Transcript: The Story of My Broken Soldier (EP53)
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Brendan: Hello and welcome to The Culture of Things. I'm Brendan Rogers, your host, and this is episode 53. Today, I'm talking with the author of My Broken Soldier, Karen Page. Kaz is a wife, a mom, a worker, a daughter, and a friend.
After a fairly turbulent upbringing in a blue-collar Aussie family from suburban Sydney, two failed marriages, and two young daughters in tow, she finally found a man who became her best friend, her rock, and her lifelong partner in crime. But he also became a soldier, and at that moment, she became a soldier's wife.
Kaz lives on the New South Wales Central coast with her husband and their daughters, Willow, Scarlet, and Adelaide. She also has two adult daughters, Jessica and Ayleigh. Her interests include sustainable living, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, and homegrown food production. She loves spending time with her family and putting her family's enthusiastic paddock to plate ethos into practice.
Kaz is a passionate advocate for adult mental health, particularly the mental health of veterans and their families. Kaz is proud to use her family's story and her voice as a means to generate awareness. She also hopes to become an agent for change. Kaz, welcome to The Culture of Things podcast.
Karen: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.
Brendan: Absolute pleasure. Been looking forward to this day for quite some time. Kaz, there is a fine young gentleman sitting to your left. Would you like to introduce?
Karen: I would, thank you very much. This is my husband and proudly my broken soldier, Matt Page.
Brendan: Matt, welcome to The Culture of Things podcast.
Matt: Thanks, Brendan.
Brendan: Today, we are going to unpack this fantastic book that's in front of us, My Broken Soldier. Kaz, you talked about in pre-recording about hot mess. Tell us, what is hot mess and how it helped to write this book, My Broken Soldier.
Karen: When Matt joined the Defence Force, that was very new to him and I. Neither of us have really had any association or affiliation with Defence through upbringings. Him going into military life (I guess) was exciting and challenging for him, very unknown to both of us.
At that time, I was working full-time in my capacity and I was traveling a lot as well. We went through a 6–8 year period of both of us working and travelling for work, and that was okay because it was very fast-paced. We really didn't have time to stop and think about what was happening in our world. We were just going through the motions.
When you get to a point, I guess through his deployment and the kind of things that we had to endure through those deployments, again, not really ready for them, not understanding what that's going to be like getting to the other side. That takes its toll. You don't realize that it's taking a toll.
When he then had his accident that was career-ending, we had to go through a lot. We’ll talk more about that as we transition through, but coming to the end of the real high, turbulent process after his accident, my outlet—because I didn't have anywhere to turn—is to scribble. I scribble things down to try and get them out of my head, otherwise, it gets really busy and it's very noisy in your head constantly, so I would scribble a lot.
Matt and I were sitting there talking one day and we were just shooting the breeze going through different things, and I just said, we can't be alone. How do we go through such a horrific experience and it only be us. It must be other families.
I said, what do I do with all of this now that I've written it all, because I would keep everything—dates, times, people, pain. To me, that was my hot mess. That was my way of coping. I would write and I would just scribble, brainstorm, and whatever. Matt turned around in one of the conversations and said, babe, why don't you just write a book? Why don't you create something out of that?
I took all of my notes and all of my notebooks and I started writing in a more controlled fashion. That first iteration was very angry and it was very targeted against particular individuals that had really let us down or really hurt us through this process. It was very descriptive on how I would like to seek revenge on them. Not something that you would put out for public reading.
I then started to evolve through that and because I was able to let go of so much of that anger by writing, I got to then write a second version that is less angry and more factual. This is just what happened, and this is how we got through it, and this is what we did. The more Matt and I started to talk about it, the more we thought maybe we could actually convert this into something that we could put out for people to read.
As we started to transition, we landed on three groups that we wanted to help. That became Defence Families that might or might not be going through their own pain. It was civilian families that have never had any exposure to what it's like to be a defence family or having exposure to mental health. Then there is that whole massive topic around adults, specifically adult mental health, what those signs look like, what the triggers might be like, and what it's like to endure as the supporter and the sufferer.
My hot mess then, I got people, very smart people, smarter than me, in this space of creating a book, and we were able to convert my hot mess into what you see here today.
Brendan: That whole process, it sounds like it started like a really angry hot mess. How much of this process was a healing journey for you in writing this book? And obviously through this interview we'll get into some of the details in the book, but how much of it was a healing process for you, personally?
Karen: A hundred percent. The benefits that I hope other people gain from it, really are just icing on the cake, so to speak. This, for me, getting to the end of this, I'm really good now. I'm happy not to read this story anymore. I'm happy to look forward to the future and see what else we can do in the realms of helping people, make change, bringing focus and awareness to it.
I think if I hadn't written that book, if I hadn't had that to hold onto, learn, and look back, that allows us an ability to look back and go, wow, not only did we go through a lot, but we survived and we came out stronger than ever.
Brendan: I'm so happy you touched on the anger point because it was one of those questions I had for later in the interview. It was one of those things that my mind started to wonder a little bit. I've read the book as you guys know. For me, absolutely fantastic read. It touched me in so many ways and made me reflect, not on my personal journey, but certainly the journeys of family; grandfather in wars and just the stuff you'll just never know.
I guess the process of that, reading it, and the anger part that comes out, how much of that anger was expressed to the army, even to mass [...], or maybe just the whole situation, the ‘why me’ scenario that comes in?
Karen: There was a big portion of it that was why me, why us, and why him. To the army, it was constant. It was just a constant battle of—for want of a better term—you're idiots. Why can't you see what you've done? Why can't you be better than what you are for us right now? And he had done, too, to us. It’s not like he put on the uniform to begin with because it's less than two percent of our population that are prepared to do that, to protect our freedom. He also went to war twice.
For me, I was angry at the fact that this is a veteran. This is a veteran that sacrificed time with his family, wrote a blank cheque to the country, and then got injured on home soil. I was angry at the treatment. The accident was an accident. As heartbreaking as it was, you can't stay angry at something like that forever. But, I think if I didn't write the book, I would still be very angry at the army. I would still be very angry at DVA (Department of Veterans Affairs).
Whilst I don't believe either of those two large organizations have necessarily changed to the point that they need to, I'm not angry. I'm now determined to help change because we need both of them. We need an Australian Defence Force. We need the Department of Veterans Affairs. We just need them to be better than where they are today. I'm not angry. I'm determined.
Brendan: You've explained yourself—again, in the book I'm just going to make reference—you call yourself a broken headcase. Do you still call yourself a broken headcase?
Matt: I think probably that I'm an evolving headcase from the perspective of trying to get better everyday. I think that a big part of this stage in our life is where we're at. For me, when I got injured, it was looking for opportunities and (I guess) all those percentages that you can take into account to try and get yourself back to where you need to be.
At the moment, I'm medicated for specific things and that keeps a lot of the head chemistry straight. It doesn't mean that I don't revert back into some patches there that are a bit darker, but I think with internal vigilance and doing the work, constantly working towards digesting your own emotions, feelings, and processing the way your going about your day and being mindful of that side of things, I think, as far away from being a complete headcase as I could be at the moment. I think that will continue to stabilize and cement itself from that perspective there.
Both myself and Kaz don't shy away from looking at the little breaks at our psyche or the way we’re approaching the world, the way we're looking at the world and saying, okay, what's the better option? Because neither of us feel ‘good enough’ was ever a standard that anybody should hang their head on. That's how I'm treating life now out of the army.
Brendan: My Broken Soldier is such a fantastic title for a book. Who came up with that?
Karen: Me, because he is my broken soldier.
Brendan: He is. Tell us a bit about what made you broken? A little bit of background around the events of your deployment and the accident, I suppose.
Matt: Sure. As Kaz mentioned, I was deployed twice during my career. Got to do the job that we all signed up to do. Most of the blokes, when you're kicking around a regiment, battalion, or anything like that, everybody's looking towards how do we get the job done, how do we do this job that we've been training for so many years for.
For me, this was definitely one of the key moments of my career, being able to deploy and successfully deployed, doing my job on the ground. That was huge for me. From there, we have a look at the mental health side.
Coming out of theater—when I say theater, we’re referring to the Middle Eastern area of operations—we normally have a decompression period, it used to be in Kuwait, now it's in the Emirates. From there, you go through, get a medical, make sure you're clear. You see a psych for about half an hour just to make sure there's nothing specifically obvious, and then after that you're okay to get home, and you get home.
For me, when we came home, there was a period of readjustment, obviously. There are a lot of things you take into consideration that you start doing naturally when you're away in operations but that isn't stuff you do when you're home.
I was a cavalry commander, which meant we're armored vehicle movements. One of the things that controls the way we effectively operate over there is we have to operate on roads or adjacent to roads. One of the biggest things that will make any cavalier scared will be IEDs and RPGs which is also the weapon of choice of most of the people we were trying to locate and take care of.
A lot of those considerations, when you come home, don't fit for conventionally driving a car even. You’re rolling through stop signs. You don't stop when you're on the road because that's a fixed point and that's when you’re likely to get something that will happen to you. You're looking forward to keeping vehicles away from you so you drive down the center of the road. Everybody gets a wave off and they know to stay away from you because you're the biggest and baddest people out there at the moment, so they’re not going to take that on.
Those sort of things take a little while to settle down. Within about six weeks, you start to calm down. You still have certain hyper-vigilance aspects there. I find it really hard to down-regulate when I'm in a shopping center and it's very busy because there's just an abundance of information that your brain is processing.
You learn to try and reinsert yourself back to regular life, dealing with kids, the wife and things like that. From there on, even coming into the accident, we were deployed on the training exercise at that time. It was just as simple as conducting a night move. My driver at that time, because I was acting troop sergeant, I was put with one of the least capable drivers because that's normally what they do.
They’ll put a strong mind with a learning mind, or they'll put an experienced guy with an inexperienced guy so that hopefully, between the two of you, you'll get the job done. He looks after you because he's inexperienced or less capable. He'll do what I need him to do and I can teach him the ropes as he goes through.
For me, he was a long-term soldier, but he was fairly mentally limited in his capability, so he deployed to Timor. At one stage there, he came back, and hasn't sort of done much since. What eventually led to the accident was fitting out his night vision equipment because I was in a senior position. He didn't want to (I guess) allude to the fact that he hadn't been able to set up his equipment correctly. He was actually driving under night vision equipment that wasn't focused in or didn't have the resolution correct for him to actually operate a vehicle.
