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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder In Soldiers

January 17, 2013

exit wounds john cantwell

By Laurie Lumsden

Some of my clients – ex-service, police and civilian – have asked me about General John Cantwell’s recent autobiography Exit Wounds – One Australian’s War On Terror.

John retired from the Australian Army in 2011 after operational service in a number of war zones.  Despite being myself an Army Reserve officer who worked on the Regular Army operational 1st Division Head Quarters during the tidal wave in Papua New Guinea and the operation in East Timor, I found the book disturbing in terms of the amount of combat detail he described.

I think perhaps he was more exposed to trauma because his initial combat in Iraq was away from his unit and social support (the reference to no further contact from the two soldiers he worked with there is very significant) and the US military context and philosophy was a shock to him.

I could be wrong but I suspect that he would not have come across quite such a matter-of-fact approach to killing in the Australian or British context.   Maybe we just avoid talking about it in quite such a frank way.

The experiences he had are textbook examples of those capable of causing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  I wondered why his PTSD had not been picked up earlier and I think part of the point of the book is to explore this; to encourage servicemen and women to be more open about their “demons” and to seek out the help that is available.  (I note his use of the word demons.  It is very descriptive and I will continue to use it.)

This book shows his humanity, and respect for life and family.  For him, recovery is a long and gradual process, as for everyone who makes this journey.  He talks about the important supports of family and friends.  He describes himself as a “survivor” not a victim.

It’s a tough read, but inspirational in that other soldiers suffering undisclosed PTSD might come forward, and because it might be used by the Defence Force to rebuild psychological supports that I suspect have been eroded since I was in the Army.

I hope the Defence Force employs General Cantwell in a post-retirement role doing just that.

Laurie Lumsden is the principal psychologist at Life Resolutions Kenmore in Queensland.  He was Australia’s first police psychologist, and also worked as a psychologist for the Australian Army testing and selecting soldiers and later in operational work in the preparation for deployment and return of soldiers from overseas. 

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