On home ground: The return of Crib 20

GREER MCDONALD
Last updated 17:14 14/10/2012
Fairfax journalist Greer McDonald welcomes back her fiance, after his last seven month posting to Afghanistan with the New Zealand Defence Force.
Fairfax journalist Greer McDonald welcomes back her fiance, after his last seven month posting to Afghanistan with the New Zealand Defence Force.
Army wife Louise Hardie with her children Lucas (3) and Taylor(5) at home in Burnham, Christchurch.
Army wife Louise Hardie with her children Lucas (3) and Taylor(5) at home in Burnham, Christchurch.

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As the final troops from the ill-fated Crib 20 tour to Afghanistan return home, Greer McDonald reflects on how the fatal incidents of 2012 will shape the Defence Force family - including her own.

It is the knock on the door no-one ever wants.

Two military personnel, dressed in freshly pressed uniforms, heads bowed, make their way to your house with news about your loved one, deployed overseas.

They have a knowing look and are at your door for only one reason.

This is the picture that was described as the "critical incident" procedure to families at a briefing after the deaths of five New Zealand soldiers within a fortnight in Afghanistan where my fiance was deployed.

It feels as if there has been no respite for the New Zealand Defence Force this year.

Eight army soldiers have died in high-profile incidents - combative and non-combative - since April, a death toll not experienced by our Defence Force for some time.

As a group, an employer, and a family, they are reeling.

Coupled with the public knowledge of low morale and high attrition rates, you could be forgiven for wondering: What next?

It is a question, undoubtedly, that the men and women of Task Unit Crib 20 - the 20th rotation of our troops to Afghanistan - are asking themselves too.

The NZ Provincial Reconstruction Team Bamyan is tasked with maintaining security in the province which it does by conducting frequent presence patrols throughout the area.

The final 90 members returned home on Thursday night, some after almost seven months away.

They made the journey back without five of their comrades who died in action, and the six injured soldiers who returned to New Zealand early.

Among those at the homecoming at Ohakea Air Force Base this week was Linton Military Camp's deployment services officer, Janine Burton.

As part of her role, she is a 24-hour support person for families of those deployed.

But Crib 20 was different. This time she was also a mum whose son was also on the mission.

"In my job, I connect with people, even if I don't have a person on the ground," says Burton.

So on August 4, when Lance Corporals Pralli Durrer and Rory Malone were killed in a clash with insurgents in Bamiyan province, Burton put aside her motherly instincts and put on her work hat.

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"I thought, 'Oh my God, this can't be happening'," she says.

"I switched into work mode - making sure everyone was OK."

The last call she made, after contacting next-of-kins of the deployed, was to her mum.

"I said he was OK, and that's when I lost it . . . When I had to ring my own mum, that was it."

Exactly two weeks later, Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, Corporal Luke Tamatea and Private Richard Harris were killed. That proved to be a different experience for Burton.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, how can we do this again? We can't do this again.' "

She says she may have felt a little more detached because it happened again so quickly.

"I began doubting myself, waiting for the emotion to hit. I don't know if it's because I was more incredulous."

She says before he left, she didn't feel fearful for her son - but as his homecoming neared, she could "feel the emotion building".

Burton, as well as the families and friends of Crib 20, turned inwards when looking for support.

"When you're with people going through the same experience, it's the best way to cope," she says.

"Unless you're going through it, you don't grasp just how hard it can be sometimes. People think they know, but they don't actually know."

The Defence Force, dealing with unprecedented circumstances in recent times, responded to the outpouring of emotion.

They arranged more family briefings where psychologists were on hand to explain the expectations partners and parents could now have of our loved ones' experiences.

"There's so much we don't know. We don't know what to expect," says Burton.

After the deaths, the briefings took on a different focus, with a heavy emphasis on the initial period immediately after Crib 20 got home.

Suddenly we weren't talking about issues - anything from a shift in priorities, nightmares, aggression or post-traumatic stress disorder - like they probably won't happen. It was more like a matter of when.

"From the first briefings we did, we learnt from the second one. We tailored it."

The briefings were sensitive, but honest.

Slideshows were shown where graphs explained the inverted bell curve, the high of the homecoming, the low of reality setting in and the eventual rise back to a new kind of normal. Whatever that is.

***

Louise Hardie didn't know what to say when her 5-year-old daughter asked her if Daddy was going to die.

Crib 20 was the fourth trip for Hardie's husband - his second deployment in two years - and as the mother-of-two watched the six o'clock news, she wasn't sure herself what the answer was.

"Do you lie, and they hate you forever, Or do you tell them the truth?" she says.

"I said to her, 'I couldn't honestly answer the question'."

Hardie, based in Burnham, sought advice from a Defence Force psychologist after a briefing following August 4.

"The psych said you've got to be honest. You've got to say, 'Look, we don't know if Daddy's going to come home or not'."

Hardie says she learned after the August 19 incident that a phone call was better than the knock on the door.

Procedure dictates that next-of- kin of those killed will receive a personal visit from the Defence Force. Family of those deployed but unharmed are generally contacted by phone before the media are alerted.

"I got caller ID because I was so paranoid."

Like Burton, Hardie also found she reacted differently the second time.

"I wasn't so worried because after the second incident, my coping mechanisms kicked in a bit more."

She wasn't as outwardly upset and felt more numb, unable to cry as much.

"It was that whole apprehension, waiting to hear from your husband again and wondering what they are going to be like."

During this time, Hardie turned to fellow army wives and girlfriends.

We first met following the funerals of Durrer and Malone, bonding after realising our men were in the same patrol.