He was relying on me being a senior soldier that I would just talk him through it while we're trying to move over the ground at night. We're not too bad on the way out, on the way back, we're in a night move, which means you're driving under no lights or anything like that.
Eventually, we started dragging behind and we weren't keeping up with the rest of the party. I was in the rear because I'm the troop Sergeant so we're the last man out to make sure everybody's where they are supposed to be. I give him a hurry up so he tries to push the speed, but he's still drifting off, as in out of alignment with the rest of the group. Next thing I know, I’m hung up in my weapon station, out of the gun ring which is a hatch at the top of the vehicle, and I'm sort of hung up there with all of my equipment. He'd driven into a dry river bed and I've got slammed up against the weapon station.
Brendan: I know we’re jumping quite ahead, but I look at you today, and you're a pretty fit bloke. I’d see you in the street and think, nothing’s wrong with this fellow.
Matt: Yeah, 100%.
Brendan: How has that accident impacted you?
Matt: That's a long one to try to unpack. I'll probably run you through quickly about where I get from the vehicle to the area’s medical facility. Eventually, once I got my way with all back, we conducted the rest of the move and I sort of marry us back up with the rest of the troop. We're moving into our night time hard location. We get there, we do what we're supposed to do. We switch off the vehicles. We use our [...] so we're conscious of that stuff.
I went to disembark my vehicle and sure enough, when I went to step down off the vehicle, my legs just went there underneath me. I tried to get up and I just couldn't. I was a little bit all over the shop, so one of the directional staff came over and said what's going on.
I just couldn't get my feet underneath me, got banged up. They put me off to one side and they observed me for 15-20 minutes. They decided they were going to evacuate me. In that time, too, what was ordinarily probably should have been a fairly high priority [...] despite the fact that I was still conscious at that time and verbal. Normally, if you can get response out of people, they treat it fairly low, but any head injuries and things like that, they normally treat as fairly high priority.
I wasn't given a priority. They sent out a white fleet vehicle into the middle of the bush scrub. We were basically driving out in just a conventional four-wheel drive through scrub and the rest of the range. In hindsight now, knowing what I know and looking back on it, none of the correct medical assessments were being done right from the beginning.
There's a set of stats supposed to be taken. With a head injury you're supposed to fit a neck brace because the neck is likely to be damaged. You're also probably supposed to put them on a board. None of that was done. Wind up in the military area hospital.
They kept me there for ops overnight, they then started to do scans and things like that. The best scans you can get were CAT scans, which we later got told under no circumstances would use a CAT scan to try and diagnose a traumatic brain injury, that you'd be better off using a MRI because you can get a better understanding of the damage that's been done.
They did as much as the CAT scan and was sort of in a limbo for a 1½–2 days. By the end of that, I've got key deliverables that I've got to achieve as part of my organization as well as reporting to the directional staff because they've got to try to achieve their goals which is training young officers to become full members of the Australian Defence Force as the officer class.
From that perspective there, we want to be getting the job done. I've got a pink discharge from my nose at that time which has been on and off for two or three days. I start talking to the doctors, talking to the nurses, saying what's going on? Where are we going? We're not sure what we're going to do with you yet. Okay, then I decided to take it on myself. I'll organize my own idea about what I'm going to do and I decided I'm not doing anything functional here. I'm going to go back and continue on my job.
Organized it with my boss to come pick me up. Organized it with the nursing staff, tell the doctor what I'm doing. Ultimately, it was like, I guess we can't really stop you so we'll carry on, which I guess people wouldn’t ordinarily expect that you should take the word of a brain trauma patient as gospel. We're not altogether there during those times.
Deployed back to the field to carry on, finish out the task. For about five days, it was a discharge from my nose. A later specialist sort of indicated that probably it was syno fluide, so spinal fluid, brain fluid, when the back of the nose gets cracked a little bit, it can suddenly start to come through so you're draining that out.
My key thing was just let's get back on with the job, let's get that done. I just know I was having chronic headaches and I had whiplash injury obviously as well. That was painful and I was just medicating whatever I had on me or whatever I could pick up from inside the organization. I just noticed, too, I [...] very short, very aggressive, I felt very tired all the time, but that's not unusual if you're out in the field for an extended period doing a lot of work in this very short amount of time. You're not paying attention to sleep hours necessarily because it's a 24-hour battle space, so you're trying to get that going as well.
It wasn't really until I came home that we really started to realize it was a bit more going on than we first thought. There were a lot of big gaps in my memory and things weren't settling down properly. I still had insane pain in my neck, back, and monstrous headaches, just shocking headaches, all the time with it.
Karen: He was angry. He came home really angry.
Matt: Yeah. It was really hard to regulate in that sense.
Brendan: Please help me understand. I find it really difficult to understand how when we're dealing with a job like that, that is a life-and-death situation, that it just seems like without any disrespect, a comedy of errors that just rolled on, rolled on in this 24, 48, 72 hours after an event like that. How does that happen when your job is life-and-death and those important processes don't seem to be in place?
Matt: I am with you on that one, too. I'm a bit befuddled by that whole thing myself in the sense—
Karen: Befuddled. That was polite. Sorry.
Brendan: Feel free to use any other word that you chose, Matt.
Karen: That is so out of character.
Brendan: Are you being nice for the cameras?
Karen: Yeah, he is.
Matt: I’m trying to keep my [...] words.
Brendan: Get back to your befuddlement.
Matt: Okay my chronic befuddlement. From my perspective, too, I always had the emphasis on my mentality towards my army career. I always wanted to not be considered the best, but I wanted to perform at the highest possible level all the time. When I was acting as Troop Sergeant, I would always be on the boys to make sure we had the correct information, going back on time everyday when we're out field. You have to constantly report your fuel state, your weapon state, how much ammo do we need, rations do we need, so that you can keep the [...] cycle going because that all has to run at the same time you're carrying out this operation.
The operation itself is a very miniscule part of the complete machine. There is so much there—logistics, planning, and just getting stuff out there to make it all happen. And because we're trying to do it in a training sense and we want to try to get as much out of our training time as possible, you're then using those as opportunities to, can we use the medical staff as part of this as well to increase their training capabilities? So then, will they come through and do a check of a village or something like that for us while we're conducting operations in this particular part of the range that we're at? Something along the lines of your refuellers, you'll get them to start doing their job in a tactical sense so that they have an understanding of what's required if they're taking it out on the field or if they're deployed and they need to conduct a set of operations in a live theater.
Without wanting to be too ruthless and say things too bluntly, my gut feeling is that because this all happened at night time, it was quite late at night, most of the headquarters staff had knocked off for the night. I think they had a junior medic on because they were required to. That was their obligation as part of keeping people in the range at that time. and they had a night watchman manning radios and keeping the operation center going.
Ultimately, that comedy of errors started by the fact that nobody really wanted to probably wake up in the middle of the night and take control of the situation. They just wanted to go, okay, we got a medic. We'll just get him to the local area hospital and we'll plan our hands off it and carry on.
As far as capability, the individual medic was a very junior medic. I don't think it was her fault. I think she was trying to deal with a lot of things that she probably understood in an academic sense, but didn't understand what it's like to actually have to deal with a patient. What it's like to deal with a bloke who’s had a head injury, he's trying to tell you he's not going anywhere, that he's not going to go to the hospital, he's fine.
All this stuff and how do you confront that, especially when I outranked that person as well. It comes down to that person in the organization as well, not feeling like they had the authority enough or being given enough agency to make a decision and say, listen, I've got to get this done so talking to my boss and tell him to shut up and get on the truck. She was dealing with a bunch of stuff that she wasn't capable of and then it just led to one thing after another.
Karen: The comedy of errors didn't just stop at the time of the exercise, either. They continued over a seven-month period post the accident.
Brendan: There's so much I find fascinating about this, but just that point that you raised at the end which is an extreme level of dysfunction in a team when you're talking about life and death situations, that rank, authority, and organizational structure, I believe, is very powerful in organizations. This is an extreme case of where it's been very detrimental. That person has felt like they've not been able to really speak up to the level they needed to and that has impacted you and this journey that you guys had to go on. That's a pretty extreme case of dysfunction in a team. Aren't you guys all supposed to be mates as well?
Matt: Yeah, ultimately. That was the ethos is—teamwork, initiative, mateship. These were also the principles that we keep on bringing back or coming back to in the Defence Force. This is what we, as a nation, feel is our core values in the Defence Force.
Like any other organization, there are people there that are career-oriented and that are politically-oriented, and especially once you get up to a certain level of officer, they're political beasts. After the Colonel level, where you're controlling a whole regiment or battalion, after that point, you start talking about politics. You start to produce reports on capability and you start briefing senators or anything like that. Then all of a sudden, all these little issues that come up, that's not your bag because you don't have anything to do with that sort of business anymore because you're just specifically there to essentially liaison things.
Right up there at the top end, it's super difficult, in a sense, not to be a political- or a career-minded conscious person because that's entirely what you have to be to be in that position. At the lower levels—at the company level, or at a troop level and things like that—I guess it certainly speaks volumes about the individual integrity of some members of the Defence Force.
That's as clear a statement as I can make about it in that sense is that like any place in business, there are people there that just aren't interested in doing the job to the highest standard. Unfortunately, for me and Kaz, we only see the highest possible standard as our minimum. We're not here to produce substandard work or subpar work. We're here to produce work of very high standard no matter what we do.
That became a huge frustration. It's just people taking the responsibility of their roles seriously without wanting to try and pass emphasis onto somebody else or pass whatever the consequences on or share them about with the group of people. You'd like to think there was a significant amount of integrity there amongst them. I certainly found it to not be the case.
Some of the people I worked with in the past have been extraordinary professionals as far as capability, skill set. They can back up what they talk about and they have a massive amount of moral courage. There's a few of those and those guys have been nothing but impressed and always try to look towards how I was conducting myself professionally.
These are the guys I want to be like. People might not like them because they work very hard and produce a lot of work. Their direct reports may work hard as well, but ultimately, they're the guys you want to follow because he's so skilled, so capable, and he can back it all up. I find it very confusing that that's not across the board when it's supposed to be an institution of excellence.
