When The Brereton report into alleged war crimes was released at the end of last year, it put veteran’s mental health firmly on the agenda. Heston Russell served in the Australian Army from 2003 to 2019. The majority of this time he was an officer in the Sydney-based special forces 2nd Commando Regiment. He completed numerous operational deployments including Afghanistan and Iraq and Timor Leste. He now lives in Sydney and runs Voice of a Veteran to help people better understand veterans, and veterans support each other.
Your dad was in the army. How do you think that shaped your childhood?
Discipline! My mum is a former national netballer and aerobics instructor; my dad was in the Army and my grandparents served in the Army. So, yes, we heard stories about serving in Korea and Vietnam. There were a couple of other military families that I grew up with, one had a son who was four or five years older than me, and I watched them go through the process of joining the Commandos. I watched him being paid to do a degree and it gave me a clear picture of what I wanted to do before I applied.
What was the appeal?
I specifically wanted to join the Special Forces from day one. You have to do a minimum of four years training but on my first day I told the Commander I wanted to join Special Forces. He said, “Well, there’s a lot to do before then, but sure…”
You’ve said that the selection training course was the hardest thing you had to do in your career…
Yes. I applied for the selection course in 2010; at that time it was six weeks. They basically filtered 1000 applicants to 120 to start the course and at the end 30 people finished. At the very end of the process there were 24 people ready to deploy, so that shows you the number who fell away.
What was the hardest part of that training?
It’s broken down into phases. You have to do a whole bunch of physical tests like a 15km march overnight and self-navigating through the bush carrying a pack weight of 60kgs for over 100km more. The selection course is fantastic because it reveals what you’re really made of.
What do you mean by that?
Well, 80 per cent of people voluntarily remove themselves from the course.. It really exposes people’s true purpose. You’re deprived of all things human beings really need; quality time and interaction with others, communication, faced with physically arduous tasks and you’re lucky to have one hour’s sleep. Then, as soon as everyone’s head hits the pillow, you’re woken up with sirens or the sound of gunfire. It sifts through the people who can survive physically, but also tests mental resilience. We’ve had former iron men and Olympians on the course who were physically excellent but didn’t have the mental resilience. You’re left with a very small group of people who will basically break an arm or leg before they give up.
Where does mental resilience come from?
It comes from your purpose. The whole selection process is designed to unpack the person. If there’s an element of pride rather than purpose, if their focus is entitlement, like promotion, pay rise or deployment opportunities, they won’t tap into that inner strength. Then you’ll find those who have the purpose outside themselves, their key motivation is to defend their country as a responsibility. They feel that intrinsically if they don’t manage to do this, they will be a broken person. That’s their true purpose.
So the mental challenge is tougher than the physical?
True fire comes from that mental layer. The more emotionally aware you are, the more you’re able to harness your emotions rather than avoid them. That’s a huge resource of strength. I enjoy being passionate about things, in the military you harness that and use it.
You’ve been very open about the mental health challenges coming out of the military; can you talk a little about that?
The adjustment coming out of the military is incredibly tough. You go from living your true purpose to not knowing what your purpose even is. From my first deployment to a war zone, my focus was missions to capture and kill hundreds of insurgents and terrorists; you’re representing your country every single day. When I saw one of the men I was serving with killed, and you see your team pushing on to honour him, it’s incredible. We had three days left after he died and when you see your team perform at that level of strength, that’s an intense level of duty. Then you leave the military and your greatest task is to walk your dog. You suddenly don’t feel relevant.
And you can then understand why the rate of veteran suicide is so high?
Yes, absolutely. We’ve lost 700 from our veteran community since 2001. Men I’d deployed with in Afghanistan went to sitting at home with their children and deciding that overdosing was the only option. I could understand that.
You go from living your purpose to not knowing what your true purpose even is.
Can you please talk me through the day when you considered taking your own life?
