(PRIVACY NOTE: Aside from Dan, second from the right, none of the people in the attached image are written about in this article)
An Anvil Opinion Article by Marshall Officer
I’ll begin by saying that some names have been changed* and certain details removed or modified for the sake of privacy. As much as I wish I knew people called Pete, Bazza and Robbo, none of my friends are as ‘True Blue’ as that.
I was sitting at my computer working on T-Shirt designs for Anvil when I received a message over Facebook. It was from Pete*, a very close friend of mine who lives just over an hour away, and I don’t get to see nearly as much as I would like. He was one of the first people I met when I got to Townsville. A great soldier - but probably more importantly, a genuine guy with a knack for telling incredible and hilarious stories. We bonded during a shitty time in his life in 2012, and have been good mates ever since. Although he left the army long before I did, we maintained some kind of contact over social media, and see each other every couple of months or so. Realistically, we are both pretty lazy about catching up regularly, but if the shit hits the fan (and it has, multiple times, for both of us) - we make the effort and find the time. Although I want to say these things about all of my friends that I met when I joined the military, anyone reading this with similar experiences knows: that is not the case. You develop a bond with a group of people, a tribe - forged through the adversity of shitty field exercises, shitty days on barracks, shitty early mornings, sleepless nights, range practices, and for some of us, deployments to shitty countries which many of us rate as the highlights of our careers. I’ll be the first to say I probably wouldn’t have considered most of us ‘good friends’, and many of the people I worked with genuinely frustrated me - and I know I would never have developed any kind of relationship with them had we not been in the same platoon, company, or battalion. But none of that mattered, because at the end of the day - they had your back, you had theirs, and you trusted them when lives were on the line.These bonds are built over shared experience, and leaving the Army means leaving that tribe. And it is not easy.
The Facebook message read something along the lines of “Hey mate, do you and the boys want to come down for the night. I’m catching up with Bazza* and Robbo*, I’ve booked an AirBnB for the night and everyone will have a place to stay, we’re going to have a few drinks and catch up.”
When I read the message I was a little confused. I hadn’t seen Bazza since he left the Army over 5 years ago, and I hadn’t had much contact with Robbo - aside from a big night out a year or two ago. These weren’t people I thought I had very much in common with anymore - we had served together, but a lot of time had passed.
I have work to do for Anvil, that has to come first. It’s a bit of a drive to see them, can I really even be bothered? I’d planned on a quiet Saturday night in, and I’m not a very social guy anymore. This is probably going to be exhausting, I get anxious going out. I don’t drink anymore - what if it’s weird seeing these guys for the first time in years, and I don’t join in on the beers? What if my close friends don’t want to come with me, it could be really awkward if I have nothing to talk about?
These pretty normal concerns all flicked through my head, one after the other, before I thought to myself, “Fuck it. I rarely get to see Pete as it is, and even if I’m not drinking - it could be good to see how they’re doing.”
I forwarded the message to my group chat, and two of my close mates were keen to come down, too. We were discussing transport when I touched base with Pete, and asked what the plan was for the rest of the night. He said Bazza was having a rough time, so he’d invited him to catch up and talk shit over some beers. Then he said he’d invited Robbo to join as well, because - why not? And then he said he’d messaged me, because if he’s getting the other two round for beers, why not get some of the whole gang back together?
And then, completely out of the blue, he was more honest.
“Actually. We’re all having a rough time, even if we’re pretending we are fine. I thought it would be good to catch up, because maybe - we can all talk about it.”
This kind of message is pretty rare in the Veteran community. As much as we go on about having a support network and communicating about the hard shit, it isn’t very often that you get a message that honestly says it how it is:
We are all having a rough time, even if we are pretending we aren’t.
Dan, the other Anvil Team article author, drove down with me. When we arrived at the AirBnB, nobody answered the door. We wandered in, following the sounds of laughter and profuse swearing, through the kitchen to the back deck - where the other four were already sitting around a table, beers in hand. As I walked outside, Bazza stood up to shake my hand, and I could see confusion in his eyes. He left the Army when I was about 80kg, with a full head of hair, 20/20 eyesight, and not a wisp of facial hair. In contrast to now, where I am 95kg, bald (by choice, of course), relatively blind without glasses, and with a beard that would give most homeless Vikings a run for their money. Bazza knew I was coming, but he definitely didn’t realise it was me. Then he saw Dan, and realised that if that was Dan - I must be me, and more laughter, insults, jokes, and the required Infantry homoerotic comments were made. We settled in, Dan and I each cracked a can of Vanilla Pepsi Max, and it was just like we had all seen each other yesterday. Despite all my previous worries, everything was just like old times.
