Anzac Day 2017: For some veterans, the fast landing home is as tough as the war

Concept, photography: ADAM McLEAN. Interviews: BEN LANGFORD

In a gunfight in a foreign war zone one day, home to a seemingly normal life the next. That’s the challenge facing our modern-day veterans. Meet Wollongong’s Mick Bainbridge, whose 14-year army career included four tours of Afghanistan. BEN LANGFORD reports

Every war is different, or every war is the same? Depends who you ask.

When Australia’s war veterans get together this coming Tuesday to mark Anzac Day, they will be sharing the ties that bind them together: commemoration of lost friends, pride in their service, a level of trust in comrades few civilians would understand, and the knowledge each has seen the horror of war. 

The young veterans will be embraced by the older Diggers and vice-versa. Stories will be told, mates supported, no generation trying to prove their war was better or worse, instead emphasising how they’re the same.

Other days, there will be times the very same veterans feel like strangers in their hometown, convinced no-one could understand how their war was different. 

Green beret: Mick Bainbridge survived four tours of Afghanistan. Picture: ADAM McLEAN

Green beret: Mick Bainbridge survived four tours of Afghanistan. Picture: ADAM McLEAN

As the years take their toll it’s the younger veterans who are finding a stronger voice in the Anzac movement. For many of these veterans of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq – numbering in the tens of thousands – it’s about time their experience was highlighted, and properly understood.

For many it’s the homecoming. Modern wars are producing a new kind of decompression sickness, perhaps a function of the speed with which they arrive back from combat.

Mick Bainbridge is home in Wollongong after a 14-year army career that included four tours of Afghanistan in the elite 2nd Commando regiment.

He discharged in November last year, but admits adjusting to home life did not come easy.

Fast landing: Mick Bainbridge, pictured here in Afghanistan, said younger veterans are developing their voice and need greater recognition. Picture courtesy M. Bainbridge

Fast landing: Mick Bainbridge, pictured here in Afghanistan, said younger veterans are developing their voice and need greater recognition. Picture courtesy M. Bainbridge

“I think coming home from a war zone today is very different from possibly what it may have been in WW2 or Vietnam or other conflicts,” he told Weekender.

“You can be on a patrol in a gunfight one day, and 72 hours later be walking through Sydney airport – it’s a fairly strange experience, and it does take a fair while to settle down.

“It’s probably similar to working for long hours then taking a week or so to settle down in your holiday break … times ten.

“I had a lot of practice at it over the years so it did become easier. But in the end I was diagnosed with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and depression – which thousands of soldiers have been. It did make things harder to actually settle in to life here.

Picture courtesy M. Bainbridge

Picture courtesy M. Bainbridge

“I often found that Afghanistan was more simplistic and I could deal with things over there better than I could back home.”

After months on high alert – seeing lives lost, perhaps taking lives, carrying the bodies of friends out of a battle, trying to survive – it’s little wonder the return to suburban life is a shock. Like an undersea diver surfacing too quickly, many get the bends – mostly in the form of PTSD, and its entourage of hangers-on, from self-medication on alcohol, to depression, anxiety and panic, even suicides. 

Australia lost 40 soldiers in Afghanistan, from about 25,000 who served, and it was the special forces and commandos who often bore the brunt of the casualties. Eleven of the dead were from Bainbridge’s 2nd Commando Regiment.

I often found that Afghanistan was more simplistic and I could deal with things over there better than I could back home. - Mick Bainbridge

He was at the Blackhawk helicopter crash on June 21, 2010, when three commandos from his regiment were killed. Bainbridge was riding in the chopper behind.

“In Afghanistan our role was to go out offensively and seek the enemy, and protect the other Australian soldiers who were rebuilding parts of Afghanistan,” he said.

“We had a fairly kinetic role … out there looking for the bad guys and taking names. Well, sort of ...”

A quieter moment on board an amoured vehicle amid the big sky in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan. Picture courtesy M. Bainbridge

A quieter moment on board an amoured vehicle amid the big sky in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan. Picture courtesy M. Bainbridge

Like any normal person, Bainbridge felt plenty of nerves when first arriving in the war zone.

“I was pretty nervous when I first arrived. Flying in, the plane’s all over the shop, they hit the runway pretty hard, and you’re wondering what’s out there,” he said.

“I’ll never forget the smell of walking out in Tarin Kowt and the heat – the average temperature there was about 55 degrees. So it was disgustingly hot and fairly dry, and very bright. Plus the altitude, that was something that took normally a few weeks to get used to each time.

“The first tour, it was a bit of an eye-opener. It was not as developed as it became in later years. They had a big burn pit, and that was most of the smell – probably all the carcinogens they were burning and everything else. It was a pretty rude shock to the system to be honest.”

Mick Bainbridge (left) and comrades from the 2nd Commando Regiment show their firepower on patrol in Afghanistan. Faces of other soldiers have been obscured to protect their identity. Picture courtesy M. Bainbridge

Mick Bainbridge (left) and comrades from the 2nd Commando Regiment show their firepower on patrol in Afghanistan. Faces of other soldiers have been obscured to protect their identity. Picture courtesy M. Bainbridge

Bainbridge speaks openly about the difficulties of coming home, for himself and others. Now out of the military and studying law, he is dedicating himself to making sure the younger veterans get the recognition they deserve – including the proceedings on Anzac Day.

“I think these days younger veterans are somewhat detrimented by the hype around World War I,” he said. “I know the sacrifices were incredible, but a lot of the ceremony is based around our WWI Diggers, and sometimes it’s hard not to feel like some of our younger generation veterans feel a little bit left out.

“I’ve noticed that it’s now more prevalent than ever that our young veterans are being left behind, and I think it’s an important day for the community to reconcile that, and thank our young vets, who often may not have the support that the community may think they have out there.”

Bainbridge said Afghanistan was a beautiful country - for a war zone. Picture: supplied

Bainbridge said Afghanistan was a beautiful country - for a war zone. Picture: supplied

Bainbridge said each Anzac Day was a vital tradition for veterans.

“It’s a great day for all generational veterans to get together, enjoy a beer, remember some mates, and get out there in the community and show them what we’ve done,” he said. “I’m proud of my service, I’m proud of what I’ve done, and what we achieved over there.

“[Anzac Day is] a time when I remember my mates … I’ve lost a fair few mates over there, I think of them and I think of their families, and often catch up with them as well.

“Having lost a lot of mates and been there when they’ve been lost, and helping bring them out, it’s something that will always be with me. I only hope that my children don’t have to experience it.”