Brendan: Again, I'm going to go back to something you said earlier, around 2% of people served. I want you to answer this question because I find that people talking about other people are so much more honest as opposed to asking Matt this question who will just put a level of humility on it. I want to know what makes Matt that 2% person? What was his drive? Because that comes through the book really strongly. The sacrifice you and the family made, for Matt's drive, there was no stopping him. He knew this was what he wanted to do. What makes him like that? What puts him into this 2% that want to serve us and put their life on the line?
Karen: I think ultimately, at the end of the day—some people aren't going to like this and some people certainly aren't going to agree with this—it's the thrill of the chase. The pinnacle is for men like Matthew chasing the war, going and being able to put everything they have been trained to do into action.
You will hear people talking all the time about oh, we sent them over there too many times, and they deployed too many times. A lot of these guys, that's what they want. That's what they live for. That's what they're conditioned. I say it all the time. Matt did not break because he went to Afghanistan and Iraq. Matt broke because he would never be able to go back there again. That's a really powerful statement that people need to understand.
Matt broke because the accident happened on home soil and the treatment wasn't fast enough and thick enough, and brain trauma and epilepsy says you can't go war-fighting. That to him was devastating. That stopped him being who he thought in his mind was the only thing he could ever be, an elite soldier.
Not being able to go back to SAS selection again, that's devastating to him. He loved going to war. He just did, and 98% of the population will not understand that, and good, because God help us if we all got it. Wars are not glamorous. Wars are not right. War is not, but it is something that is going to keep coming and we need men like that.
We need to do better at their enlistment. We sent people over there to the frontline that we shouldn't have sent and they broke, and we didn't capture it quick enough to identify. But there's a damn site that we're going to send, and we have sent, and we'll have to send again. That it's okay, and it is okay in their mindset. It is okay what they're about to endure and undertake because that is the caliber of that person that can handle it.
I'm not saying they can handle it 12 times and we don't need to do better at conditioning their mental health and helping them when they come home. Absolutely, we do. But when you break it down, the people that can do this job is a really small percentage. They can do it because there's something in their makeup, that adrenaline, that chase. Everything that they have to go through and do, they love to do.
Brendan: This experience for you guys, it's your experience and we certainly do not want to diminish it. It's a really powerful experience, but for bad and you guys are turning that into good which we'll get into, but it is your experience. How isolated is this experience in the Defence Force? Because we consider [...] we've got all these focus on this situation and there's a lot of things that happen in organizations. It’s bad again. This is an extreme level of bad, but is it isolated?
Karen: No, and that's probably the saddest part about bringing this book into life. Matt can answer from his perspective, but for me, I naively thought that there might be a couple of other families out there that have gone through something similar to us. But once the book was released, all the social media was up, and we were starting to get messages, you get to the 2500 mark and you go, there's a real problem here in this country.
Something's not right to hear direct messages or put messages up on posts that we've put up on social media. A lot of the people, most of the communications that we're getting are by direct message because people don't want to be on the public forum. They're not keyboard warriors, they're not narcissistic, they're not assholes. They literally just want someone to hear them.
They won't go to a public forum and write their stories. Some will, and that's great. For me, I don't care if they're writing posts. I don't care if they're responding to my posts or if they're messaging me directly. As long as they're talking because that's what I have found they need..
Whether they're directly messaging me or they're posting against something that we've put up, more power to them, but there are a lot. There are a lot of families out there hurting because of their journey and what they have to endure.
I would say probably at least 60% of them are just straight mental health-related issues. A lot of them will have some sort of physical attributes or there might have been an accident where there is a physical ailment, but a good portion of them are just simply mentally, the person broke.
Brendan: I would like to sit here and say this interview we're doing is perfectly timed for PTSD, mental health month. Did you know that June is PTSD Mental Health Month?
Karen: Only because I saw something on social media the other day. Otherwise, no.
Brendan: Isn't life funny how things bring us together?
Karen: Perfect timing.
Brendan: You talked earlier about the healing process that the book enabled you to go through. Again, what's troubling for me and Matt—I need you to help me understand, maybe Kaz you can go off the back of this as well—is that I know I'm not allowed to sit here and say, tell us what happened in war. That's not something you ever ask a soldier.
Kaz wrote that in the book and I wrote that in big writing. The flipside of that is that talking through things is a healing process. You've written things in the book about your own journey being a soldier's wife and living with your broken soldier. The flipside, again, how do you heal if there are things that you really can't talk about? Maybe just through the culture of the army you're just not able to talk about?
Matt: I guess that's one of the things that ultimately you're looking at a lot of high-end, (I guess) traditionally you call them alpha [...] people. They're very direct, in a lot of sense they have a lot of capacity for aggression and things like that.
Even coming out of that environment, trying to work through and heal inside the machine (I guess), there's not a lot of emphasis placed on guys needing to tune up for their mental health and things like that, which, as we find more and more, becomes a lifelong thing.
As you go through changes in life or different things and circumstances, you have kids, you start a business, you lose a business, you sell a business, whichever it might be, we need that constant tune-up. It's no different to running a car. Your mental health needs an oil change every now and then. I suppose that's one of the biggest learning things for myself. A massive part of healing for me has been really learning. I guess I'm still in the healing process now.
Karen: He was late to the party.
Matt: Yes, I was. I think probably the most productive healing and the most beneficial healing I've done is probably in the last 12–18 months, realistically. We had the opportunity to put together a plan where we can travel to America and South America for six months. We've come through a pretty bad patch now, I guess a tough time in our marriage, where I wasn't being the best husband to Kaz, and Kaz was trying her best, but probably the only downside to Kaz would have had in that that she wasn't being as open and as honest about where she was at mentally, psychologically, and emotionally.
When we had the time and place, we were able to do a lot of work on just us. That in turn has helped me understand my motivation for healing, my motivations for getting closer to being well, or rehabilitation, or anything like that.
When I first got injured, I just took it upon myself. It was a real simple one. I had a banged up head. I was getting nerve pain in my body. I was a massive physical fitness guy, so I was always trying to workout and things like that, doing a lot of powerlifting before that, and because my nervous system was shocked from getting a sudden jolt in the brain, my [...] were all out.
I just went, okay, we got to go to the gym. We got to do this, we got to do that. Then, I started to feel good with myself, not really addressing the psychological aspect, the emotional aspect that's there. It's a big part of your identity that you now have a door shut on to and you built a projection of what my next 10 years is going to look like and how capable I'm going to be. What am I going to do? What do I hope to do? How many more deployments will I get? How many opportunities will I have? Will I go instruct at RMC? Will I go instruct down to [...] where the basic training happens? Any of those things.
Everybody you deal with on a daily basis is in the machine. Everybody I worked with, we're all part and members. Everyone who we see outside of work is generally the same because you socialize in this great big group of people and they're the ones you know. When we lived in Townsville, every second house was a defence house or defence-related house whether, they'll be from [...], Trainsfield, or one of those guys, they're all working in so they're probably ex-defence anyway and they just moved over to the civilian side of things.
I struggled with that for the longest time as far as that group identity, that tribe ‘you understand who you are by understanding the people around you’ sort of thing, so that sort of all goes away. As far as healing goes, that's a big gap of what you got to do. For myself, I just started to tackle more and more things that were causing me grief, and as I was ticking them off the list, I needed to make sure I can go, okay, cool. How do I do that? Or I can't go back to the army now because this is a door that's closed to me. What am I going to do?
Okay, we bought a coffee shop. We're just working through that. It ended up a terrible investment, but it did give me time and space to be able to have a safe place to work, that I can learn a skill. I was keeping myself mentally stimulated, in that sense, and I was talking to people. I guess that's also probably responsible for my rehabilitation from being a member of Defence because that's another story that people aren't talking about. You become institutionalized during your time there.
For me to work in a retail situation, selling coffee and related things was a really great opportunity for me to be able to bring that part of my civilian aspect back into my current day life and fit it in amongst my all other skills set that I have now developed.
Going forward from there, I felt like I was doing really well. Decided that I was going to go back into doing some offshore security work which is pretty much one of the key, we call them an AJ Dream (Army Jerk Dream). When I'm out, I've had enough of this, so I'm going to join the [...], or work in the mines, or I'm going to do private security work offshore and stuff like that, so I went offshore work.
Brendan: That was in Timor, wasn't it?
Matt: That was in Papua New Guinea. Manus Island.
Karen: Same job, different uniform.
Matt: Very similar in that sense. For most, it was pretty much a retirement ground for ex-army, navy, and airforce. Everybody there was similarly minded, most of us guys that we're working for. In that group there, I was a team leader for the emergency response group.
Similar to you’re bringing stuff in the jail, you're the guys that are strapped in suits and go in when there are things that aren't supposed to be happening, happening. On Manus Island during that patch there, we had an incident where they started to riot and the guys had taken back two of the compound's offices, so we then had to deal with that. We had two other compounds in the area that were pretty hairy as far as where we’re all going to go, and didn't know which way it was going to go. We had to work on that job and we wound up taking back both compounds. Then we had to work through the process of, okay we got key important people here that have helped this whole thing spin out of control, so we need to take those guys away, hand them over to the local [...] because they've now created this whole other issue.
Police in Papua New Guinea, they do things their way and we didn't have any control over that. There were a lot of guys that weren't being treated very nice, but we didn't necessarily say, hey, this is wrong because it's their country, what are you going to do? All these transferees ended up coming back to us after being processed through the police force. They come back to Manus Island and you just try to deal with these guys even though last week you saw them beating your mate with a 4x2. They had a bunch of homemade weapons. They would have absolutely killed somebody if they had been given the chance to just to make a point.
After that, the wheels started to fall again for me. I was very intolerant of everything, so we made the decision that it was best for me to come home and start pursuing mental health a bit more seriously in that sense. Back with my specialist, back with my training doctors to do that work. Get all the chemicals all realigned. Just really good solid therapy. Just working with a psychiatrist, just to try and keep all that stabilized because those are all the managables. A doctor can manage how the chemical imbalances in your brain are going to work, or a doctor can manage, you're going to have nerve pain, so we're going to treat this.
Through that process, it's also an earnest and responsibility on the individual to want to get better. I think that's a lot of what we don't like to talk about. It's the onus and responsibility on the individual and how hard they have to want it. For me, I’ve wanted the whole time to be the best possible partner for Kaz, parent for my kids, and I guess the best human I can as far as that goes. It's all about just recycling back through that and trying.
