Picture: TIM BAUER

Retired Maj-Gen. John Cantwell AO, DSC, knew he was going "to touch a raw nerve" when he spoke out about his own private war with post-traumatic stress disorder in his memoir, Exit Wounds.

"My motivation was to have others understand that if they are suffering from PTSD or related emotional traumas that first, it's normal and natural," he says.

"Secondly, if you've got it, do something about it. Don't make the mistake that I did of trying to hide this or pack it away in a little box that you only open on special occasions. Get some help, because like all illnesses, early intervention produces better outcomes."

But his beautifully written, brutally honest account of his experiences at the front-line of three wars has managed to provoke, not only a national debate about how we treat the men and women we send off to war, but to sheet home the brutal realties of Australia's recent wars with a power and immediacy rarely seen on the page.

For Cantwell, the positive response by senior military leaders, who have since ordered policy reviews to find ways of preventing those who do come forward with PTSD from being disadvantaged, "is rewarding". So, too, is the ongoing avalanche of public response to Exit Wounds, now a national bestseller. "But it's also been in a way a little sad because it has validated my worst fears about how broad the problem was," he says.

As he writes early on: "This is my story, but it is also the story of thousands of Australian veterans from Iraq, East Timor, Afghanistan and other conflicts who carry similar emotional scars."

Tellingly, he likens the emotional scars of PTSD to the entry and exit wounds he saw in the bodies of some of his soldiers. Entry wounds are often small and sometimes unnoticed. In the case of the AK47 assault rifle, the Taliban's weapon of choice in Afghanistan, the bullet becomes unstable and tumbles once it hits the human body, so that it will tear a large exit wound in the victim's body. A traumatic memory pierces the consciousness in much the same silent, unseen way, he argues, "and then tumbles through, causing an ugly, gaping wound."

Cantwell kept his own battle scars secret for 20 years of his distinguished 38-year military career. It was only in 2011, when after a 12-month deployment as Commander of all Australian Forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan, he returned to Australia to be considered for the job of Chief of Army but found himself in a psychiatric ward instead.

Felled by those scars he'd kept hidden for two decades and heartsick at the deaths of 10 Australian soldiers under his command in Afghanistan. He is still on a journey of recovery and says: "Until I fell in a heap after I came back from Afghanistan, I didn't really take any of this healing process seriously. I had just sought a little bit of intermittent help on my days off, then got back into it."

Although he didn't then realise it, he first manifested classic symptoms of PTSD in the wake of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, where, as a Major seconded to the British, he was attached to an American division that smashed a hole in the Iraqi front-line using tanks equipped with bulldozer blades to plough across Iraqi trenches, burying all, dead or alive.

"It was industrialised killing and it was pretty brutal," he says. "You expect to see ugly things in war, but some of them stuck in my head in ways that just never really shifted." One of the many images he still carries is that of the hand of an Iraqi soldier, reaching out from the sand in which he was buried. There were other flashbacks too, along with the uncontrolled anger and anxiety he began experiencing soon after going home, direct from the battlefield, without any debriefing.

"I'd wake to find myself shouting and screaming and trying to beat off a phantom enemy, and even, on one or two occasions, grabbing hold of my wife Jane, and scaring the daylights out of her," he says. His wife, who has written two chapters in the book, was the sole custodian of what was to become his 20-year-long secret. "Over time, I became an extraordinarily skilled actor," he says. "I could get through my days, do what I needed to do and lead, and I think, lead well. My soldiers seemed to like working for me, and we achieved good things, but there was always the afterhours challenge that Jane and I struggled through most nights."

He then signed up for a second deployment in Iraq 2006 where, as Director of Strategic Operations for the Multi-National Force, he witnessed at close quarters "the brutality of that ghastly sectarian war which is still going on at a reduced level".

That war brought its own set of ghastly images including that of a little girl's pink plastic sandals on the pavement, the imprint of her tiny vaporised body on the wall. "It was a very, very bad year, 3000 civilians a month were being killed while I was there," he says. His account of that conflict, and indeed of all three wars he participated in, is life-changing. But it's difficult to decide which is the most horrific of the experiences he describes in Exit Wounds - his enforced dealings with duplicitous and murderous Iraqi officials and the terrible toll of daily killings in Iraq, or those of Afghanistan four years later, where IEDs and duplicitous officials remain occupational hazards.

For Cantwell, who remains haunted by the loss of Australian lives in Afghanistan and believes our soldiers there "have made us proud", the fundamental question that gnaws at him is, he says: "Is Afghanistan worth it? And with the greatest respect to Afghanistan, it's not worth Australian lives. What is very poorly understood in the general community and even by our politicians, who should know better, is that we are only able to influence events in Afghanistan in a very small way in a very small province, one of the most isolated and backward in the country. Uruzgan province will certainly be better for Australians having been there, but we've done our bit. And the sooner we can leave there, in good order, the better."

'It was a very, very bad year, 3000 civilians a month were being killed while I was there.' Maj-Gen. John Cantwell

The West Australian

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