By Eamon Hale
I was driving to work in the early afternoon the other day. I drive along the beach near where I live. Having the sea visible out my window as I drive is lovely and relaxing.
Ten minutes into my drive I passed a beach car park. For just a second, I saw a man on his knees next to a car, rhythmically bouncing up and down, up and down.
I knew it was CPR straight away. I pulled over and ran to help.
There was an old man on the ground, and over him a bloke my age. Big and broad, with tattoos down both arms and a beard, he was giving the old man compressions.
I tried to help as much as I could, but the big guy was in control and had it in hand.
Not long after I arrived, an ambulance and the CFA turned up, taking over the resuscitation.
The big guy gave them a handover: what he saw, what he did, what he was doing now. Quick, succinct points. He stretched his back and stepped over to where I was standing, moving away onlookers.
There was something about the big guy that set off my AJ indicator, that sensitive little radar in the head of every ex-Defence person that lets them know they are in the presence of a kindred spirit. The way he spoke and carried himself gave him away. I knew he was ex-Army.
“What corps were you, mate?” I asked him.
He didn’t miss a beat, “RAEME. You?”
He paused. I was about to ask if he was alright, but before I could he simply said, “I’m good, mate. I knew what to do when I saw him.”
A calm, controlled maelstrom of action
We started quietly chatting as we moved on passers-by and kept people away from the paramedics and firies who were trying to save the man’s life.
I quickly learned that Chris is a regular bloke out in the world. He’s a photography student now, having been a Corporal in the Royal Australian Electrical Mechanical Engineers, and was setting up to take landscape photos. He’d finished setting up his tripod facing out to the ocean when he glanced over his shoulder and saw a man slumped in his car five metres away.
People were walking, jogging and cycling past, not seeing the man, but Chris knew something was wrong and had the skills gifted to him by the ADF to recognise it and do something about it. While society flowed past him, Chris leapt into action. A calm, controlled maelstrom of action, driven by a 110kg frame.
He tried for a response and opening the car door checked for a pulse. He didn’t get one so pulled the man from the car and commenced CPR. While giving compressions, he organised a friend who was with him to call triple-0 and request an ambulance.
He worked to save the man’s life while calmly speaking to people around him and organising them to help.
Chris wasn’t Special Forces or some tough-as-nails action hero type soldier. He was an armourer in the Army. Its perhaps an unassuming role, but one filled with exceptional men and women, like all roles in the ADF.
He had trained not just to fix and maintain weapons, but also to carry out first-aid on those that need it, to fix and maintain people, and take charge of situations where others might have simply panicked. Chris had been a soldier for more than a dozen years, but eventually he was medically discharged. He hadn’t wanted to leave, but his body had been smashed by his service and the choice was no longer his.
Being a soldier shaped his world
Leaving the Army took away his identity. Chris had been a soldier. His entire world had been shaped around that.
Then – snap – it was gone. His identity is something he is still searching for. He was honest about struggling to do so.
Chris told me that he attempted suicide twice after he was discharged. He had turned to drink and pills. Then, one day, just before he hit rock bottom, Chris realised he had a choice. He could be a victim and let his significant injuries dominate his life, or he could find a new direction. That’s when he realised that he had a lot more to give to society.
Chris will always be a soldier. And a good one. But he is also learning what it is to be a civilian. And we’re bloody lucky to have civilians like Chris around us. Usually, we can only identify veterans on ANZAC Day. Their suits, berets and medals give them away as they march together through our towns and capital cities. Once the march is over they blend in around us. People who’ve served in the ADF don’t wear name tags to tell you about it. They’re normal people and look like anyone else.
We might not always see them but people like Chris are all around us. Men and women who have served the nation in the Army, Navy and Air Force, before quietly transitioning back to the civilian world. Some find the transition easy. They hit the ground running and flourish, enhancing their new workplaces with the skills the ADF has given them.
Others, like Chris, find it hard. The military world is a good one. It’s ordered and organised. Who you are and where you rank is easy to understand. But that changes when you leave and you re-enter “the real world”.
Chris was just a bloke learning a new trade and building a new identity for himself last Sunday. But I am grateful to have had the pleasure of meeting him and seeing the soldier that still lives within him, just under the surface, ready when it still needs to emerge.
When it was all over, I shook Chris’s hand. He filled me with pride. He didn’t need to do what he did. Plenty of other people saw that old man in the car and did nothing. But Chris has a moral compass finely tuned by more than a decade in the Army. And his moral compass directed him to do what he knew was right, despite how hard it was going to be.
People like Chris are why I’m so proud to have served. I’m not extraordinary, but I share and have shared the uniform of a lot of people who are.
Eamon Hale is the Vice President of the Hawthorn RSL Sub-branch in Victoria, having served in the Australian Army as a cavalryman for 16 years. He now works in emergency services and is a regular contributor to Australian Veteran News.
Connect with him on twitter: @eamhale