If I have a fight with Kaz, I look at it and go, okay, what were the hinge points there? Or I have a confrontation with somebody, what was the key point there that sent that down the wrong way and was it me? Did I overthink things, or did I overexpress my point to lead us astray, or do I need to deliver things better in a more of a civilian kind manner than how I was doing at that time.
Brendan: Just to lighten the mood a little bit, you're doing very, very well. You said you were going to use a lot of swear words during the interview and you find it hard. Befuddled is the worst word you've used today.
Karen: And I am so not going to let him live befuddled down ever.
Matt: I've done alright.
Brendan: The area is not doing so well. He's using a lot of acronyms, but don't worry. In the show notes, we'll make sure we list down a page of acronyms. We'll sort that out.
The mental health scenario, part of this is tapping into that. Unfortunately, mental health is one of those scenes that it's like cancer nowadays. It's touching so many families and maybe some families don't even know it's touching them, and they're dealing with things, and they're not quite sure what's going on.
Mental health has touched my own family and my sister. Mom and dad have got to that point now where they feel it's not going to get better. I'm not a doctor, but I don't feel like it's going to get better. We just have to learn to live, manage, and the person, my sister in this case, has to want to be a big part of that process as well.
Is that the case? Am I speaking the truth? It's not about if you get better, but you learn to manage it a lot better and you want to work through it.
Karen: I'm going to jump in here for a second. I think that's really hard to go, yes, that's right or no, that's wrong because there's two sides to this. Mental health still has such a real derogative stigma to it in this country, across the board. I think it's only just now in the last few years that we're starting to try and stop it from being two little dirty words and more about what actually is mental health.
Do you get better from PTSD? Yes, you can because PTSD is derived from a traumatic experience that you have undertaken and it has triggered some sort of mental health response. Can you get better from depression or do you just have to manage depression? It depends on the type of depression you have. Is it manic? Is it not manic? Is it chemical? Is it environmental?
As a simple rule goes, you just have to learn to manage or you can heal and get better. What you do have to do, though, is want whatever that path is. You have to want it enough for yourself, first and foremost. I quite often say that there are—for want of a better word—two types of victims in this space.
The first victim is a victim that has endured something horrific and now wants to move forward and meet their medical team, whoever, 50-50, and really try and get out of that space or learn to manage within that space.
Then there is the other side. There is somebody that has also endured something horrific but just for whatever reason is not yet ready for help. You trying to go in there and force them or tell them this is how it has to be and you have to do this, is never going to work. It just isn't. I think for a good portion at the time, Matt was the latter.
He was suffering quite badly. For those that read the book, you know I also went through something not too dissimilar years prior. There is an element there where you see it and you will push back on anyone trying to help you and all the rest of it. You're burying your head on the sand for whatever the reason.
You have to be prepared to take that first step to be able to evolve forward. Whether that's down the path of repair, heal, and move beyond or it is a case of learning to manage within. For us, where Matt is, he will never heal. This is the world that we live in now and it took us a long time to stop fighting each other, recognize that this is our new world, and stand together and face the demon that was his depression, anxiety, and adjustment triggered from the events leading into and post the accident. He doesn't heal, but we also then had to take on the journey and learn that there's management within our system. There's management within our new world.
Brendan: What made you ready, Matt? Jumping across from that not ready to being ready. What was that?
Matt: I think for myself, I always felt ready. That’s a tough one because I always thought I was moving at the right direction, whereas if I really dig down and if I’ve given it a bit more scrutiny early on, I would have realized that I still had a significant amount of things that I needed to address before I move on any further or go step over into that active healing process.
For myself, there was a huge amount of things to unpack. There was a loss of identity. There was a loss of support group. Loss of even just knowing what I was going to do day to day. All of a sudden, I was responsible for that not somebody else, which sounds like an obscure thing to say because everybody goes about their day normally, but for me, a big chunk of my identity and a big chunk of the job that I was doing was I knew when I had to turn up everyday.
I knew I had to be in the barracks by 7:00, so that was easy. I knew that I will be out there doing PT with the lads until 9:00. It was as simple as that, then I knew after that, the boys will get showered up and then we'll go about our day doing, whether it's maintenance jobs, whether we've got to set something together for a future operation or exercise.
As far as that goes, I mentally thought I was ready, but I wasn't really being as honest with myself as I should have been or choosing not to be honest because ultimately, sometimes, that little beast inside our heads says, now you’ll be right because you don't want to address these real dark things.
One of the big things that I came to realization was, as far as our relationship goes for me and Kaz, I've got this person who's got my back all the time and I'm supposed to love her. I'm supposed to respect her as a person, as a human, as a professional, as a mother to my children, as my wife, but I'm not being really nice to this person.
Matt: Yeah, and it seems so weird to think, this is the person I want to protect the most and yet this is also the person that’s seen the worst of me. I don't want to take away and say, no, you should never ever express yourself how you're feeling or let yourself be vulnerable with another person. It's a bit of a hypocrisy to say, this is the most important person to myself and I can definitely do the right thing by them, but I'm also going to show them only my rough side as well. That seems really obscure.
For me, it was suddenly working through it going, what am I doing? Why am I treating this person that I love so much like a piece of [...]? Why am I just snappy and responding with sarcasm and things? Why am I belittling when someone is obvious to me but not obvious to her?
It's just a human experience that we're dealing with here. Some people have individual experiences that are different to everybody else's. Obviously, Kaz isn't going to get all the things that I get organically. That's not something to denigrate Kaz for or to belittle Kaz about. That's something to go, oh, cool. I've had some experience in this area so here's my two cents. I wasn't doing that. I was snarking or sniping at her, just being mean.
For me, those are one of the key points. Kaz became clear fairly late in the piece as well about being worth more than the treatment that she was expecting. Kaz also put a boundary in place to say, hey, this got to stop.
Karen: I'm worth more.
Matt: Yeah, 100%.
Karen: That's a really big message for everyone. Know your worth, understand your worth, and be prepared to step up and say, no, I'm worth more. I deserve better and this needs to stop.
Brendan: There was a moment in the book where Matt was in the darkest place, maybe, and you called Kaz. It still gets me. You guys got me so many times in this book. It's a fantastic read. Unbelievable. So raw and so emotional.
You made a call and I can't remember the exact words, but you were ready to let it all go and you just couldn't deal with this anymore. Kaz, on the other end of that line and I'm going to be the first to swear, I wouldn't want to [...] with her. I think that was the powerful moment, that hold on a minute, don't [...] with me. That came out. Kaz, take us back to that space for you. Your reaction and maybe how that started to turn the direction into a way we can start to work on this better together.
Karen: That was four days before Christmas, leading into the Christmas period, and we were really in the thick of it at that point. We knew at that stage, we had a diagnosis, so we knew that we were dealing with some pretty intense head trauma. What we didn't have for many of that was what that was going to look like medically supported, financially supported, help from DVA or army moving forward.
As Matt had mentioned before, we bought the coffee shop as a safe place for Matt to go to because I was still working full-time and I was still having to travel across the countries that I was supporting. At that point, we also had two kids under two. It was a pretty hectic world that we're living in.
There weren’t a lot of great days. There were really bad days and there were really horrific days. Through all of it, I had learnt to buffer the children from when daddy would hide in the bedroom for two or three days at a time or I would buffer the children if he was really in a foul mood and he was snapping.
There wasn't really any physical violence, but there was a lot of verbal. I don't think he ever meant it maliciously. I don't think he ever quite understood how nasty he could come across when he was in pain.
All of these were reactions from him. He wasn't just going out of his way to be an ass. We also had a coffee shop and we had employed friends of ours. We had employed adults into hospitality-type businesses that we knew nothing about and was bleeding us financially.
We were hemorrhaging financially. We've got no support from DVA, no support from Defence. Any other day, I don't know what mood he was going to be in, and it was like living with Jekyll and Hyde. I'm trying to protect the kids, keep working because that's what's feeding us, and I had put little check references in place.
Matt would go walk about. One of the critical things that changed after his accident was his inability to identify time. He would tell you he was going for 10 minutes and three hours later, Matt would reappear from God only knows where. You ask him and he goes, I just went to wherever. No, but okay. He just had no concept.
I would put little checks around town and I would have a network of people that I could call and leverage if we couldn't find Matt. If he was in a really bad spot, then my panic levels would kind of rise because this isn't the life he wanted for himself and you knew in the thick of it, they were the thoughts that would be creeping in.
He's lost his manly-hood. He's lost his ability to protect his family and do all these things. Not only is it brain trauma–induced epilepsy, brain trauma, and everything associated with that, but now you've got all these other things. He's lost his career, he lost his ability to protect us and to provide for us. You can just tell in his mannerism that in the dark periods, it was really dark. You never knew if he was going to come home. That fear was constant.
This one particular day, it hadn't been a great couple of days. He'd been in a quite dark space. Matt refers to it as the demon of peripheral vision. I just call it the black hole. He would just slide into it and that would be the end of it.
He had been in his dark space for a while, a few days leading into this day. He was supposed to be on shift in the coffee shop and the staff ringing me saying, do you know where Matt is? No.
We started this initiation of phone calls. I had the two little kids at home with me and I started to pace and panic not knowing what was going on. We couldn't find him. He wasn't answering his mobile phone. The network of people that we would call, nobody was answering. Nobody knew where he was.
It had been a couple of hours at this point and my mobile phone rang. The two kids were in the dining room area with me and I saw that it was Matt. There's that mixture of relief and then panic. I answered the phone and my first words were, hey, babe. Silenced. Babe, can you hear me? Are you there? Silence. Matt, I know you're on the phone and I know you've called me which is a really good sign so I just need you to talk to me. I just need you to answer. I need something from you at this point. Please.
Again, there was just this silence and the longer it was silent, the more panic I became and anxious. There's that combination of anger as well, I guess. If you do something stupid right now, by Christ, I'll hate you.
You get that whole myriad of everything and I just kept on saying to him, answer me, answer me, answer me. Then finally, there was just this broken voice that wasn't crying. It was just like almost a desperate whimper of I'm here and he just said, I'm sorry. I just can't do this to you anymore.
