Nicole: At Feb 2017, I have officially been discharged from the RAAF for five years now, but it is only now I feel like a civilian. Yes it has taken that long but I am very proud of my military service.
After having left the RAAF after 23 years of service and not transferring into regular employment, there was a really big transition in my mind to make, in that I went straight from being a member of something that was really big, and that I was really proud of, and then all of a sudden I am a stay-at-home Mum. It’s not that I’m not happy being a Mum, it’s just a loss of that sense of identity, that you have when wearing a uniform, that you don’t miss until you haven’t got it anymore.
Having said that, my last two years in the RAAF were difficult for me. I was diagnosed with Clinical Depression on my return to Australia after being deployed on operation. I had a bad experience during my deployment that really stayed with me for a few years, and is one I have had to learn to deal with and manage. I discharged at my own request because I thought it was best for all if I left. I don’t feel bad about the decision, because it was the best one to make, for me. I was lucky I have a supportive husband and a family that I wanted to spend more time with. I bought a little puppy and he really made a difference.
I realised I had to do something though, to keep myself out of the depressive cycle and to make myself socialise. It seemed easier at the time to stay at home and be a hermit, but somewhere in the fog of Depression, I knew this was not the right thing to do. I had some really good friends, who had been on deployment with me, and every month or so we would go out to dinner. I will always be grateful for these friends, because apart from providing a distraction for me, it forced me to get out into the real world.
Although I did get assistance from various different ex-service organisations, I did not use them that much. I have marched on ANZAC Day and I wear my medals, because I have earned them, and yes, I have been asked whose medals I am wearing! I find it a bit of a strange experience, because I although I march under the OP SLIPPER Banner, I don’t know anyone I march with. I really do it to honour my own Grandfather.
Around that time I felt I was strong enough to put in a claim with DVA. Before I left the RAAF, I participated in Transition Seminars and was aware to retain my Medical Records and before putting in claim seek advice from a mediator from the RSL. It was hard to do because I was lacking in confidence and it forced me to confront and deal with issues myself, extremely daunting to someone who continually doubts their ability to make correct decisions. I was awarded a settlement that included access to treatment, with limited success.
My best treatment was to join a gym, get a Personal Trainer and train regularly. This from someone who dreaded Fitness Tests! I lost 30 kilos in about 12 months, and better than anything else it helped me to control the depression. Even now if I am feel myself spiralling down, I go to the gym and work out for an hour or so and I do feel better after it. It does take time though, so you have to schedule it and make yourself go even if you don’t want to. My Personal Trainer is approximately my own age (important) and is ex-Army (so I don’t even try to argue with him!). He has life experience though.
Some things I have learned and that make a difference are:
a. Try to tick off more good things in a day than bad things (eat properly, drink enough water and get enough sleep) get the basics done.
b. If you have a bad day, it’s OK, nobody is perfect, don’t beat yourself up about it, don’t feel like you’ve failed, just try again tomorrow. This is easier said than done.
My Transition Seminar also pushed the importance of using your entitlement to the Career Transition Assistance Scheme (CTAS). I didn’t have a career to transition into, but I was determined to utilise my entitlement to it. So, I decided to completely redo my Training and Assessment Certificate IV. This has since proved invaluable. After having completed that, and after having success at the gym, I then decided to complete a Certificate IV in Fitness (Personal Trainer). I did it to help myself and to help my children and others who needed guidance. I have never been employed as a PT, but I could if I wanted to. I still have my own PT because I still find it hard to push and challenge myself to my limits.
The other thing that was important in my life, and continues to be so is the Australian War Memorial. I have always been interested in Military History and when I first left the RAAF, one of my friends suggested that I become a Volunteer Guide there. So I applied and was accepted. The training involved roughly seven months (2 days a week) of theoretical and practical training in guiding and specific military history training. I really enjoy it. I have been guiding now for 4 years (one day a week) and I am now involved in the Training Team (yes using my CERT IV in Training) to develop training and assessment programs. The whole process has been really rewarding, and I have to say it has been nice to use my brain again for a change, instead of operating on auto-pilot!
The positive feedback is important in me building self-confidence again. Most of the other Guides are older people and some don’t necessarily have a personal association with the Services but, they have life experience though, and have been very supportive of me on the whole. It has helped build networks, from within the local community. The Australian War Memorial volunteer program is fantastic for any ex veteran or non veteran looking to volunteer.
I still do not have a lot of self-confidence, but I have built myself some support systems. I am not perfect, but somehow I still have that inbuilt need to be so. I think this is common to a lot of “service people”. It’s not a bad thing but it can be problematic if you perceive yourself as having failed (and I still think that sometimes). On the whole I try to be kinder to myself these days, I try to eat properly, get exercise and force myself to socialise. I need to do these things to keep myself healthy both physically and mentally. I see going to the gym as working on my mental health, the physical benefits are only secondary. It is a discipline that I needed in my life, after having lost that daily discipline when I left the RAAF.
So today I am still officially unemployed, but I have a full and busy life. I have tried for a few jobs but didn’t get them. I’m not too sad about this, because everything is a learning experience.
My children are both adults now, but they are both full-time students and live at home. They still need to be fed and supported financially and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel now, in that one day I will get my own life back. I have enjoyed spending time with them in their later years, at High School and now Tertiary Education, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I didn’t have a supportive husband. I still feel guilty about missing out on things when they were little, and I was working full time, but I have learned that you can’t live your life with regrets, you have to move on.
I have reached a point where I can look back and see my service for what it was. I had many more good experiences than bad, but the bad ones were really bad. I has taken five years to reconcile that. I am proud of my service, but it doesn’t define me.
I am proud of my achievements, but life is a work in progress and it will never be perfect. I have come from being very focused and committed, to having no focus and no goals, and now different goals. I think my life is more balanced now, and I am looking forward to my kids moving on and having my husband all to myself again. We are now planning medium term goals. I know from my own experience planning is important.
My transition advice is:
a. Go to a Transition Seminar and listen to what they have to say (even if you think you know everything). Go to a “Marching Out” course (provide by Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service) it is three days but it can help you start to think like a civilian again.
b. Get copies of all Medical documentation before you leave the ADF. If putting in a claim, do it early and do it with the assistance of a mediator. Be prepared to chase things yourself.
c. If not working, join a Volunteer Group or club. Contacts you make here don’t judge you on what rank you are. Friends from these groups often have lots of life experience and can be very supportive, particularly if you are isolated from family. It can force you to socialise. Guiding has also helped me gain confidence, particularly in public speaking. I meet new people every time I do my job.
d. Make sure you get exercise, good for your physical and mental health. Get professional guidance from psychologists or other specialists if you need it. They will force you to push yourself harder than you are brave enough to do yourself.
e. Ex-service organisations are great and have their purpose. Research what is out there and utilise their services if you are comfortable to do so.
f. Stay in contact with your true friends and treasure them.
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