You’ve seen American Sniper, right? You remember Chris Kyle. How could you not? The U.S Navy Seal who served four tours in Iraq, and had the most hits in the history of the American military.
After all of that, he returned home to his beautiful wife and two kids to embark on another battle: post-traumatic stress disorder. Chris Kyle won that battle too, and then decided to help other veterans win.
He took them out shooting to build confidence and relationships with other veterans to cope with the return to average American life, together. Chris Kyle was then shot by one of the veterans he was trying to help, and America suffered a great loss.
Australia has also suffered 239 great losses since 1999. 239 veterans made it out of service alive, to return home and take their own lives.
But there’s a Chris Kyle down under, too.
A decade ago ex-serviceman Brian Freeman established Walking Wounded, a veteran-led service providing counselling and mentoring to aid the psychological recovery of veterans transitioning back into Australian life.
From Kokoda trail challenges to opening up about struggles in counselling sessions, the service provides a place for veterans to build relationships and regain lost confidence. And not one veteran involved in the program has turned to suicide.
“I generally say the best thing to do is to lead them out of the army like you lead them in the army. And that seems to be the shortfall, they’re not being led on the outside,” Freeman told The Huffington Post Australia.
Walking Wounded’s latest campaign, Out Of Home, is currently raising awareness about the veteran suicide rate and the psychological battle many face after the physical battle abroad, raising funds to mobilise their services to reach veterans around the country.
Mark Creamer, a Professional Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne, told The Huffington Post Australia while many veterans have no long-term mental health problems, depression and substance abuse are the most common, and post-traumatic stress disorder can be completely debilitating to some.
It begins with repeated thoughts, usually of traumatic experiences, “invading the consciousness of the person,” Creamer said. They then -- in most cases -- withdraw back into themselves, away from family and friends to avoid facing reminders. Anger, fear and guilt can then overcome the person.
“The final group of symptoms which are very important in veterans are these symptoms of being constantly hyper-aroused, constantly tense and on alert, hyper-vigilant, looking for signs of danger everywhere,” Creamer told HuffPost Australia.
“When they were on deployment, these symptoms helped them survive. Then they come back to civilian life and try to settle down and these symptoms persist. And they become very, very destructive of course.”
Sean Mulqueen always wanted to serve his country, just like his grandfather. So at 24-years-old, he decided it was time and moved -- with his high school sweetheart -- from his home in Melbourne to Sydney to join the forces.
Mulqueen was soon uprooted to Brisbane and in two years the father-to-be was deployed to Afghanistan in MTF1 as a combat engineer.
“I won’t hide the fact that I wanted to go. I knew I wanted to go, like every soldier. In a way it’s our grand final, I guess that’s the best way to put it. To get there, and be a part of it, it’s what you train to do,” Mulqueen told HuffPost Australia.
Mulqueen and the nine other guys in his section were in front of the front line, infiltrating Taliban areas to identify IEDs.
IEDs are Improvised Explosive Devices. Mulqueen remembers every single one his section detected, but the ones he will never forget -- even if he wanted to -- are the ones he didn’t detect.
One eventually sent him home seven months into the rotation, medically discharged after he couldn’t move his arms. But the one which shook him the hardest was when he was hundreds of miles away, back on Australian soil.
It sent his whole section home, with one of Mulqueen’s best mates losing both his legs while another needed an entire face reconstruction.
“Not being there for them probably started the downward spiral for me,” Mulqueen said.
“More guilt for just not being there. It’s kind of like a football team, in the sense that one goes down your whole team goes down.”
The veteran and his wife welcomed a baby boy into the world soon after his return, but the high only overpowered the lows momentarily.
“You’re uncertain of everything. I didn’t know how to take people”
“I just wanted to get back there. I wanted to hug my wife and say hi, but leave again.”
A trip from Brisbane to Melbourne left Mulqueen’s family in shock over the veteran's violent streak, with his wife then forcing him to see a counsellor at the VVCS (Veterans and Veterans' Families Counselling Service).
“I was still not doing too well, I had more shoulder surgeries, I was drinking, gambling, just suffering in the sense that I couldn’t keep fit or do what I really wanted to do,” Mulqueen said.
“I didn’t do my psych evaluations until nine months after I got home, and you learn how to lie by then, don’t you?
“I would come home to see my son, put him to bed, bathe him, see my wife, but then I would leave and in some cases I would go for walks for three to four hours.”
One night the veteran walked from his Queensland home in Mitchelton to Corinda – a three and a half hour walk one way – to then turn around and walk the whole way home.
An intervention from two mates he served with and his wife saw Mulqueen hospitalised.
“That’s when I completely broke down and turned into an emotional wreck.”
Spending the next year in and out of hospital, Mulqueen ended up being one of the first ex-serviceman to walk the Kokoda trail with Freeman, from which the Walking Wounded group stemmed.
“There was, not sympathy which we got from him, but empathy. He understood what to do in some sense. How to keep us focus,” Mulqueen said.
Ask Freeman about Mulqueen, and you’ll get “he was one of the worst cases of PTSD I’ve seen, and he’s also been one of the most amazing recoveries”.
The veteran has established his own maintenance business with a fellow veteran. Called Rising Sun property maintenance, the pair employ ex-serviceman, giving them, too, a purpose and chance to build confidence and relationships.
And he’s also upgraded from walking to running.
In April Mulqueen will run more than 300 kilometres from a combat engineer memorial site to his fallen mate’s hometown in Gayndah, raising money and awareness for combat engineers returning home. Another Chris Kyle, maybe?
Sean Mulqueen with his wife, Stephanie, and sons Kaelan and Declan.
Creamer, who spent 15 years as the Director of Australian Centre for Post Traumatic Health (now known as Phoenix Australia) which is the leading treatment centre for veterans, said "social engagement is crucial".
"We know one of the best predictors of recovery from trauma is social support. So if those groups can engage the veteran, and bring them out of the isolation, then they've got a much better chance of facilitating the pathways to care. Because the care is there it’s just getting them into it which is the problem," Creamer said.
"It’s not a treatment for PTSD itself... but what it will do is solve a lot of these other problems that can put a person in a better position to work on the PTSD. In terms of reducing the suicide risk, it is crucial as well."
Since the Out Of Home campaign was launched, another three veterans have taken their lives, making the number now 242.
"We spend a lot of time, and a lot of money training people to be soldiers, but we don’t spend any time training them to be civilians afterwards. And most of the things that make a good soldier, make a terrible psychiatric patient," Creamer said.
Mulqueen sees programs like Walking Wounded as a "wind down period".
“You stretch after a footy game don’t you, so why wouldn’t you stretch after being to war? And then, after you’ve stretched, you go and have your beers.”