turned a pale blonde colour. Yet here I was, back in Christchurch, watching overweight people stuff themselves with food. I wanted to knock the burgers out of their hands and stomp on them.

In his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, the war reporter Sebastian Junger argues that the psychological problems many veterans experience are as much to do with the “trauma” of re-entering ordinary society as what they experienced while deployed. Junger regards this as a form of “adjustment disorder”, and argues that it was much less common amongst veterans of the Second World War. These veterans faced a long sea voyage from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific, and had time to process their experiences before re-entering civilian society. 

Contemporary veterans, by contrast, usually wake up in a forward operating base, surrounded by their mates, and go to bed in suburbia next to their spouse. This abrupt transition makes it difficult to switch back to being a loving partner rather than a soldier.

I eventually recovered from my sense of alienation and settled into a job working in the outdoor industry, before returning to the army to work full-time in information management. But in 2011, when the earthquake struck, the hyper-vigilance returned with a vengeance. 

The first day of the earthquake was chaos. The power and water went off at home, and stayed off for three weeks. I called a long-serving warrant officer I knew, who was in Wellington at the time, and asked him how things looked from afar. “Very serious,” he replied.

Three weeks earlier, I had returned home from East Timor, where I had served in an armoured troop. Now I was seeing LAVs take up positions around the centre of my own hometown to deter looters from entering what would become the Red Zone. I went out and stood guard for a while, then went back to HQ. For me, that first night was rather quiet, but another soldier had a more unsettling experience. “I never want to see that many bodies in one place again,” he said. 

In the weeks and months that followed, most of the NZDF – from army reservists to sailors to Air Force intelligence analysts – took it in turns to form a “human cordon” around the hundreds of damaged and evacuated buildings that made up the Red Zone. Members of the public, rattled by thousands of aftershocks, turned their nervous energy into action by showering us with home-made cakes. But not all our interactions with the public were positive. There were frequent breaches of the cordon by would-be looters and rubberneckers. 

One night, a man crashed his car into a wall in front of our checkpoint, and I spent half an hour calming him down while the police were called. It turned out that he had bipolar disorder, was off his medication, and needed specialist psychiatric care. He was driven off to Hillmorton Hospital.

At the time, I could never have imagined that I too would end up needing specialist psychiatric support. But that’s exactly what happened. 

The seeds of my eventual breakdown were sewn by the sheer exhaustion of 60-hour weeks in an environment of total destruction, and the fact that I was unable to separate work from home. I was spending 12 or 13 hours a day surrounded by an apocalyptic landscape, dealing with everything from bereaved family members mounting vigils for their loved ones to lost and traumatised tourists, to the toxic culture of bullying perpetrated by one of our own sergeants. 

When I got home, I would take off my uniform and sleep, but there were frequent phone-calls from soldiers in need of support or from the sergeant, who had a habit of flying into a rage whenever he didn’t have an answer to a problem that had cropped up. At the same time, there were daily aftershocks, that kept my wife and everyone else I knew on a knife edge. 

By the time ANZAC Day 2012 came around, I was close to breaking point. I was so burnt-out that when I showed up for the dawn service at the Papanui RSA, I had my mounted rifles hat on backwards and didn’t notice. Afterwards, an officer I knew came up to me with a concerned look on his face. “Mate, you look exhausted,” he said. 

The following week, I transferred back to the Army Reserve and tried to focus on completing the post-graduate course I had started. But the damage – the cumulative effect of two overseas deployments and six months on the Red Zone cordon – was done. I was relying on daily physical exercise to break the “fight or flight” response and settle my nerves. I experienced bouts of irrational anger and periods of intense anxiety. 

When my symptoms got worse, I found a counselling service that offered six free sessions to people who had been involved in the earthquake response. I tried to explain what was going on to a fastidious man in his 50s, who had the annoying habit of playing with his pen. He didn’t mention PTSD, but he did suggest I see a psychiatrist. 

