NZDF hones in on veteran mental health

NZDF hones in on veteran mental health

Warning: This video contains footage that may disturb some viewers.

The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) says it is taking post-traumatic stress injuries seriously, in the wake of recent criticism from some younger Kiwi veterans who claim enough isn't being done to combat mental health issues.

The NZDF's chief medical officer told Newshub it has greater success than its counterparts in the US, whose forces are seeing an unprecedented rise in suicide numbers.

War is dangerous, but life after it is much more dangerous than people realise. In the US almost five times as many soldiers commit suicide as are killed in combat.

"There's a lot of controversy about this right around the world. It's a big area of research at the moment with an enormous amount of effort being put into it," says NZDF chief medical officer Paul Nealis.

New Zealand is not immune. Dr Nealis says dozens of Kiwi service people are suffering from conditions such as PTSI, and some are taking their own lives.

"We do have suicides within the Defence Force. We're not aware of any that are being related to combat service at the moment, but having said that, it is something that we actively screen for all the time," says Dr Nealis.

While New Zealand troops see less frontline service than their US counterparts, they still come face to face with the horrific realities of war. For former UN commander John McLeod, who continues to suffer from PTSI, it was almost a daily occurrence during his time in Angola.

"When I first realised I was having some issues, a guy I knew got delivered to me by his friends wanting help. He'd been hit on an anti-tank mine, and the bottom half of him was destroyed. It had come up into his face and he died there, and two minutes later I'm having a row with these guys, saying, 'I'll help him while he's alive, but he's your problem,'" says Mr McLeod.

"'He's dead. You go and sort his body out, don't leave his body here.' You've gone from that sort of care and compassion to being, 'It's a piece of dead meat; get rid of it, out of my sight.'"

Mr McLeod credits the NZDF for helping him deal with his issues, and Dr Nealis believes Kiwi service people have a greater chance of receiving individual care than the millions of military personnel in the US.

"We have the luxury of smaller numbers. We're not dealing with the vast numbers like some of the other militaries are, so we can tailor something to an individual, tailor it around them, tailor it around their family, so it fits them as best we can."

The battle within the military mind is now perhaps even more important as those on the frontlines.