Sanjiva Wijesinha -writer and physician

Short stories, Travel and Health Information

Camino de Santiago

An Ancient Way – A Way Back for Veterans?

Based on my presentation at the annual conference of the Australasian Military Medical Association, Brisbane October 2017.

In June this year, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released its report Incidence of suicide among serving and ex-serving Australian Defence Force personnel 2001–2015

One of the reassuring conclusions from the report, which drew on data collected over the past fifteen years, was that serving members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) are far less likely to commit suicide compared to the general population. Men serving full time or in the reserve had age-adjusted suicide rates 53% and 49% lower than all Australian men.

HOWEVER, the not so good news from this report was that the suicide rate of Ex-serving men (there was virtually no data for ex-serving women) was more than TWICE as high as serving men – and 14% higher than their counterparts in the general population.

This is certainly a cause for concern. Why this high rate of suicide – which by implication means a high rate of mental ill health – in Australian veterans when they return home?

Why are so many soldiers – not just in the ADF but in armies all over the world – lost when they leave the Military?

From my own observations as an army doctor and a family physician who has looked after many veterans – as well as from the discussions I have had with health professional colleagues who have served in the military in different countries – some of the reasons that could explain this are

  • Soldiers discharging from the military lose the Self respect, the Stability and the Support System that goes with the uniform and belonging to an organisation that is respected by society
  • They hold no rank or status in the civilian community – and from being Somebodies they virtually become Nobodies
  • They have to start anew on discharging – and they have to start alone

In his book A Soldier to Santiago, US Navy Veteran Senior Chief Petty Officer Brad Genereux wrote: ” “For over 22 years and with pride I represented my country by wearing the uniform of my nation. And when my service was all over? Life had passed me by and I found that I fit in – Nowhere.”

Brad is the founder of Veterans on the Camino – a project designed to help suffering military veterans to achieve healing by undertaking a journey along the Camino de Santiago, the ancient 500 mile pilgrim trail to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain that is walked by over a hundred thousand pilgrims each year.

If one were to ask “What is a pilgrimage?” the obvious definition would be “A journey to a place in the belief that a duty will be fulfilled, a wish will be granted or sins will be forgiven” . Pilgrimages such as these made, for example, by Christians to Jerusalem or Lourdes or Santiago, Moslems to Mecca, Hindus to the source of the Ganges and Japanese Buddhists to the various historic temples on the island of Shikoku..

But one could also look on a pilgrimage as a journey away from home in search of spiritual wellbeing – seeking inner peace through physical journeying.

And it is this Inner Peace that a pilgrimage along the Camino can help someone suffering from the mental battle scars of war to achieve.

How can undertaking a pilgrimage along the Camino help Veterans?

Identity Transformation: The shock of leaving behind one’s military identity can be profound. Wearing a military uniform allows one to “walk tall”- but the day one has to give up one’s uniform, one becomes just another civilian struggling to make his way in an unfamiliar world. Inherent in the pilgrimage journey is the adoption of a new identity – “Pilgrim” – and the Sharing of the journey’s hardship with other Pilgrims

Tradition: Walking this ancient trail, which pilgrims have traversed for over a thousand years, one becomes aware of all those who have moved along this ancient space – just as in the military, one wears a uniform, a beret or particular headgear – which are badges of honour that respect those who have gone before.

Action:  Soldiers miss the “Situation, Mission, Execution” type of action that goes with being in the military. The pilgrim journey provides a shared direction of movement towards a common End-state – while the side by side movement, reminiscent of soldiers doing PT, drill, weapon cleaning etc together, engenders sharing and support as they work to achieve the envisaged Goal.

Becoming part of a Community: Walking in the company of others who are on a similar quest (“We are all in this together!”) brings about a sense of mutual RESPECT. There is a readiness along the Way to “help a mate” through illness and injury – and there is always  the opportunity, over a glass of beer or a copa de vino at the end of a hard day’s walk, to share stories and experiences.

A Pilgrimage along the Camino can bring back the Joy and Camaraderie of old times, the Respect and Sense of Purpose that was treasured and the Self-esteem that was lost. Gazing at the snow-capped mountains ,  a grove of majestic leafy trees or a tranquil lake – the world and its travails seem a thousand miles away. One feels so very small, and yet one feels a part of Humanity – and a part of the Universe.

A pilgrimage to Santiago, admittedly, is not for everyone – and is not the only way to help veterans suffering from loss, mental scars, PTSD and grief. But the therapeutic value of pilgrimage has been well known over the ages – and walking the Camino de Santiago, I am sure, will help veterans struggling to find themselves to achieve not only spiritual healing but also mental peace.

Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha is the author of the book Strangers on the Camino – available as an ebook from amazon.com. The print edition is available from Dymocks bookshops in Melbourne and direct from the author at sanjiva.wijesinha@monash.edu.

 

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This entry was posted on October 13, 2017 by in Uncategorized.
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