The tears and trauma of war

The tears and trauma of war

Mark Wales, former SAS commando and Australian Survivor winner, may be the embodiment of the modern “super man”. But as an author he held a Trinity audience spellbound with his story of war trauma, depression, and reaching out for help.

He told a Books At Breakfast event in the Arthur Holt Library how he struggled after returning from his first six-month tour of Afghanistan, where a close mate was killed in action.

He said he locked himself in his Perth apartment for two weeks, not wanting to see his family or his girlfriend.

“I couldn’t sleep properly; I was having nightmares. These are classic symptoms of war trauma,” he said.

After one night out with friends he found himself alone on a street corner crying.

“I was bawling my eyes out and I was hoping someone was going to stop and ask me about what I’d been doing for the past six months. I knew I needed help.”

He saw an army psychologist who diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression.

“That’s no surprise because you’ve been at war for six months,” he was told. “The good news is I’m going to show you how to fix it.”

The psychologist explained that in order to survive he had been over-using the part of his brain that  controls the “fight or flight mechanisms” but had “benched” his pre-frontal cortex, which controls  executive functioning, logic, empathy, and reasoning.

“He told me, ‘At the moment you’re more lizard than you are human.’

“I licked my eyeballs and said that’s not true,” the soldier retorted, displaying the sense of humour the SAS rates so highly as a leadership quality.

The remedy sounds simple – exercise, healthy eating, and rest – but it worked and within six months he was back at work, eventually carrying out three more tours of Afghanistan.

Trinity students asked him some disarmingly direct questions, including how many “confirmed kills” he had.

“You know what,” he replied. “I did a lot of shooting in my time there but I was lucky enough not to be able to know 100 per cent. I sleep a lot better because of it.

“I’ve got mates who know, and it’s something that’s really difficult for them, that they really struggle with. It’s a big thing to ask people to go overseas and use force, and when we’re young we don’t realise that.”

He was also asked if he felt he had wasted years of his life, given that the Taliban was now back in  power.

He replied that Afghanistan was a case study in how not to do strategy.

“In a huge endeavour you’ve got to have a clear idea of what success is going to look like, and if your mission is off track to change course. We didn’t do that.

“In 20 years I think we fought 20 one-year wars back to back. We didn’t have an over-arching strategy, and we should have stopped a lot earlier than we did. I think there are a lot of wasted lives because of that.”

He was also asked if he would baulk at signing military papers for his young son Harry, as his own parents had when he asked them.

“It would be hypocritical of me to say no,” he replied, “but only now do I realise how much stress I put my parents through by my career choice.”

The author of the new book Outrider studied for an MBA in the US after his military career and is now a corporate consultant.

He told Trinity students that failure was a prerequisite of success.

“If it’s worth doing, you’re going to experience a lot of failure.

“It’s part of the learning process; don’t be hard on yourself, just stick at it.

“You’re going to get hurt, you’re going to fail, you’re going to be embarrassed sometimes. Don’t worry about it; it’s all part of the journey. Just dust yourself off, pick yourself up and keep going.”


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