In the waiting room of the psychiatry practice, I flipped through old magazines, nervously hoping the person I was about to see would “fix” me. The psychiatrist wore a dark suit with a white shirt and listened keenly while I explained my symptoms. He initially struggled to make a diagnosis and asked if I was suffering from “flashbacks” – another classic sign of PTSD. I said that I wasn’t, but neglected to add that I was suffering from nightmares. I added that I would tense up whenever I saw a vehicle that reminded me of one used on the cordon. The psychiatrist nodded. “I know what’s going on here,” he said.

He diagnosed me with psychosis, a condition characterised by “persecutory delusions”. He put me on medication and was confident of a good prognosis. The problem was, he was completely wrong. 

For the next three years, I tried to keep working, but each time I was unable to stay in the job for long. First, it was full-time jobs, then part-time jobs, then finally freelance work. Without a proper diagnosis, I was not getting the right treatment and my symptoms got worse. 

Eventually I contacted Veterans’ Affairs, and learned that I was eligible for support due to my deployments to East Timor and the Solomon Islands. I soon received a letter telling me I was required to attend a work-fit assessment. I was horrified, and my hyper-vigilance immediately kicked in. I had applied to Veterans’ Affairs because I had tried to keep working and failed, not because I wanted them to pressure me back into work so that I would get sick again. This was the first of many errors on their part that would affect my chance of recovery.

My wife and I moved to Blenheim to get some respite from Christchurch. I went for the work-fit assessment and was deemed “not yet fit” to work. With my wife’s mum struggling to look after her severely disabled sister, we packed up and moved to Ireland to be closer to her family. I tried to encourage Veterans’ Affairs to arrange for a vocational assessment – the next step in the rehabilitation process – but they never got round to it. They went silent for nearly six months. 

Eventually I was told that I needed to apply for my conditions to be assessed under a new scheme, which involved going to another psychiatrist to tell my story all over again. The process took a year, and the outcome was devastating: because the psychiatrist had determined that the cause of my PTSD was the Christchurch earthquakes, I was ineligible for support with rehabilitation and treatment. I had been punished by the two-tier system, which treats any injury or illness not sustained on an overseas deployment as someone else’s problem. 

For five years, nothing changed. But in early 2022, I discovered that Veterans’ Affairs had made a critical error: they had never sent me a decision letter detailing exactly why my application was rejected. 

At that point, I contacted the RSA. I was put in touch with a support advisor who helped me to lodge an appeal. Finally, on 8 March 2023, I received a positive decision letter. The same day, Bernadine Mackenzie, the Head of Veterans’ Affairs, e-mailed me an apology. “You put your life on the line,” she wrote, “suffered injuries from that service and should have received a better service from Veterans’ Affairs in support of your wellbeing and recovery.”

While I appreciated the sentiment, it feels like too little, too late. With proper support from the very beginning, I could have had a chance of significant recovery by now. Instead, my wife has been forced to become my carer while struggling to hold down a job. She too has suffered, developing her own mental health issues which persist to this day. 

Privately, while I was still battling for support, a staff member at Veterans’ Affairs took me aside and said, “You’re not the only one, you know.” And that’s a problem. There are many ex-servicepeople who don’t tick the right box. If you provided security at the New Zealand Embassy in Moscow during the Cold War, you’re eligible; if you’re there now, you’re not. Likewise, if you responded to the tsunami in Papua New Guinea in 1998, you’re eligible; if you responded to the tsunami in Tonga in 2022, you’re not. 

With the NZDF facing a retention crisis, while at the same time preparing for a vast array of future operations (which will likely include responding to climate-change induced disasters both at home and abroad), it seems to me that the two-tier system needs to be abolished. 

Otherwise, we risk the possibility that future servicepeople may think twice about putting their lives on the line for a Defence Force that is only sometimes prepared to support them if they become injured or ill as a result of their service. 

And that just isn’t good enough. 

Keep going!