Aftermath of war is also hell

April 28, 2018

Anzac Day has come and gone for another year, briefly stirring a succession of online debates.

Like Australia Day, April 25 now regularly brings forth a chorus of criticisms, insults and base comments strewn across mainstream and social media.

It is not the time for quiet, measured discussion of the Anzac legend, or even the softest of critiques, lest the discussion be misinterpreted or drowned out by the screeching of mobs.

But now the day has passed for another year, I’d like to share a personal view, neither unqualified support of what the institution has grown into, nor the kind of criticism levelled at it by those flag waving for various causes.

My father spent a lifetime picking up the pieces the armed forces leave behind.

As a repatriation psychiatrist, Dr Robert Peterson’s job was to ‘‘fix’’ wounded diggers who carried injuries no-one could see and no physical tests would reveal.

Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts, family break-down — these were the wounds Dad worked on.

And he fought his own battles, often against the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, to have the damage acknowledged and the necessary care provided.

The battles were often hard fought.

As a child, Dad would take me down to his local watering-hole, the Eltham RSL, to play snooker — where the lines between patients and friends blurred and he was greeted by the nickname ‘Doc’.

The old Vietnam diggers and the older diggers of Korea and World War II would tell me stories and slip me cokes laced with bourbon or rum.

Back home, without naming names, Dad would recount stories of this soldier or that and the many problems they faced and the wars they were still fighting.

One story, that of an elderly SAS veteran who was attacked by a gang of youths and the desperate call from police to get ‘Doc’ to calm him down after flattening six men a third his age.

‘‘Give him an order,’’ Dad instructed over the phone.

‘‘Have your meanest sergeant scream at him to get in the divvy van.’’

It worked.

Another story was of the mean old bikie who frequently spent his sessions in tears. The ones addicted to drugs. The ones ostracised by their families. The ones battling alone.

There were also tales of salvation and redemption, just never as many as Dad would have liked.

Dr Peterson died suddenly last year, a month after his 75th birthday.

He never retired, taking his final consultation the day before his death.

In his later years, the new generations began to trickle through — veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and a handful of other conflicts.

The names and ages changed, but the conditions did not.

The RSL was kind enough to send a representative to Dad’s funeral, though he never served.

Veterans waited patiently in line to impart words of gratitude to us children of ‘Doc’, though we had done nothing ourselves.

For many, Anzac Day is a solemn commemoration, for others a time to remember family or to gather with friends who served.

For some, it’s just another public holiday and a few misuse it for self-promotion, pushing whatever political cause they support.

For me, it has become a day to ponder Dad’s career and his musings — the stories of diggers and the pain and suffering they still carried.

War may be hell, but for many, so is the aftermath.

Myles Peterson is a News journalist.

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