I just went white. I just froze. My heart's in my throat. I don't know. There aren't enough words to describe the level of anger, hurt, and fear that I had in that split second. I don't even think I gave thought to it. My instinct was I'm not enough to save you right now, but maybe your kids are.
I just screamed down the phone, if you [...] kill yourself, I will raise your children to hate you because they weren't enough for you and they will hate you every single day of their lives. There was silence again and I'm sure he was really pissed off at me for doing it and then I just got, I'm coming home and he hung up the phone.
I just had to pace. The kids obviously can see me so I've hung up the phone and my two year old at that point is just stunned. Why is mommy crying? I have to then calm her down and say, it's okay baby. Daddy and I are just playing. Everything's fine.
I put them into their room with the video on because I knew daddy was going to come home and I just needed to make sure they were away in a safe space in case he came through livid. He came in and there was a real uneasy period there and I just hugged him and we didn't talk about it. We just moved forward and he went back into his room and kept in a safe space.
To say Christmas that year was very subdued is an understatement. It was one of the worst. It's not the only time we've been to that point, but I also write in the book that most of the people that you hear that suicide, their families are shocked when they've died because there was no warning, there was no lead into it, they might have had dinner with him the day before, and everything seemed fine. I don't think I would have gotten that phone call if it was that time, which is the only way I can describe it. If Matt ever gets to that point where he's going to end it, we're not going to know until it's too late.
Brendan: Is walking away for you ever an option?
Karen: There were periods where I didn't want this to be my life anymore, and ask too big, the journey too hard. But then the thought of waking up to him not being next to me was worse. Yes, I wanted to run, but I didn't want to run without Matt if that makes any sense at all. It was never Matt. I don't think that I ever wanted to leave. It wasn't my relationship that I wanted to leave. It was the nightmare that we were in.
I get very angry or I used to get really angry at Matt because he would be this really vicious person that I just knew wasn't him. I could never understand and this is why I come back to saying, know your own worth. Be prepared to step up and say, I actually deserve better. If I am as important to you as you are to me, then you're going to start listening to that point, and somewhere in amongst that we're going to work together to find our footing again.
It would have become more of an issue for me and it would have become an option, had I not been as important to him as he was to me. You could always see from Matt, through the thick of it, you could always see the want in him to want to be better, to want to get that help. That was enough for me to keep going. I also think looking back now, you said something before about not wanting to get on the wrong side of me. I am exceptionally strong and I will endure a lot before I break.
We are fortunate in that regard. We know a lot of couples that have broken and divorced because they've not necessarily been as stubborn or as strong in that regard. The ask is big, it's huge. What you have to endure is tough.
Brendan: You had a very tumultuous relationship with your father who's since passed several years back. How much of this stubbornness fight can you repay him? Again, there are some special moments in the book and some words that you say about your father later on and sorry to him, he'd passed several years back, but how much of this fight do you attribute to him and even that the relationship in the head butting that you guys have had or had over many years?
Karen: I love my dad. I just do and right, wrong, or indifferent, he was who he was. He wanted children and my brother and I, that was never, never not knowing. From my father, his only way of showing love was materialistic. We got horses and we got speed boats. We lived a very comfortable life, but there was never any emotional acceptance, acknowledgement, pat on the back. You knew when you'd screwed up. He was not backwards and coming forward in telling you, but there was never any, well done, good job, you're achieving great, I'm proud of you. None of that.
He owned a petrol station when my brother and I were young. Before I left primary school, I was working at the petrol station. We were raised that if you couldn't afford it, you don't buy it. You don't go into debt, you don't get credit cards. You earn your way in life and if you want it, damn, well, get off your ass and go out and do it. Simple as that.
Yes, I attribute a lot of my stubbornness and my ability to just knuckle in and get it done to my father. We were always very physical in the respect that we did a lot of sports when we were growing up. I was allowed to go and try anything I wanted to try—soccer, gymnastics, trampolining—but it's all very physical. Again, that was my dad's only way of saying, I love you. We're too young to understand it at that point.
As we got older, I lived a life that was so foreign to my dad. My dad didn't understand. He didn't understand evolution, I guess. He didn't understand modern technology and he didn't understand the need to achieve and want to really excel. My dad was a blue collared worker that made enough money to live comfortably, have a holiday in their older years and whatever.
He didn't want to travel the world. He didn't want to be an executive, he didn't want to climb to the top of whatever mountain that was that he was facing. He just wanted to be okay. Whereas my drive is very different to that. I want to excel, I want to succeed, and I want to achieve things. I guess from that perspective, he and I were very different.
As I became an adult and I started to carve my own path, he didn't understand it, he didn't like it, and we grew very much apart. Our common goal, our common ground, I think, was that we bought acreage up at Armadale. We had horses. That was my dad's passion as well.
We got to stay in that space of, let's not talk about my life, let's not talk about what you don't like about me, let's not talk about what I don't like about you, let's just build stables and play with horses. You're good? Yup. You're good? Yup, we're fine.
You say as you read in the book that it goes bad at the end. My biggest lesson from that is my last words to my father were, you will never win father of the year award as I hang up the phone. It was said with a lot more descriptive words than that.
Be really careful what you're saying to people that you love, because you just never know if that's the last message you'll give them. I have to now live with that. To him on his deathbed, I was sorry.
Brendan: When I read that part in the book, it reminded me of a song called The Living Years by Mike and the Mechanics.
Karen: Yeah, I know that song.
Brendan: The lyrics of that, not the best relationship and then at the end, reflecting and stuff.
Karen: He does exactly what his dad did, too. His dad was too busy when he was little and as he gets older, he's too busy for his dad. That's massive.
Brendan: You wrote some beautiful words in the book, which I found, about your father. You said, I'm sorry, you never understood me. I'm sorry, I never really understood you, either. I love you and miss you every day.
Karen: I do.
Brendan: That got me big time when I read the book as well. There's just so much power in those words.
Karen: I'm not sorry for who I am as a person. It's really important that people understand what I wrote. I'm sorry that he never understood me.
Brendan: Give it some context because you do say a little bit about that after in the book.
Karen: The really big turning point for me was when Matt had the accident, none of our family really stepped up, none of our family understood, or wanted to understand, which is more important. None of them took the time to really, really see what was going on in our world. We weren't an open book at that point, by any stretch. The door's closed a lot. I guess we didn't understand a lot of it either.
My dad, we were at the point where we were nearly going to lose everything. So this had hit us quite financially quite badly. I had wrestled with it for about six weeks that I was going to have to go to my parents and ask for help, and I did. My mom seemed quite empathetic to the request. My dad then rang me a couple of weeks later and said, you know, it's a fine mess you've got yourself in now and we're going to help you. His curt words were, don't you think it's about time you learn to stand on your own two feet?
That's all I had ever done was stand on my own two feet. I had never been taught by my parents that it was okay to go and ask them for help. I had never asked. I had endured a lot. I had never asked him for help.
On Christmas Eve, the year I was 30, I unleashed and I let my dad know everything that I had been through that I'd never been able to lean on him about. For me, that was my turning point. That's where I got to stand up and say, as a human being, I'm actually really good. I'm a really nice human being. I am trustworthy and I am honest. I will give you the shirt off my back if you need it.
At the same time, if I'm focused on something, get on board or get the hell out of my way because I'm going down that path. He never understood that. I was sorry that he never took the time to understand me as a human being and really get to know me, and therefore be able to be proud of me. That's a big thing. That's something that hurts a lot. I'm sorry that he never saw value in taking that time to learn about me.
At the same time, too, I'm sorry that he was sick. We didn't know he was sick and we ended up on a really bad pathway. That's the last engagement that I had with my father. It didn't end well. There's nothing I can do about that now, except, I guess mourn the process.
Brendan: I'm sure he's unbelievably proud of you today.
Karen: Maybe, I don't know. My brother said on the day my dad passed, I had stayed at the hospital with him until he took his last breath, and then I came back to the house. My brother was there and he was looking quite lost. I said, what are you thinking right now? He said, I'll never understand why. I said, why what? He said, why we were never good enough for him.
Again, I never want my kids to think they're not good enough for me. If they feel that they're inadequate in phases of their work, friendships, or relationships, whatever that's on them. But as far as being my child, they're good enough.
Brendan: On that point, I was honored to meet three of your five children the other night at a networking event, beautiful young ladies. Going back to that black demon, Matt, and let's put the three girls aside that you are a birth parent of, and two of Kaz's where you're not a birth parent of, but they made a choice. Again, it's just not about a book review, because again, people can buy the book.
There's a really powerful moment and another really powerful moment in the book, again, where the two girls, Ayleigh and Jess, you'd been around a while where just to be part of life and decided, by their own admission, to call you dad.
Again, help me understand, they're getting to the point that we touched on before. Kaz, I'm going to make your children hate you. Just the respect that those two ladies must have for you as a person, as a leader of the family. Again, I find it really hard to understand how an individual gets to that point when there's two young ladies who make a decision to call you dad, which is just an unbelievable thing when you're not their birth parent.
Matt: Again, I was very resistant to it early on in the piece because we had a very tentative relationship with their father. That was all very difficult at the time. I didn't want to muddy the waters by making that emphasis. They'd actually spoken to me about it a couple of years before that, particularly Jessie, I don't know about Ayleigh.
I'd said, look, now, you've got your dad, let's keep that there, let's not make any waves because we didn't need that extra hassle in our lives, to be honest at the time, and neither did the kids because ultimately, it was going to come back and affect them by causing an issue with their father.
I'd been very reluctant to adopt that mantle, as we say. I guess there was a part of me that was a little bit dumb, inflexible, in the sense that in my head, the picture that I had already drawn upon was the first person to call me dad would be somebody that was my blood relation, that I'd met somebody, me and Kaz had had a baby and that would be the first person to call me dad.
That was my own short-sighted thinking, in that sense, and not really taking into consideration what it would mean for the girls either. Going through that process and looking at it on paper, I'd already been their father for 10–12 years at that time. It was just administrative, really, at that point. It was just a title thing, but for me, it was a sticking point at the time.
As we got closer to having Willow come along in that, it just seemed to make more sense, in that sense to have it easy, quick, and clean across the board, so guys, if you want to go with it, just be mindful of your father that he may take some things on board. You have to be a little bit vulnerable with your own mentality in that. Am I doing this for me or am I doing this for them? Or was I doing it for myself, because I had this vision of how the future was gonna turn out. I was already two-thirds of the way down a vision of reality that I hadn't anticipated anyway because I had lost my career. I was holding on to things for the sake of holding onto them or wasn't really for any other reason.
