The mounting physical and mental problems faced by returned servicemen are the focus of a new campaign launched by the Townsville Bulletin in the year of the Anzac centenary, following two other successful campaigns for the city.
Road to Recovery – Our Diggers’ Toughest Fight aims to increase community awareness of struggles such as injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder which become barriers to a normal life for diggers and their families. Townsville is home to the 3rd Brigade and more than 9000 soldiers.
The campaign comes off the back of two huge wins for the paper. Its Let Fly campaign, which has pushed for international flights out of Townsville, was vindicated this month with its airport awarded international status and flights pending. “Until we got involved [in late 2014] it was going nowhere,” Townsville Bulletin editor Lachlan Heywood said.
The Support Our Stadium campaign, which had run “relentlessly” for almost two years, also had a win during the Queensland election campaign with the Labor government pledging $100 million to build a football stadium in the centre of Townsville. “It really showed the power of the paper,” Mr Heywood said.
Road to Recovery is a different style of campaign, which the paper intends to carry for at least a year.
The campaign launched in February after the death of a local ex-serviceman who had struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the army for 13 years.
“The scars and trauma of war, both physical and mental, are taking a heavy toll on our returned servicemen and women,” Mr Heywood said. The recent, high-profile death was not an isolated case in Townsville, with a recovery centre averaging about 200 visits from soldiers requiring help for physical and mental injuries.
“We really wanted to create a better understanding in our community but also highlight the good work so many groups across Townsville are doing to support these diggers – the RSL, Mates For Mates, hospital staff, many community groups that lend a helping hand.”
He said Brigadier Roger Noble, who leads the 3rd Brigade based in Townsville, was very helpful and supportive in allowing the Bulletin access to local soldiers, who were very co-operative and open in telling their stories.
“We’ve spent time with the diggers in their recuperation, at the rehabilitation centres, we’ve gone to hospitals where we’ve talked to the army, the head of the defence forces, and spent time with families to show the impact – that this is really happening,” Mr Heywood said.
The Brigadier said he supported the paper’s efforts to cover all facets of the issue by talking to all the parties involved.
“It’s important to educate people – not just on maladies like PTSD, but the whole spectrum of injury and then the recovery and rehabilitation,” Brigadier Noble said. “The real issue is how do you get [veterans] better and back to work, and help them be productive outside the military.”
He said the army was part of the fabric of the Townsville community and that coverage by a local paper achieved a level of insight that bigger mastheads could not.
“There’s a finite capacity in the press, but a local newspaper by nature is connected to the community so they are closer to the issue than anyone else,” Brigadier Noble said.
“Pretty much everyone reads the Bulletin, and they [the Bulletin journalists] know everyone in the community.
“There is a high level of trust in the Townsville community on this sort of issue so people speak frankly and that’s ok. They can criticise the army – and that’s okay. This campaign is providing a broader, deeper view with frank responses from a lot more people because it’s local.
“The Australian can do it, for example, but what the Bulletin’s got is it’s doing it on a micro level. That’s quite insightful.
“The Bulletin is committed to something we’re all committed to – making sure soldier recovery and support in the long term is good and gets better.”
The Bulletin has a regular defence column, catering for a profession that makes up around 11 per cent of the Townsville population and economy, but the Road to Recovery campaign will run for 12 months as the paper publishes personal stories of returned diggers and puts a spotlight on their battles.
Each veteran had their own unique story, which made the issue difficult to tackle, Mr Heywood said. “It’s not one size fits all, it affects people in many different ways and that’s part of what we need to get the community to understand.”
The paper has previously embedded journalists with soldiers in Afghanistan and this week photojournalist Evan Morgan is accompanying wounded veterans Michael Lyddiard and Mark Taylor on the Kokoda Track as they walk to raise awareness for the challenges veterans face.
Bulletin journalist Victoria Nugent said it was difficult to know how big the problem was because of a stigma that surrounds mental illness. “I’ve had the privilege of speaking to a few different veterans about their experiences,” she said.
“Hopefully we can shine a light on the issues that are out there and encourage people to share their own stories and be more willing to be open about what they’re experiencing – so others may read it and think ‘I can relate to that, and maybe I should get some help’.”
Mr Heywood said the paper had already received “fantastic” feedback in letters, texts and conversations with readers and with the veterans to whom they had provided a voice.
“We play a very strong leadership role in the community – our job is to reflect and report on the community but also to lead,” Mr Heywood said.
“This campaign has shone a spotlight on a really major issue in our community – and it also shows the newspaper is there to help.”
He hoped the campaign would ensure the defence force continued to provide support and understanding for returned servicemen and pressure the government to remove the red tape and bureaucracy that gets in the way of support for diggers.
“It’s often part of the battle – the recognition,” Mr Heywood said.
“Townsville is arguably more aware of the problem than anywhere else in the nation, but that does not mean more cannot be done to help our Diggers.”
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