BALANCED on his board, Matthew Sawyer is at peace in the ocean.
For those precious moments, the 34-year-old veteran of the Afghan war is no longer fighting the trauma that followed him all the way home to the Gold Coast.
He isn’t thinking about his mate killed by a rogue allied soldier, nor the friend who took his own life after trying to fight post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
He isn’t thinking about the time an Afghani soldier he was mentoring turned his weapon on him, threatening to kill him.
But once he’s back on dry land, it comes back in waves.
While Matthew survived a tour of Afghanistan and the transition to civilian life, it hasn’t been easy.
But between therapy, the veteran support group The Men’s Shed at Nerang and surfing, he’s hanging in there.
As a member of the Association of Veteran Surfers, Matthew has found a very GC way to deal with the trauma he faced while serving his country.
Not that he’s out of the water yet.
“I still struggle talking about my PTSD,” he says. “You know, as a man, as a member of the military, it just feels like weakness, which makes you feel shame.
“That’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to get help. A lot of us don’t want to admit we even need help.
“I don’t think I even realised that was what was going on. It was my mates in the army who said I needed to go talk to someone. They basically said if I didn’t go, they would drag me there themselves.
“Then my friends Matt and Kieran started up the AVS and that’s just made a huge difference to my life. We get together the third Sunday of every month and just hang out, talk and surf. There’s about 100 veterans all there by the beach. It’s magic. I have a long way to go still but it just keeps me going.”
It’s a service he only wishes could have helped his close mate and fellow Gold Coaster Jesse Bird, who died by suicide in 2017, aged 32.
Jesse had been down to his last $5. His body was found surrounded by letters from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which had effectively blocked his claim that he had been wounded by the trauma of serving in Afghanistan.
An official inquiry into his case found there were significant failures by the Department of Veterans Affairs and as a result the Coalition Government began pouring money into mental health services for veterans.
Matthew says he too waited for years before help was provided, and he’s still dealing with the death of his friend on a daily basis.
“Jesse and I weren’t in the same regiment but we grew up together on the Gold Coast. He joined the army first and before I decided to sign up I sat down with him for advice,” he says.
“We both had PTSD but I’m the one still here. Suicide is a huge issue within the veteran community.
“We’ve lost nine times more veterans to suicide than to combat since Australia joined the war in Afghanistan in 2001.”
Across the entire duration of the conflict in Afghanistan, 41 members of the Australian Defence Force died in action, each one commemorated.
But in 2015 alone that same number of current and ex-service personnel took their lives. Few know their stories.
For Matthew, who served in Afghanistan in 2012, it took years before he felt the full effects of PTSD.
After joining the infantry in 2008, he discharged himself in 2014 and immediately joined a security detail working in Papua New Guinea for three years.
It was when he finally stopped that the trauma caught up.
“We spend years training how to bring ourselves to this state of high alert, but it’s really hard to climb back down from that,” he says.
“Years of living in a state where you just have to keep looking over your shoulder — it wears you down physically and mentally.
“Plus just being in Afghanistan was a real eye-opener. We were given lessons in cultural awareness and etiquette but some of the things we saw … it was disturbing.
“The way children and animals were treated was hard to stomach. There were young boys being passed around as sexual partners for men, and dogs being abused and beaten. We did what we could but there wasn’t much we could do.
“I could deal with all of it when I was serving. I needed to be at that level of high alert and dedication to duty. But now it haunts me. Depression, anxiety, it’s all part of the package and it makes it really hard to move forward.”
Matthew says as well as the constant high level of stress he was living at, the death of his friend, Private Robert Poate, and the threat to his life while teaching Afghani soldiers traumatised him.
Robert, or Robbie to friends and family, was killed just months after Matthew was sent home from Afghanistan. Like Matthew, Robbie was mentoring Afghan soldiers when he was attacked by one of the students while relaxing at a patrol base. Two other Australian soldiers were also killed.
“There were two regiments based at Enoggera and I was in 8/9 RAR and Robbie was in 6 RAR. We were really good mates. He arrived before I left and it was great to see him.
“Then I was home and news of the attack came out. I was just shattered.
“While I was in Afghanistan one of my students pulled his weapon on me and yelled he was going to kill me. At the time, I was more angry than anything. But over the years, it just plays on me how that could have gone so differently.