From saving refugees to family tragedy: Aussie sailor reveals harrowing trauma

Former Marine Technician Petty Officer Dave Finney enlisted with the Royal Australian Navy when he was 18-years-old.

He has earned many medals for his service, but says they are reminders of the sacrifice he made leaving a young daughter and wife at home while sailing around the world.

Former Marine Technician Petty Officer Dave Finney enlisted with the Royal Australian Navy when he was just 18 years old. Source: Dave Finney

The next 20 years was spent deployed all over the world, rescuing refugees and witnessing the devastations of communities ravaged by war. But the conflict that left the biggest impact on Mr Finney was the one he was battling internally.

The 38-year-old had spent his whole adult life up until now, in the Navy. Last year he realised the mental toll was too much and he could no longer be at sea, doing the job he loved.

“It’s a sustained danger or grief that sticks around,” is how he described his PTSD to Yahoo7.

“It just defeats you. Wears you down over time.”

At times he said the disorder takes him back to a dark room surrounded by fuel; other times he is haunted by the grief of losing his newborn son to SIDS in 2007 and realising the CPR he is administering is not going to save him.

“It’s hard to put your hand up before it’s too late. There’s a loss of status, threat of being thrown off the ship when that’s what you love,” he said.

In 2009 Mr Finney’s life came crashing down. It was two years after his baby son Kayne died in his arms; his marriage was falling apart; and he became involved with the harrowing mission of rescuing refugees.

‘I was living in a state of exhaustion’

He was then admitted to a psychiatric hospital where he spent some time building the foundations of recovery, but went straight back to work after he was released.

“It took six to 12 months to realise ‘I am not OK’… I couldn’t defeat it, I was living in a state of exhaustion,” he told Yahoo7.

Dave Finney earned many medals for his service, but says they are reminders of the sacrifice of leaving a young family. Source: Dave Finney

Deployed mostly to offer humanitarian aid, Mr Finney admitted he kept telling himself he was never in the thick of the conflict and “never the victim”.

Despite admitting he was involved in some form of “serious incident” every year for 12 years, he still felt he shouldn’t be mentally impacted by what he faced.

Mr Finney said what hit home was coming face to face with the full circle of war: rescuing children whose parents had been shot dead, the soldiers who had been in the line of duty, and the refugees desperate to flee their war-ravaged homes.

“You see the whole ugliness of humanity … It really hits you.

Dave Finney found it tough to balance life at sea with being a dad to Kate, as well as a husband. Source: Dave Finney

“A soldier I met in Bougainville [Papua New Guinea] said arms on both sides were all calling out for their mother [as they are dying],” he said.

The realisation they were all the same in their dying moments really struck a chord.

At breaking point, ready to seek help

“My moral compass was knocked when I met kids whose families had been killed. I met soldiers, and refugees… I saw the bullet holes, blood, barbed wire.

“The sheer scale of the human tragedy was the refugees on the Australian shoreline. Some of them hadn’t eaten for days. If we hadn’t found them, they would have died. It makes you think ‘which ones didn’t we find?’

“Hearing their stories, seeing sick kids only a couple years after I lost my son as well – all those things intertwined in my head and I couldn’t feel safe for anyone around me.

“Holding a machine gun one day, then a newborn the next, the constant internal conflict that tells me to be a family man, but also ready to sail to the other side of the world at a moment’s notice,” he recalled.

That internal conflict was the breaking point where Mr Finney realised he needed help.

“I drifted into a [mental] area where I was looking for ways to take my own life, all while going to work the next day.

“For the last three to four years if I did an hour’s work I had to sleep… I was so mentally drained.”

Dave Finney on a road trip with his daughter Kate, who turns 10 in two week. Source: Dave Finney

At the time he didn’t recognise the red flags in the routine of being immersed in his job, and neither did those around him.

“I present well, that why everyone thinks you’re fine.

“I had a world of services and options available to me, but I was so overwhelmed I didn’t know how to ask for help.”

Over a 12 month period, Mr Finney was admitted to a PTSD ward full of people who were battling the same demons as him – mostly other military personnel and first responders like police officers, ambulance officers, fire fighters and nurses.

‘I’m just trying to find my place’

The former Navy officer is now adjusting to civilian life in Canberra where says he has built a solid support network, while working to reconnect with those he’s drifted apart from over the years.

Dave Finney pictured with other Camp Quality volunteers. Source: Dave Finney

Mr Finney has also been volunteering with camp quality for the past four years and acted as a Big Brother with Menslink where he mentored a young man for two years.

“These things have both restored some of my faith in humanity and given me back a good portion of my strength,” he said.

While the road to “finding his place” is an ongoing one, he is working on a book about his military life and the struggles that came along with it.

He hopes sharing his story about PTSD will help break down the taboos around mental health for military personnel and others struggling with inner demons and encourage them to ask for help.

Support services

If you are concerned about the mental health of yourself or a loved one, seek support and information by calling:

  • VVCS or Veterans Line After-Hours Crisis Counselling: 1800 011 046 (whilst overseas: +61 8 8241 4546)

  • Defence All Hours Support Line: 1800 628 036

  • Defence Family Helpline: 1800 624 608

  • Lifeline: 13 11 14

  • beyondblue: 1300 224 636

  • MensLine: 1300 789 978

  • Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service: 1800 011 046