Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Oz prepares to pay Afghanistan 'bill'

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BRISBANE -- The first ripples of what is shaping up as a mental health tsunami were felt in Australia Wednesday when a young soldier used talk radio to confront Prime Minister Julia Gillard about her support for Afghanistan War veterans.

The decade-long conflict is coming to an end Down Under. Most troops are set to return home at the end of the year as the multinational base, Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan province, is handed over to local soldiers in 2014.

Whether or not the war was a "success" will be a matter largely for historical debate. What will be its more tangible legacy is the hundreds, and possibly thousands, of young men and women left with deep mental scars.

Post-traumatic-stress disorder is not new to this nation. Thousands of "diggers" (Aussie for soldiers) exited both world wars with nervous disorders vaguely bundled into a condition labelled "shell shock.''

It wasn't until Vietnam, where some 500 Australian diggers lost their lives, that the mental agony of modern warfare became the subject of more formal diagnosis, and the massive cost to society of damaged young men was recognized.

On Wednesday, the national broadcaster, the ABC, carried the story of "Adam," an Afghanistan War vet with PTSD who rang the PM during one of the her frequent talk-back radio segments.

"My experiences with DVA (department of veterans' affairs) is a very jagged field and nobody can give you direct answer of where you're going to be and where you'll end up, which adds to the stresses of the discharge process," he said.

Adam wanted to know what Gillard's plan was for returning men and women with problems, adding with some understatement.

"Because they are going to come back and things are going to be different for them."

Gillard said the government was working on the issue and suggested there were many good programs underway.

The extent of the problem is already being documented and it's developing across ranks.

A senior officer who served in the war, Maj.-Gen. John Cantwell who was national commander of Australian Defence Forces in Afghanistan, has spoken and written openly about his own battle with PTSD.

With three wars under his belt, including Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan, Cantwell is widely recognized as the model of the modern professional soldier.

In his book Exit Wounds he tracks his path to a hospital's psychiatric ward with the sort of grotesque eloquence that brings alive the horrors of the "industrialized killing" that is modern warfare.

One image helping to propel his downward emotional spiral was a pair of tanks equipped with bulldozer blades plowing down either side of Iraqi trenches with the explicit purpose of burying the enemy, dead or alive.

"It was pretty brutal and it managed to kill by burial, alive and dead, hundreds, perhaps thousands of Iraqi soldiers,'' he told the ABC's current affairs program Lateline last September.

"A hand reaching out of the sand of a buried Iraqi was one of the images, the many images that I carried from that war.''

Cantwell is generous of his praise of Australian diggers whom he believes are motivated by a desire to bring a better life to the people of Afghanistan.

But, in what perhaps is the core of so much of the mental agony of the returning soldier, he admitted that when looking at a young soldier on a morgue slab he had dared asked himself the most difficult of all questions.

"Is that life worth it?"

A few prescriptions for Prozac won't fix what lies ahead.

Australia has lost 40 people in the conflict. But the bills for the war in Afghanistan will continue to roll in for decades.


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 28, 2013 A14

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