8 Feb 2018

Ex-spy's conviction highlights lack of post-military support

10:54 am on 8 February 2018

With the conviction of a former spy for burglary and drug offences, ex-Defence Force personnel say there isn't enough support for returned veterans.

New Zealand Defence Force personnel depart for a Mission Readiness Exercise in Australia.

New Zealand Defence Force. (file photo) Photo: Supplied

Corporal Richard Graham walked free from court in July after getting a discharge without conviction, despite admitting six charges including burglary and offering to supply methamphetamine.

However, following a High Court appeal by the Crown, that decision was overturned and he's has now been convicted.

Graham stole sensitive operational equipment from an Airforce base and tools belonging to contractors with a combined value of $200,000.

In her judgement, Justice Hinton said she accepted the District Court judge's comments about Graham's situation - that he had been sent to a hostile environment by the Armed Forces and did not receive proper treatment when he returned to New Zealand.

The judge also cited an affidavit from Graham's superior officer who said of the 13 personnel who served overseas with Graham, three had reported difficulties re-adjusting to normal life.

The officer had also noticed what was described as "behavioral changes" in five others.

The Defence Force declined to comment on the support it offers personnel.

No Duff is an organisation that provides emergency support for veterans in crisis.

RNZ asked the organisation's founder and former soldier Aaron Wood if the defence force was doing enough to support its people.

"Short answer: No. However, they are trying, they are applying themselves and they are working very hard to change that, and they've come a long way, even in just the last couple of years. I guess the question is why has it taken the last couple of years to turn things right around?"

It was not unusual for vets to get caught up with the police, Mr Wood said.

"We often find in No Duff that when things start going downhill with a veteran, they go down pretty quickly and that's the reason why we have our two hour notice to move stipulation because when they ask for help, they really, really need help because it's part of the culture that you don't ask for help unless things are really bad."

No Duff has an army of volunteers and takes its name from military slang meaning 'this is not a drill'.

The organisation was started after Mr Wood got a call from a friend working for the RSA - a young veteran had gone missing and there were fears for his safety.

Using his network of contacts and social media, Mr Wood said they were able to find the man within two hours.

"He was living rough ... in a public park and we basically put someone of his generation and his background next to him for a while, for a few hours, just to talk him through a few things. I linked him back up with Veteran's Affairs, then we employed an ad-hoc network of support."

That was two years ago. Since then they have responded to 168 cases, putting boots on the ground within two hours.

"We started off as an ambulance parked at the bottom of the cliff which is never ideal ... we've begun, pretty quickly after our establishment ... working through a number of initiatives to push that ambulance further and further up the cliff and incredibly to the top and then back from the edge and build a nice big wall."

Graham would have been offered psychological support after his mission but not all personnel feel they can take up the offer of help, he said.

"It's about the team. The team survives by working with each other, by maintaining teamwork. You start being an individual and people start getting hurt or dying. So, there's a real incentive there to be a part of a team and to not let the team down and this is where the issue starts coming along for most people, most guys especially, is that they don't want to let the team down, they don't want to stick their hand up and ask for help - there's always someone else ... who needs help more than you do."

Mr Wood, a former army medic, recalls an incident over 20 years ago when an Army truck rolled. Injured soldiers had been laid out on the side of the road by the time he arrived.

"Every single one of them went: 'No, no, I'm good, I'm sweet, mate, he needs it more than I do' and pointed to the guy next to him. I said: 'Ok, sweet' and I'd go to the next guy. I got to the end and I had to stop and go: 'Listen, listen, don't tell me to go to the next guy, you're all injured to some degree, just let me do my job'."

"Because none of them wanted to be the one to get the help when they thought the next guy along needed it. And that's the mentality, they'll literally die before they'll ask for help because they think their mate could do with it more or they think they'll be taking resources away from someone who needs it more."

Asking for help doesn't get any easier after leaving the military, he said.

"They don't necessary understand you, they don't understand what you've been through, what you've done. Especially when you try and talk to civilians in general. They can ask some pretty, how can I put it? ... Less than ideal questions, shall we say? The kind of questions you would never ask anyone politely but because you're a soldier, they think they can ask that kind of thing to your face, even though they're complete strangers.

"So a lot of veterans will withdrawal, they won't say much about their service at all, and they literally soldier on in silence and suffer in silence, which is tragic."

'There is that stigma of mental health issues'

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Bill Blaikie has been there. In 2004 he was the deputy director of intelligence for the entire coalition force in Afghanistan.

His book, Back from the Brink, details his daily routine that involved constantly assessing risk and danger while making life and death decisions.

Getting help while being in the military is difficult as there was a fear that having mental health issues can affect your career, Mr Blaikie said.

"There is that stigma of mental health issues and that macho man image where if you admit you've got an injury like post traumatic stress, then you're not really able to cope with much, so therefore ... you try and hide it as best you can. I do know individuals who seek psychiatric help on the side, without letting the military know and that's just a fact, the way business is done."

After 25 years in the military, Mr Blaikie was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - a condition that is estimated to affect between 12 and 18 percent of veterans who serve overseas.

It is triggered by terrifying events and can cause flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety.

For Mr Blaikie, it meant he could not even sit in a small room with other people and would constantly evaluate how to escape.

"You're battling it constantly, from the time you wake up, to the time you go to sleep and unfortunately, in my case, it rears its ugly head when I'm asleep, in nightmares that can be really powerful, can put you off balance for a couple of days."

Mr Blaikie sought help through Veteran Affairs. He went on medication and had some counseling but took himself off the medication as he believed his situation had improved.

Instead, his condition worsened.

"Well obviously, it got to the brink of the abyss because that was when I had my attempts on my life - twice over a period - because there was no way that I could see any way out and I thought, for my family, for me, it was best if I was not on the scene."

He described himself as completely out of control.

The road to recovery was long. He sought help from a clinical psychologist and went through an alcohol rehabilitation program.

With the help of his supportive wife and family he raised funds to attend a group therapy program in Australia for current and former serving members and veterans - something not offered in New Zealand.

Leaving the defence force was like leaving a cocoon - suddenly you are out of your comfort zone, Mr Blaikie said.

"A lot of people find it hard - who do you turn to? Who do you open up to? How do you put your hand up and say: 'Hey, I've got an issue'? And unfortunately, for a lot of people, it gets to the degree where, unfortunately some take their lives, or people end up on Skid Row [with] drugs or alcohol issues or things like that before they actually seek any help or are able to get any help and it's that gap that needs to be closed."

Defence personnel need to put their hands up and admit they have a problem so they can get the support they need before they leave the force, he said.

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