Karen: That's my bag to do, not yours. That's what I used to do. Matt didn't understand the impact of the kids coming to him at that point, because we had said to the kids, look when Willow is born and you're referring to Uncle Matt, can you call him dad if Willow's in the space, just so that Willow doesn't get confused as to who's uncle Matt kind of process?
They had taken it upon themselves to have the conversation and say, well, can we just call him dad, because for all intents and purposes, that's what he is? We had agreed to it at that point, but I don't think Matt had really understood the level in which it took for the kids to come to that conclusion and the complement that it was to him for those kids to be able to say, you're our dad anyway, it's a naming convention, why can't we just do that?
Like he said, he was more caught up on the fact that he wanted it to come from his own biological child first. It's taken him a few years to really understand the impact of where that comes from too.
Brendan: There was a bit of a process around getting to have your own children. You guys went through IVF. It's probably best to talk to the lady around. Tell us how you went through, Kaz.
Karen: There's two different versions of it.
Brendan: Absolutely. Again, I knew this would come out in the interview at some point, but I'd said a little while ago, reading the book, at times, it was like men are from Mars, women are from Venus. What you just explained about the dad situation, that was one of these. It sounds like it's going to be one of these, again. Tell us about this hell of the process of trying to have your own children with Matt.
Karen: There was no medical reason identified early in the pieces that we wouldn't be able to have kids. We had both said early on, when we made our relationship public, that we were definitely going to have children, children were on the horizon. Fast forward a few years and we decided that we would start trying.
Again, what I don't take into consideration through these processes, I mentioned earlier that I'm like a bull in a China shop. When I got my mind set on something, get on board or get out of the way. For me, it was very much right. We're going to start having children, excellent. I will be pregnant, we will have a baby, great. I didn't fall pregnant, and we weren't having a baby. All of a sudden, that wasn't great, but it became my whole focus.
You see these stupid movies and everything, where women are timing it right, come home, we've got to have sex right now. Okay, that happens in real life. That became our world and Matt's very much of the laid back approach, but if it'll happen, that's fine. Just trust me on this. I'm very much, no, I need to control it and now I need to make it happen, and so therefore, we have to do this my way.
Matt: Meanwhile, just to cut in there, we hadn't actually spent one night under the same roof for about two years between our two jobs. We were literally passing in the doorway between army courses, or Karen jet setting off to train in Hong Kong, Malaysia, or wherever. We had very limited time where we were actually doing the day or doing anything together at the same time was very, very limited.
Brendan: Just as a bloke man, I'm trying to understand, what's wrong with that? It seems perfectly normal.
Matt: It was like, if we just spend some time together, we're bound to get pregnant eventually.
Karen: Yeah, and neither of our jobs were allowing that. If he wasn't away on a training exercise or a promotion exercise, as he said, I was overseas working doing whatever. That wasn't enough for me. He would justify it by saying that, and I'm sure it made way more sense back then than I allowed it to make. It still wasn't happening and I still wasn't pregnant, and therefore we needed to do more.
I embarked on this medical journey of going and knocking on doors of specialists and finding out. Even then, one of the DPs was going to give me medication that was entirely placebo effect just to try and shut me off and hey, go and have this white tablet. Oh, it's a miracle pill? Yes, it's an Aspirin, but have it anyway, whatever.
We tried for a while and it just wasn't going to happen. I had got myself in a headspace where it wasn't going to happen. Iraq was starting to become a real thing. We had got married, and he was going to deploy to a war zone. For those that have never been the partner of a man or a woman who is going to deploy, that brings with it a whole level of fear.
He's going to war where people die. Now I get people die every day, I understand that. But you don't go through life thinking that you're going to get hit by a bus. You go through life living. When your husband comes home and says, babe, I'm deploying to Iraq for eight months—people over there are dying, getting blown up, and all the rest of it—I went into panic mode. I didn't want my husband to deploy for any period, to any frontline war zone without me having a baby from him. As cold as it sounds, I wanted a legacy, I wanted that to continue if I lost him. I said to him that he couldn't go unless we went down the IVF path, because obviously nothing else was working. He agreed, I'm sure reluctantly, so we did.
As I write in the book, he had to go and do the date, and we froze his swimmers. He went to Iraq, and I went down the IVF path. The first round, he had come home. I had gone through the removal of the eggs. They blended then and created the embryos. I had the first implant done while he was still in Iraq.
IVF is a really bizarre process because they only tell you the good stories. It's all a big shiny toy, and you're going to have this baby. By the way, don't worry if it doesn't work, because you can just try again. You think? Okay, cool, no problems. You don't realize that in that petri dish, they don't tell you that that's your baby. Yes, it's an embryo, but they're going to implant that into you, and instantly, you're in love with that blob on the petri dish that's going to be put inside you. Then you're going to start rubbing your tummy.
We did all of that. I was taking video snippets as we went through every step, and I was sending them to him over in Iraq. Again, you don't realize that probably the stupidest thing I could have done was go down the IVF path on my own whilst he was in a frontline war zone. But one of my negatives is that I'm focused and I'm going to get what I want.
I didn't. I didn't get what I wanted by any stretch. I went down the path, I had embryos implanted inside. Within 10 days, I got a phone call to say that none were viable and I'd lost both embryos implanted. That's devastating. I'm kind of frozen in this world of, I don't know where to turn, I don't know what to do, I don't have my husband here, I can't breathe. It's suffocating, the devastation that comes with that.
I really, really feel for any family out there going through IVF right now because they don't tell you about the fall. It was hard. Then he came home from Iraq and we had a very short window of time before it turned again. He was re-ramping up for Afghanistan, and we had two embryos left. We both said, look, we'll do it while he's here before he goes.
We both went down and we had the two embryos implanted. The phone call in that 10 day space was your Bible. You were saying levels. It's good. For me, I was elated. It's like, oh my god, we're going to have a baby, that's so exciting. Eight weeks later, we went for the first scan, and there was no heartbeat. At that point, you just, that hurts.
It's everything you want. He's going back to a war zone, I just wanted us to have a baby, I wanted his name and his legacy. It's something, the one thing that would be unique to him and I to create, and it wasn't meant to be. I couldn't understand what we had done that was so wrong. I couldn't understand why we were being punished when we would be amazing parents. Nobody has this [...] squared away right.
We would do everything we could just like we were doing with the other two, to raise them right, know right from wrong, give them love unconditionally, everything we could, and it just wasn't going to happen. I knew I wasn't going to stop him from going to Afghanistan. What do I do, then? Where does that leave us in that space?
To his credit, you can't fix that at that point. You can't make it better for me. The best you can do is just be there, and he was. He was amazing. He was there, and I just kept saying to him I'm so sorry, because it was the one thing I promised him that I would give him. It seemed to be the one thing that I was failing at over and over and over again, was being able to produce a child for him. I was letting him down.
I didn't know how to live with the loss, and I didn't know how to live with the thought of not being able to give him that one thing that only I should be able to give him as his wife. I just kept saying to him, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, over and over again. He was amazing. He was really good. He just kept saying, babe, just breathe, it's okay. If this is what life is going to be, and if it's you and me and the two girls, then that's what it's going to be and I'm good with that. Unbeknownst to me that at the time, he was just laughing on the inside, like, we're going to have kids, I don't know what you're worried about. His process of things and my process of things is slightly different.
Brendan: Being deployed as well, but do you really understand the magnitude of the situation in what Kaz was going through?
Matt: No, not at all. If we did, then we probably had to sell a million books because this is what women actually think about stuff. It's a multitiered aspect there. If we were looking at it in any other thing from the business world or from whatever you want to look at it, you've got a multifaceted problem to solve. It's not just as simple as, I need to be pregnant. It's, we're going down this process where we're going to try and hijack nature and make it happen, regardless of the circumstances.
We're going to throw what's already a fairly—if we break it down as well—traumatic cycle of events for a woman. Even just the monthly cycle is quite draining in the sense that it takes a lot of resources to build up all this tissue and things like that. When you go into it and you're starting to try and multiply cells and you're trying to feed all that, and you've got hormones and things like that at play, it's an incredibly taxing thing on anybody, but for somebody who desperately has their heart set on [...] mother.
Karen: I'm reminding you of that three weeks into the next cycle and you go, here we go again. It's taxing and it's frightening.
Matt: We don't have anything that we can relate to from the aspect of the fact that we generally—by and large as men—don't get railroaded by our emotions in the same sense. There's obviously always outliers and caveats to that, but for the most part, there's something that's pretty powerful, as far as its ability to be able to control the way you're viewing your world.
There's nothing you can say to Karen at the time that brings it back into perspective, because there is no perspective as far as she can see that's okay. There is no perspective there for that because everything's bad right now, because it's not happening. You're making out that playbook as you go. Again, lessons learned after making mistakes as she started to go, okay, there's a way to deal with these things and there's a way not to, and so you've got to let those emotional sides play out because if they don't get played out, then they sit there and fester.
When it comes to this, we've got to address those issues, we've got to reinforce with, listen, I'm not going anywhere, you're safe, we're safe. That's not a problem. If we had this ongoing issue with something not occurring correctly, well, then we can start chipping away at what those little one percenters are that are stopping it from happening so that we can make it happen.
Our answer to that was that instead of staying in Armidale when I went up to Townsville, I suggested to Kaz that, just come along. Just come up, new start, new town, just clean slate and—
Karen: Take a year, reset, breathe. Karma works in an amazing way because I'm not a believer that karma is just to kick in the ass if you're being bad. Karma balances the good with the bad. We transitioned up to Townsville, and through that journey out there, I fell pregnant, and he got to have the last laugh going, I told you so.
Brendan: The system works.
Karen: Yeah, and he told me.
Brendan: The thing that stands out for me when I read the book and hear the story again now is that science can't replace human connection. Really what happened, you went through this scientific process of generating a baby, fabricating a baby, and then you just spent some time with each other and had some human connection and the difference that makes to our bodies. I guess the difference it has to make to our bodies, now mindset and everything.