I never thought I could get to that headspace, but I did. I was sitting in my Sydney apartment in Kings Cross. I’d just got off the phone with some friends, a Special Forces guy had tried to take his own life with prescription medication, his toddler was at home with him. His partner had arrived home and intervened. I’d just taken my dog for a walk at the park and then, sitting at home, it was the perfect storm. I went inside my head.
So you spiralled?
This guy was someone I looked up to; my mind was spiralling as I imagined how he had arrived at his decision to take his own life. I started to think if I took my own life someone might finally listen, someone would take it all seriously. I imagined someone like Jackie Lambie reading my story in parliament. At that moment my dog, Copper, came and put his head in my lap. It snapped me out of my destructive train of thought. It was time to feed him. It was a purpose outside of myself. It makes me feel emotional just retelling that story. Copper was the spark I needed to pull myself out of it. I was so embarrassed afterwards I didn’t tell anyone. I was ashamed when I told my mum and sister. I found that the more I spoke about it, them more people opened up to me and said they too had had such ideation. I’m finally appreciating it’s ok not to be okay.
How did you feel when the Brereton report was made public?
Honestly, I breathed a sigh of relief because this has been going on for four and a half years. It’s already taken a toll on the mental health of many servicemen and women, and their families. I look forward to the inquiry now turning into an investigation. Now, only the allegation will finally be taken through the appropriate legal process and hopefully we can allow this to occur with integrity, while also using this opportunity to help with Australian public yo better understand the incredible service and sacrifices our servicemen and women made during Australia’s longest war in Afghanistan.
You’ve been very vocal in criticising how the release of the report was handled…
I’m shocked and disgusted at how this has been handled by our leaders – and by some sections of the media. There’s been no proactive mental health support in line with releasing the findings of the inquiry. In the most negative public environment in the modern era, we’re still asking people to reach out for help. How hard is it to set up a call centre to reach out to veterans being told they could have their honours stripped off them for things they didn’t do? During the time this inquiry has been running, we’ve lost over 600 veterans to suicide; more than ten times the number we’ve lost in combat and nearly twenty times the number of those killed by these alleged war crimes. It’s shocking that we’re not doing anything about proactively supporting those who we’ve taken through this process over the last four and a half years. What needs to occur is proactive outreach.
Talk to me about that press conference with the ABC…
When I heard Andrew Probyn’s accent at the press conference, I recognised it from previous anti-ADF commentary. His summary was incorrect; he called people and units the wrong names and titles. That comes from a place of disrespect. I knew my purpose at that press conference was to provide hope to any Veterans watching and feeling hopeless to defend themselves. There are some who are looking for an excuse to believe that our guys could kill innocent babies without emotion, I knew I had to keep my head together in my response. I had to compose myself.
Do you think the ABC has an agenda?
Yes. Before all of this, my world, in the military everyone is measured on a daily renewable contract. You’re there as a team. Your performance each day is what you’re measured on. You do what you’re deployed to do. Left wing, right wing, I didn’t understand all that, we’re all part of the same bird.
So, the ABC acted irresponsibly?
Absolutely. The ABC chose to release an article accusing my Platoon by name, for the first time in our history, on 21 October, the eighth anniversary of losing one of our best guys in Afghanistan during deployment in 2012. I see the agenda clearly now. The potential for trauma comes when you devalue people. When you start talking about stripping away awards from those who have served, that might be the last part of the chain holding their identity together. I watched grown men being torn apart. When you hit at that emotional layer, people’s belief system, you’re attacking their purpose. Seeing parts of the media attack, to undermine this belief system, just grabbing onto one liners, the collateral damage having on veterans and their families watching and listening at home is immense.
Although leaving Special Forces was challenging, would you say you’ve found new purpose now, fighting for veteran’s mental health and support?
Yes. That’s why I started Voice of a Veteran. The response has been incredible. I want to show people we’re everyday normal people; not cold-blooded killers. We need to put faces to some of these stories. I’ve found an emotional purpose now. Feeling emotion becomes addictive. When I lost those layers of having to be responsible for people, in life or death situations, everything started to hit me at an emotional layer. That’s all part of adjusting to life outside of military service.”