The strangest part of it all was that it had been around five years since some of us had even talked, let alone caught up. We lived very different lives now - some of us had families, some of us have lost families. Some of us drank alcohol, some of us no longer did. Some of us see therapists, some of us have or do not. Some of us are fully employed and quite successful, some of us are trying to make our own businesses work, and some of us are just figuring out what to do next. Around the table sat individuals whose lives had all taken uniquely different paths, but what we shared was that every single one of us had gone through, or was going through at that point in time, one of the roughest patches in their entire lives. And, in that moment, every single one of us was laughing, talking openly about our own shit, and actually listening to what the others had to say. Despite the time passed, the distance, and the differences - it could have been yesterday that we had all last caught up.
We talked of work, unemployment, travel, days of adventure, and nights spent wide awake and staring into nothing. We talked of women loved and women lost.
We talked of what made us, what broke us, what changed us, and what kept us going.
We told the warries, and all laughed at the time the boss shit in the OC’s boot.
We talked of the anxiety, the depression, the moments of clarity, and endless days of darkness.
We shared individual triumphs, and realised that we weren’t alone in the times of failure.
We talked about what had worked, what was still not working, and what we thought might come crashing down.
And despite all that, even after years of not talking, no matter how shitty the story or embarrassing the breakdown, everyone else understood.
After a few hours, we saddled up for an adventure. We replaced Bazza’s thongs with a pair of Robbo’s Air Jordans, swapped singlets for t-shirts (and even a well-placed flanno), shouldered the burdens of hating crowds and loud music, needing to have our backs to a wall, and our apprehension for going out to a bar that might have a whole lot of drunk teenagers, and walked out into the rain. Some of us called it a night a few hours later - the rest made it all the way to the wee hours of the morning, even featuring a cheeky spew on the bar floor before stumbling back to the house. And when most of us, minus the hangover casualties, headed out to breakfast the next morning - nothing had changed. It still felt like breakfast with old friends, friends you had seen only the week before.
We know the importance of having a support network. When you’re in the Army, you don’t even realise that those people you see every single day are the ones who will understand when nobody else does. No matter what choices you make, no matter how hard you’ve had it - no matter how many times you’ve broken down or considered that final jump. They’re also the people who, no matter where you’re at in your life now - they’re easily reached by a single message or call. Love them or hate them, I guarantee you won’t regret sending that message, taking the time, making the effort, and opening up, because honestly: they probably need it more than they realise, just like you.
Thinking about the weekend we had - I realise that message was probably pretty hard for Pete to send. It’s not as easy as it sounds - admitting to your mates that you’re having a rough time. It’s even harder to admit that to yourself. And, for some of us, that night was probably just a great time with old friends. But for most of us, it could have been an opportunity to connect with a group of people that was desperately needed - after potentially spending years thinking you might never genuinely connect with anyone ever again.
Before we got into the car to head home the next day, Bazza said something I’ll never forget.
“Thanks for this, Pete. I really needed this. Let’s do it again soon.”
From anyone else, those words could just be a mate being polite. But knowing what I know about Bazza, and for the other vets reading this, knowing what I know about combat veterans, those few simple words might be the hardest things to say. Not only had he acknowledged the need for a catch up and to connect with others who may understand, but Bazza acknowledged the difference it had made - and that it was an experience he would look forward to.
Never admitting vulnerability is trained into you every single day in infantry. He said what all of us were already thinking. So take a leaf out of Pete’s book, and send that message. We really needed it. We’re doing it again soon.
Reach out, now. They’re still there. Until they aren’t.
Anvil Training and Development is a group of Australian veterans who care about the physical and mental health of veterans and emergency service workers. We’re passionate about ongoing education and working with others to implement positive change.
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(Article Edited, Proof Read, and Fact-Checked by Charlotte Officer)
VES Mental Health Resources: https://anviltd.com/pages/ves-australian-mental-health-resources