Karen: It was that ability to let go and Matt nailed it perfectly. It was his ability to reassure me that I was safe, that he wasn't going to leave if we weren't going to have this magical baby through whatever means. At the core of it, I probably knew that but needed reassurance anyway. It hurt and I was gutted, and I was devastated. My world was breaking, but he was that rock that let me just sit for a minute and go, I'm okay, I'm safe, I have him, we are together, I have us.
Now we have this opportunity to go to Townsville and just have a year and he might deploy, he might not deploy, but we'll be together until we know. That reset, that refocus that, all right, just breathe, we're just going to bench it for now. It's not necessarily over in its entirety of processing or whatever, but we're just benching it.
That gave me space to breathe and just be us. That's when we took the drive up to Townsville, and it was Matt, who went and bought the pregnancy test. I refused. He said, stop talking about it, leave me alone, stop raising it, it's a stomach bug. You're being mean right now.
Matt: Then I'm buying one of those little Doppler so we could hear the baby's heartbeat because, of course, being a well-adjusted female, like all females are well-adjusted, Karen naturally thought that every time the baby didn't move, it was dead, so we needed to go to the hospital and check. We bought a Doppler instead. We'd hear the heartbeat and we knew everything was cool. Karen could sleep well that night and it was all good.
Brendan: I have to say from an outsider looking in, to me that seems like a really natural thing to do. I'm trying to put myself in a position of understanding the ups and downs of the emotions when you guys are dealing with life. There's lots of people out there who are all dealing with life, but when you throw the context of a defence family into that, and the moving, and the shaking in the live or die situation that you're placed in like, this is extreme stuff.
Karen: Yeah, it adds another layer.
Brendan: Life is extreme for you.
Brendan: No wonder you’re broken
Matt: Hopefully, if we don't live a good enough life, maybe we will all wind up a little bit broken by the end of it, but I think that's the way it's supposed to be. If you live a life that doesn't shape you and you don't have a little shape on it, then you're probably not doing something right then because...
Karen: You're not living. There's a difference between living and existing.
Matt: And I guess for us, we don't even know how to be anything different to what we are like, we just got to live. It sounds really cliché, but we just have never lived anything but our best life or tried to.
Karen: And being prepared to push even when it's not favorable. I think to a degree, sometimes people come into our life and the intensity in which we live is too much, and they will leave almost as quickly as they come into our world. That's okay, that's a part of our journey. We get to meet really unique and dynamic people as we transition through different facets.
You're right, everybody has their own journey and their own pathway to live in. As humans in today's world, let alone 10 years ago, it's hard enough. Then you add the extra element of Defence on top of it. It does add another layer of intensity to it.
Brendan: I want to just double down on that intensity, because this is something that, as a father, I've never had to deal with. It just, once again, just pulls on my heartstrings. In the book, there's a story. Willow came along in 2009 and Matt was redeployed, but before redeploying, you guys did something, and it involves a sheepskin rug. Tell us a bit about that because I can't talk anymore about that; I'll lose it.
Matt: It's probably for lack of a better word, but there's a certain aspect of my personality that is a bit grand and almost romantic in the sense of, I have all these ideas about how things should be done. For me, the idea of going to a warzone wasn't daunting because that's what things like my great grandfather's had done.
Oftentimes, they spent time with the Australian Imperial Forces. They would be deployed for years on end when they’re overseas fighting the great wars and stuff. I felt I had this massive connection with them because I was sacrificing on the same level that I was going to be away and I was going to be off warfighting and doing my job, and my baby was going to be born at home.
To me, it gave me almost this feeling of connection with those who've gone before me. It was very important that all happened, but also, it was very important too that I made sure that there was at least a keepsake there. We bought a black sheepskin rug and I just wrote a message to let Willow know that no matter what, even though I'd not met her, that she was always loved, and that she will be forever loved no matter what.
It was just important because I understood enough to understand that the relationship between a daughter and a father is very important in the formational years of their life. This is the man that they're going to judge all other men based on. How he treats their mother is going to be one of those ways, hence, the reason why it's been so important in the last couple of years to put good work into being the best husband that I can be.
For me, I needed to at least convey that I didn't leave because she wasn't important enough, that I left because I loved her, but I wanted her to see that I loved her as well. It was hugely important that she had that at least. I knew that she would be, as she was a baby and rolling around on the ground and things like that, that she would have that to lay on, and that will be our connection until we got to meet.
Karen: At whatever capacity, that looks right.
Matt: Yeah, 100%. If it was [...], then it was in the next.
Karen: They don't talk about not coming home at all, and rightly so. There just needed to be that one conversation that says, there needs to be something here for her. He wrote on the back of the sheepskin rug in the pen, and we still have the sheepskin rug today. She will forever have that. We also got a glow worm and you can record into it. The babies that can go in cots with babies in that.
We had bought one of them and he had recorded a message in it. The day he deployed, I took the shirt that he had slept in that last night. I kept it and that stayed in the cot with her. In the cot, she had the sheepskin rug that he had written on, the shirt that smelled like him, and the glow worm that spoke his voice. Three aspects from that. If he came home, then the smell wasn't too foreign, and the voice wasn't foreign. But if he didn't come home, then she had a smell, she had a voice, and she had a message.
Brendan: Willow is 12. What's her comprehension of what a dad did for her?
Matt: It's hard to say. A lot of times in life, these things happen, and we don't recognize them for what they were at the time. I imagined for her, she's about the business of trying to learn how to be human. That's her level of understanding at the moment.
Karen: She does get it a little bit more than that, though. She took your medals and the book to school. She understands it in a very literal sense. She understands dad went to war, she was born while dad was away, she understands and comprehends even Iraq and Afghanistan, which was well before her time. She gets it in that logical sense. She doesn't understand the emotional impact of it as yet. I don't think that will come until she's well into her 20s.
Matt: It's probably not till she's married and had children of her own, really and understands what that feels like.
Karen: That's okay because she's a kid, and we just want her to be a kid. She understands everything that we're doing now. For as much as we are much stronger together today and we're in a really good space, he still has moments and times where the black hole is still there. It was only two weeks ago, where he was in a really bad space.
The kids are still living in that world, but they don't know any different. He broke before they came into the world kind of thing or when they're really, really little. This is their world, too. This is what they've been raised in. They know when he's in a bad space to give him space. They know when he's dipping down or mum's going into protection mode. They know the routine. They know the gig.
Brendan: Pretty clever kids, aren't they?
Karen: They have to be. Yeah, and they have to be resilient and strong, and we have to be smart to know when they're not, and to let that be okay, too, because even today, sometimes it's too much for them. We've just got to learn when to wrap them up and when to let them stand and be okay.
Brendan: Kaz you mentioned probably 10 questions back now, but it's been in the back of my head. You talked about the door being closed for a long time. Why is that door open and why is it so important to you guys that the door is open?
Karen: Because it was such a flawed mistake on our behalf when we did it. When we were going through the motions—and I talked about this a lot when I'm out speaking to people—I keep referencing mental health as dirty words because society, there's such a stigma with it. It was 10 years ago, too.
When he had the accident, and we were going through all this turmoil, we didn't want people to know. Our immediate circle knew because I had to have that network of friends working for us and all the rest of it. But it's not something that we didn't think to go out there from this mountaintop and scream, hey, we're in this world of pain right now, and here's why, and please help.
I guess to a certain degree, too, there is ego. We are very strong individuals and we don't break. When you are breaking in the thick of it, he wasn't ready to identify that he had broken on that level or to that degree. If I couldn't get him to own it, acknowledge it, or be okay with it to try and fast track some healing, I sure as hell wasn't going to go out and tell everybody else that's where he was because that would just make him angrier in that space.
It was hard enough. After he had the accident, he was having blackout seizures. We didn't even know at that point that he had a brain tumor–induced epilepsy, but he was having all these real moments where he would just disappear for 30 or 60 seconds. The amount of fights we would have about me saying to him, you can't drive, please don't drive. He would just be like, you're talking out your ass, you don't know what you're talking about, be quiet, I can drive, blah-blah-blah.
I wasn't strong enough. I couldn't get him to see what I was seeing. I didn't have the right help. I didn't know where to turn for help. At the same time, you have this whole thing that isn't me, am I wrong? Am I getting this wrong? Because we didn't know what we didn't know.
When you're in the thick of all of that, the last thing you want to do is try and justify it to people who are going to judge you or have bad opinions if anybody is going to have bad opinions. You're just in that space, in that time. That's all I can think of. I don't need any more pressure from people thinking wrong, or misunderstanding where we are, or what we're trying to achieve.
I write about it in the book. You said it before, he looks young, and he looks fit, and he looks able. He then turns around and goes, well, actually, that's not the case. People, their first reaction is bullshit. If you looked at us on the surface, we had a lovely house, we were driving nice cars, but you scratch the surface and all of that was about to be gone. We were about to lose all of it.
On top of that, he was fundamentally dying is the best way I can describe it at that point because I was losing him and I didn't know why. Now, when I look back at that, the worst thing I could have done was hide behind it and not scream out for help, because maybe I could have gotten him to accept it quicker, sooner, and faster. If I hadn't been stronger and pushed through harder and said, I don't give a rat's ass what anybody thinks of us right now, I need help, and I just didn't.
I want people to learn from my mistakes. I want people to understand that they are right to ask for help. They're within their rights and they're damn well worth it. Just push harder. Ask for help. Don't be afraid.
Honestly, if I had gone to somebody and said, make him stop driving, yeah, I would have felt the wrath of him. Absolutely, I would have. But it might have forced him into a situation sooner to get help sooner if that makes sense or push harder to get the right help.
I just know that we tried to keep everything contained within our own four walls so we weren't judged wrong. I don't want people to make that mistake. The more we get out there, the more we talk about it, the more we make it okay, the less people will judge. Hence where we are today.
Brendan: It's almost like I'm relating mental health to culture. In the organizations and culture, it's one of those things that's always there. Sometimes it's good, most often it's not as great as what people would like it to be. On the surface, things can look okay, but there's a fair bit of trauma happening in the background. Sometimes individuals are having more trauma than others in organizations and culture.
The thing that I find in working with leaders is that, there's some there that know that and they're brave enough to do something about it, and not just sort of pull the black all over it. But then there's others that don't want to do anything about it, and they even know what's there and they're just happy to move.
