Understanding the veteran experience

Ex-serving ADF personnel are different from your other patients. Understanding the veteran experience will make it easier for you to connect.

About the veteran experience

Veterans and their families face unique experiences during a military career, and in transitioning to civilian life.

Military life can involve significant challenges, not least the exposure to life and death situations. For many veterans, military service and operational deployment can also lead to a strong sense of identity and belonging.

For clinicians working with veterans, demonstrating an understanding of the military experience can enhance the therapeutic alliance and the delivery of effective treatment. Veterans are more likely to engage with health care practitioners they feel understand, or seek to understand, their mental health problems within the context of their military service.

Mental health needs of Australian veterans

The mental health needs of veterans are diverse and rapidly changing.

For World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans, issues of ageing and chronic disease can be an important consideration. Depression, alcohol misuse and dependence and PTSD are the most common mental issues encountered in this group.

Currently serving and recently discharged ADF personnel have engaged in a range of warlike, peacekeeping and peacemaking deployments, as well as disaster response and border protection operations.

These younger, or ‘contemporary’ veterans are more likely to have experienced multiple, high tempo deployments.

Recent conflicts and peacekeeping missions arguably involve fundamentally different types of conflict to previous engagements.

For example, deployment to the Middle East may involve the ongoing threat of insurgent combatants, urban conflict amongst non-combatants, and increased prevalence of Improvised Explosive Devices.

Many veterans describe the extraordinary demands of constantly facing the threat of death or serious injury.

Additionally, complex rules of engagement and lines of command within multinational forces can increase the level of stress on Defence members on deployment, particularly in peacekeeping and peacemaking operations, as can the conflict with personal belief systems in these and border protection operations.

Apart from deployment cycles, frequent relocations within Australia can result in a sense of dislocation for contemporary veterans and their families, and combined with the often remote locations of ADF bases, this can limit consistent access to medical and mental health services.

Currently serving veterans may also be concerned about career progression and limited opportunities for re-deployment when mental health issues are identified.

Deployments and military culture

For many Defence members, a deployment is the pinnacle of their career, where years of preparation and training are put into action, either in war fighting, peacekeeping, peacemaking or humanitarian missions.

All deployments may involve high risks of exposure to trauma, as well as the threat of serious injury, death and loss.

Some ex-ADF members may not have participated in deployment that involved war or peacekeeping duties but may nonetheless have been deeply affected by experiences such as humanitarian deployments (e.g. the operation in Aceh following the 2004 Tsunami) or training accidents (e.g., the 2006 Black Hawk training accident or the 1964 HMAS Melbourne-Voyager collision that resulted in 82 deaths).

Regardless of their timing or nature, a veteran’s experiences can have a lasting and profound influence.

Most veterans join the services as young adults, an important time in life for shaping values, beliefs and attitudes. Because they were socialised into military culture at a time when they were malleable, many will have adopted military values and ideals as their own.

Many high impact experiences will have occurred during times of extreme stress, in some cases during life-threatening situations. What is learned under these conditions can be resistant to change because it is associated with survival.

While some of these experiences can help protect a veteran from the impact of stress and mental health problems, they can also lead to tension, particularly in a civilian setting. Some military or deployment experiences can also contribute to, or exacerbate mental health problems.

These experiences do not apply to all veterans, nor are mental health problems an inevitable consequence of the events experienced. It is important to note that while some veterans readily identify the impact of service-related experiences on their current feelings and behaviours, for others, the connection may not be as evident, particularly if habits linked to their military experience were formed many years ago.

Recommended readings and resources 

These resources provide further background and detail on the experiences of veterans and their families before, during and after deployment.