"This is my first trip where I have known a group of people like this. It has made a huge difference. You always know you have someone to turn to in the middle of the night, to send a text or whatever."

The Defence Force was "very proactive" and she had learnt how to deal with it from the various sources of advice, she says.

Hardie spoke with a friend, whose husband was involved in the incident where Feilding soldier Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell died in 2010, and says she felt this time the army was better prepared.

But while Hardie believes partners and families of those deployed are constantly told of the avenues of help available, she isn't so certain soldiers hear the same message - or at least hear it as clearly.

"They probably need to do more. They need to sit down with the soldiers, not just the ones who have deployed. They need to tell them there's always someone to talk to."

The non-suspicious deaths of Linton-based soldiers Corporal Dougie Hughes earlier this year and Private Alexander Rope fuelled Hardie's concerns. "They are soldiers. They are supposed to be tough," she says. "But a lot of them resolve it with the drink."

Hardie hopes the Defence Force launches an internal investigation into the depression rates among staff. While she's supportive of the theory that the increase in reports of mental illness is a sign more people are willing to speak up, she is concerned not enough is yet being done.

Rethinking our deployments - or "pulling our guys out" - isn't the answer to avoiding the heartbreak though, says Hardie.

"It angered me tremendously when people kept saying we need out pull them out," she says.

"It's hard. They've got a job to do. And I have to support my husband 110 per cent."

***

Dangerous is how director of defence psychology Lieutenant Colonel Steve Kearney describes solely focusing on the negative aspects of deployment.

The 13-year veteran says 2012 will be a defining year for Defence.

"It's dangerous to focus on the negative aspects, which are many and very valid," he says.

"But we need to be cautious not to presume these guys are going to be broken, we might be doing them a disservice.

"It's a tragic event but it can give everyone a greater sense of what they stand for."

Kearney heads a team of psychologists charged with overseeing services provided to the Defence Force right through a career lifecycle - from selection to transitioning back in to civilian life.

Those services, he says, have been in high demand this year.

"It's fair to say all the support services have been heavily drawn upon, certainly for the psych team."

It hasn't been easy for his department either.

"I hope my team lean on each other. Broadly speaking, the Defence Force leans on each other heavily."

Kearney had first-hand experience of that when he was a junior officer and another junior officer took his own life.

"It was terrible for the whole group, but what was great was that there was complete acceptance of everyone's actions. They pulled out all the stops to ensure we had the support we needed."

It is that support, says Kearney, which will see the men and women of Crib 20 through.

"We'll be very attentive to Crib 20. We have systems and processes that we use.

Each deployment brings with it its own stresses and pressures.

"We'll catch up with them again three to four months later, and they will have face time with a doctor."

Kearney admits those suffering from serious mental-health issues are often the last to volunteer for help. This is why they are made to see a doctor.

While the reported rise in mental-heath issues, especially in the army, is "concerning", Kearney is quick to say now is not the time for knee-jerk reactions.

"Any incident of a soldier in distress is concerning," he says.

But the rise can be attributed to better reporting.

Before 2006, the system used to record the mental health of soldiers couldn't pool together group data.

"Although we historically haven't been good at reporting group data, we are good at tracking individuals."

"We've had more engagement with family of Crib 20 than would typically be the case," he says.

"The most important thing is to go in with the right intent and put the families' needs at the top of the list."

THOSE WHO WAIT

I remember the exact date when it hit me. It was August 23 and I was sitting in a room with other next-of-kins and I choked up as I replied to the psychologist who had been briefing us.

"I guess what gets me," I spluttered, as the suppressed tears escaped for the first time in weeks, "is that there is no normal any more. What is normal? Is it normal to think every time your doorbell rings it is the army death-knock? Is it normal to jump out of your skin every time the phone rings? Tell me, what is normal?"

I didn't recognise myself - physically or mentally.

But the goalposts had moved; the unpredictable path of having a loved one deployed had suddenly become all the more uncertain.

At that stage I felt like the experiences that my fiance had gone through while in Afghanistan had ruined any chances of a "normal" future together.

He had lost one of his men. We lost five soldiers in two weeks. It was, in a word, incomprehensible.

I cried for the lost hours of sleep, for the inability to keep him safe or reassure him with a hug, for the inevitable issues that may follow.

Or should I say, that will follow.

On Thursday, after almost seven months apart, he came home.

While he was gone, I tried not to picture our reunion for fear it would make me miss him more, or that I would romanticise it too much (think slow-motion running airport scene from a movie).

Of course I wanted him home - but only on our terms - and part of that included him seeing his commitment through to the end.

So in preparation, I attended Defence Force briefings that attempted to bring everyone together to ensure we were getting the best information and support.

It is here I realised the meaning of the line from a John Milton poem: "They also serve, who only stand and wait."

Friends, family and colleagues were great support, but these people - mainly women, Army WAGs, as we're known - became my life raft.

We buoyed each other with black humour and armed ourselves with bottles of wine. But mostly we shared our concerns for the future.

We grappled with the dual emotions of feeling pride at what our men had achieved, but fear for how these incidents may have changed them.

Someone asked me recently that if I knew what I know now about the Crib 20 experience, would I still have let him go? Without hesitation, I replied yes.

Our soldiers - and we do share them with the country - plan and train for the worst, and hope for the best.

When the worst hits, they deal with it any way they know how. And we stand beside them through it as the partners they have chosen.

But many of them are richer for the experience, knowing they've seen humanity at its very worst, and survived it.

The only task left for them now is to ensure the memory of their lost comrades is kept alive, too. 

- Greer McDonald

- Manawatu Standard

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