Rachel Kerrigan from Lake Mac parkrun served in the RAAF until 2007 and saw active service as part of Operation Slipper. Following her discharge, Rachel was diagnosed with PTSD and chronic depressive order, her weight ballooned to 119kg and at just 33 was told she would never work again.
Thanks largely to the power of sport, Rachel has learned to thrive with PTSD and depression and now supports other veterans to get involved in physical activity through her role with Veteran Sport Australia.
Rachel explains why activities such as parkrun are so beneficial for Veterans adjusting to civilian life and tells us how we can all support our Veteran community this ANZAC Day.
For someone who has made the decision to move out of isolation, going back in can be scary – especially if that’s a dark place to be.
But that’s exactly the impact that COVID-19 is having on countless people across Australia, including many Veterans such as myself.
Way back in 1996 as a school captain, my grandfather who I was very close to, asked me to wear his medals on ANZAC Day. That was the first time I learnt he had served, as it was something no one ever talked about – including my grandfather.
Looking back now I can see he had PTSD, but to me he was just my quirky pop! He passed later that same year – so I followed in his footsteps – I wanted him to be proud. I spent seven years in the RAAF and saw active service as part of Operation Slipper in 2002.
I discharged in 2007 at the age of 30. Three years later, I was diagnosed with severe PTSD and chronic depressive disorder and was told I would never work again. I was only 33. I ballooned to 119kg and was so severely affected that I couldn’t leave the house to even hang my clothes on the line.
When I discharged, the process was literally getting the paperwork signed, hand back your gear and walk out the gate for the last time on your final day of service. My medals and certificate of service got mailed to me. I had no contact with Defence after that day.
For me personally, the discharge process left me feeling isolated and I no longer had that sense of purpose and self. The work environment outside the military was very different – the relationships that are formed in the military are so different to other workplaces and I really missed and longed for that camaraderie. So, I struggled a lot with depression straight after discharge. There was no information on where to go for support or of what help I was entitled to – I had to do that on my own. Thankfully, today, a lot of the transition process has changed, and it is moving in the right direction.
The challenges of leaving the military vary from individual to individual and can depend a lot on the circumstances around the discharge, for example whether it’s by choice or for medical reasons. There will also be those who do not experience any significant challenges.
Other challenges that people face after transition include for example having to do a job interview or write a resume for the first time, having a job market that doesn’t really match the experience or qualifications you have, learning to navigate civilian systems or just feeling directionless for the first time. Some have physical and mental health challenges – it really depends on the individual and their own circumstances.
It’s been a battle to get to where I am now. I am working again, compete nationally in Powerlifting and Wheelchair Basketball and am learning to thrive with PTSD and depression, rather than just existing.
I first heard about parkrun whilst training for the Invictus Games. Our wheelchair basketball team was training in Townsville and part of that training was to do the parkrun course in our chairs. It was such a supportive community – we were welcomed with open arms and people were running with us, talking to us and as we were finishing, they were running with us and cheering us on and making us feel proud of our effort. But it wasn’t just for us – they did it for every person no matter how long that person took to finish the course, and you could see how much that meant to them.
I loved the fact that you could record your time and go back every week and try to beat it, or just go for social aspect, or go full out and try to do the best time of the day – it really was for everyone. There were parents pushing kids in prams, families running or walking together and even some older folks out powerwalking and laughing. It really was a mix of the whole community, of a lot of different ages, abilities and fitness levels and everyone had fun and got what they wanted out of the morning. It was the first thing I had experienced that really was for everyone, made everyone welcome and you can do it your way. I’ve used it to help with my fitness training, to have some fun and to meet other people in my local area – I am terrible in that I sometimes forget my barcode! I love that if you can’t make the day, you can do the course and still record your time if you want to.
Veteran Sport Australia has been encouraging as many veterans to participate in parkrun as we can – for all the reasons I love it and because it is so affordable to everyone! You can participate as an individual or if you want to be part of a team, you can join the VSA parkrun ‘club’ when you register with parkrun. VSA encourages veterans to reconnect with their community and look after their health and wellbeing and that of their families and for us, parkrun ticks all those boxes. It is outdoors, you don’t get penalised if you decide it’s too much and you can’t finish and you don’t have to go every week if you aren’t up to it.
Of course, COVID-19 has turned all of this on its head, and the impact of not having sport or some form of recreational activity to participate in is becoming increasingly obvious. We have all heard the saying that ‘the gym is my therapy’ and it couldn’t be truer for so many Veterans. The outlet we have is the gym, a sport, or some form of social get together. At VSA we work hard on bringing people out of isolation and finding that outlet, so it’s a major challenge to now ask people to stay away.
The good news is that we are seeing many innovative ways to help combat this. We have a lot of good content going up on our Facebook page on ways to manage this time – both physically and mentally. We have found many organisations out there doing great things too, such as virtual coffee catch ups, online training, online trivia – it really is amazing how many organisations have adapted what they are doing so they can still connect, help people stay supported and create a bit of fun in people’s day. parkrun is no exception, with the global online quizzes, School of parkrun and other digital activities designed to engage the community.
When it comes to ANZAC Day, we need to be just as creative. I had been invited to a local service as a guest and was asked to say a few words at the lunch after. This has been cancelled so instead I will reach out to my mates and have a chat, stand in my driveway at 6am as part of the Dawn Driveway Service and conduct my own reflection.
The RSL is working across Australia to ensure that it is commemorated, and that Australian servicemen and women are remembered, through virtual services online and on television, as well as through digital commemorations and social media. This means people can still be involved and show their respect through this means.
If you know a veteran, please reach out and contact them, create a virtual service of your own, or sit and reflect yourself.
Sport and physical activity in general is something that all Veterans have in common regardless of the branch of service and being fit is an important part of our daily lives whilst serving. Physical activity can help provide an outlet, social interaction, a purpose, and is great for mental as well as physical health as well as simply being fun to be a part of! It isn’t the silver bullet – but it is one more tool that can be used to help in Veteran recovery.
I personally believe it helps you reconnect socially with people and is a more relaxed environment that makes it easier to connect with others. It can open a new world of possibilities for those who struggle to connect socially after discharge – and parkrun is the perfect environment to make a start. It’s free, you choose when you attend, you can go with others or on your own and you participate at the level you are able to. If you are worried about going yourself, or are nervous about starting, get in touch with VSA and we can help you work through it and see if it is something for you.
Please remember that during this time we are not alone – there are still so many ways we can all connect. Look after yourselves by reaching out to others, getting sleep, making sure you get some exercise, have a routine, eat well and remember it is important to still have a laugh. And, just as importantly, look forward to doing your regular activities again when you can!
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