It might be a strange analogy, but culture and mental health, it's like in my world, how do we get more leaders aware that actually your culture is not great? You're living in an ivory tower and we need to do some work. Actually, you are the cause of this from the mental health perspective.
Culture is hard to deal with because it's hard to see and it's hard to feel, and how do you explain it? Mental health seems to be in that bucket, like, how do we get inside your brain? We can put all these things on our heads and whatever, like, again, in that version of opening the door and the door is open, how do we move this forward? How do you guys move it forward?
Particularly again, I know the book is a way of moving forward. Where are we now with defence families and mental health within the defence family situation? Where are you guys taking this to make it a common conversation?
Karen: We've found a lot. We've learned a lot in the last three months. Again, this is something that we're not doing well as a nation. In the last three months, since we've released the book, we've found all of this amazing stuff that's out there for defence families, but it's siloed and it's fractured. Open Arms is doing something, Soldier On is doing something, ourselves is doing something.
There's 3500 something's out there, someone's doing something. Whether or not they started with good intent and now it's just a money-spending exercise, who knows? There's a fair bit about them as well. We didn't know prior to writing the book, and 5500 families aren't going to write a book. For us, it was really daunting for me personally. I'll let you speak for yourself, but for me it was really daunting over the last three months going, oh my God, I had no idea that there was all this help out there, because it had not trickled down to my level.
For me now, it's really important to start going out there and being a voice and not aligning with any one in particular, but just saying, hey, did you know that these services exist on the Central Coast now for us, personally. We're working in the space of RSL, Overwatch, Legacy and Naval Association, Partners of Veterans Association, Vietnam Veterans Association, and I'm sorry if I've missed anyone else.
We're bringing this group together to say, you all have your place, and you are all important, but we need to make it easier for the defence families to find you. It is not just support that needs to happen, it's services as well. Defence families need to understand about financial budgeting or paying rent now, if you're not in a defence house, or buying your own house, because you're out now and you're settling in a place. They need to know about accountants. If they've moved to the Central Coast and they've just left, and they've now moved here, as they forever after place, what services are out there in the business world?
What we're looking to do now is bring them all together and say, we want to build a real simple, easy to use website. That is just that, here's all the ESOs (Ex Service Organizations) on the Central Coast and what they do. Here are a whole lot of businesses, whether it's accounting, legal, whatever, financial, babysitting, mental and physical health. They are all prepared to offer something unique for a defence family to say, thank you for your service, freedom isn't free.
We're not saying that it's always going to be a financial discount or anything like that, it could just be that a financial institution is going to fast track an application of debt, conciliation, or whatever. For us, our next phase is really about trying to be a voice to say, reach out further, whatever geographical area you happen to reside in. Push harder. Know that it's okay to ask because you do deserve better. Then to the power brokers, to the people in these positions that can make these decisions, please, please stop forgetting where you came from.
Leadership in this country, irrelevant of the organization, needs to take a long hard look at themselves, understand and remember where they started, because all too often you get people that finally make it. They're career driven, they're career focused, they're politically focused, whatever the case may be, and they get to a particular pinnacle and it just becomes all about the career or the next political win. It stops being about remembering where they came from. If I could do one thing, it would be to remind leadership in this country to remember where they came from.
Brendan: We go back to the crux of the story, the main fight gaining to this point is actually the army acknowledging that you were broken because it was harder to see it. It was here somewhere as opposed to a physical issue. How confident or not are you guys in that?
Actually, there's some acknowledgement, but at what level? Is there a real fundamental change that could happen from the situation that you guys have gone through? Because that's where the problems got to be solved, isn't it? All these other things are really, really important in dealing with, but where's your confidence level with that?
Matt: We've been to a couple of different things run for the RSLs and one of them was an advocate's conference, and some of the information that was coming out there as far as what the Department of Veterans Affairs and what the Army or Defence Force itself is looking at is this approach, whereby we start looking at the family unit, not just as the individual as the member serving member.
I think that will go a long way. If they keep down that track, I think that's going to go down a long way because it gives a couple of things. It lets the families feel part of this great, big family that every person who's put on the uniform feels. They have that level of ownership and belonging. For the defence members themselves, these are the guys that are going to support us, these are the guys that make everything right for us or make it so that we can do our job.
For me, it's super important that that's the focus going forward as we have this holistic approach to not only health being that, we have physical health, we have mental health, we have emotional health, we have psychological health. We have a bunch of different aspects that are equally as important to keep the whole organism running and to make sure that we maintain the highest level of capability.
The part that we don't remember clearly here is that we need to provide a capability. I think most people in business are looking at what capability they can provide. If you're a senior management person, you're looking at what capability you can draw on. The family is the support network for this capability.
They're saying a lot of great things at the moment. They're having a lot more open days and things like that on larger bases. I know the RSL really is driving forward and open to listening to us about the family unit and how we support them so that they can support the members.
There's a lot of inroads there that are being made. As far as mental health, I think we're starting to become more aware and we're starting to understand the effects of that, and what it has over a long period of time. We're also starting to understand the certain neurological aspects about our job there that affect us in a psychological area as well, that sub-concussive blows, which we get consistently from just training, also has a long term neurological effect as far as what it does to your brain.
This other side effect is that then it throws into the mix of chemical imbalance somewhere down the path. Then we find that we've got a lot of issues with the same sort of problem—depression, anxiety, adjustment disorder, substance abuse. In some cases, too, we've got spousal abuse—it falls into line there—plus addiction behavior and things like that.
There is a hell of a lot of that and that's concerning in itself because it's always seen to be acceptable behavior, which is definitely for my mind, it's not. Defence is making some inroads. They've got a long way to go yet. We're probably at least another 10 years before we start saying, what will this look like? Hopefully in that time, we have a fairly quiet period on the geopolitical front. Therefore, we can actually take the time to grow our capability and grow our support network for that capability.
I'm positive as far as that goes. That's probably another big point, as far as our story goes, is that neither of us are an anti–Defence Force. If all my kids came to me and said they want to serve tomorrow, the only answer I would give them is make sure you join the army first so that when you join a sensible thing, like the Air Force, I don't have to denigrate you for being a lousy RAFI. That's a big one. You're going to get your top serve and then you can go where they treat you sensibly.
Brendan: Ayleigh did join the Defence Force, didn't she?
Matt: Yeah, early attended. Then for whatever reason or whatever way, it didn't go the way she anticipated. She's not in now. That winds up being the way it is.
Karen: There are a lot of really good things happening across DVA and Defence at the moment, and they're starting to get it. But same said, if you have a look at what happened with the Royal Commission, the Royal Commission took 2½ years to approve, just to approve to say, yes, we will do it. Now that the Royal Commission has been approved, terms of reference have to come into play.
They close that down, it'll be another six months before the committee is formed and whatever investigation starts to undertake. Honestly—anyone who tells you differently, I would challenge—you're looking at at least five years before you see the benefits or we reap any rewards from the Royal Commission.
What happens between now and that five-year timeline? We can't just stop. We can't just sit back and go, hooray, we've got a Royal Commission. Let's wait and see if they figure out why all these defence personnel are suiciding. No, let's not stop, let's celebrate the fact that the Royal Commission is going to be undertaken and that's great. In the interim, let's keep remembering that we need a viable Defence Force.
We need a strong Defence Force, and that can't just mean $167 billion to build up the personnel. We need to make sure that we're caring for the personnel as we build them up. Are we enlisting them correctly? Are we making sure that the right support mechanisms are in place for their families if they're going to deploy?
Honestly, if I had somebody that I could have called while I was pregnant with Willow and he was in a war zone, that would have done so much for me. It's simple little things like that, that they could put changes in right now to benefit families as a united front. But are they? I don't know.
Brendan: Let's take a step in the future because only the last week on June 8th, you were involved in a symposium and bringing all sorts of hopefully wonderful people together to make positive change. Tell us a bit about that and the outcomes. Then there's some more stuff happening further in this year in November, I think.
Karen: Yeah, there is. Absolutely. They are wonderful people because they all agreed to move forward. They're RSL sub-branch Gosford, the president there, Greg Mawson was a gentleman that we met some time ago here on the Central Coast. We hadn't had a really good experience historically with the RSL. We weren't members. That's not what this was about.
We met him and we had mentioned that we were going to write the book and bring it to life. When it came to life, we then touched base with Greg again and said, would you read it? Would you review it? Would you support it? Fast track three months and Greg has asked us to guest speak at a number of different venues, which we've gone and done. We've started to really get more involved in this space of the ESO, understanding what they do, and meeting different people, different generations. It's been really empowering to us in that regard.
As I sat back and started looking, all right, well, what do we do now? I started getting tired—I think is probably the best way to describe it—of trying to keep track of what everybody did, and it got really noisy. I don't know for anybody else, but for me when stuff gets too noisy it gets frustrating. I get angry and it's like, oh make it stop. I wanted the noise to stop. I wanted to be able to see clearly what was happening. I come from a business analytical and conceptual design process. For me, seeing is being able to go somewhere, look at it, review it, and understand it.
When I started going to all these websites, they were just word salad. None of it made sense. I was bored after the first paragraph, so I was not learning about what was going on. So I put a proposal together that said, how do we simplify this? How do we make it clean and easy? I came up with a solution for a website that would showcase all the ESOs and services. It couldn't just be my opinion whilst I think I'm right all the time—thank you very much, Matthew—It couldn't just be my opinion.
The proposal to Greg was simply, I would like to bring all the ESOs together in a meeting, showcase, deliver, and present my design. If it's approved, to have at work, means we need to then bring together the three groups—the families, the services, and the support; ESOs, businesses, and people. Bring them together in a forum where they all get to have a voice.
It's not a conference, because if you go to a conference, you're there to be talked to, whereas in a symposium, I wanted everybody to feel like they had a place. The proposal on the 8th—last week that we did—we brought all of the ESOs together that were willing to come and listen. There are a handful of veterans that work with me in this space. We're all volunteers. There's no money in this. We're all just doing it for love.
Between Matt and the other veterans, I got them all involved and said, am I talking out my backside here? Is this a waste of time or do you see the benefit? They all absolutely agreed with the benefit. We went on Tuesday to present and we had Lucy Weeks and a bunch of the ESOs, the president of New South Wales RSL, a few other people in the room, and the veterans I presented—how I saw it, why I saw it, what I saw. Then I also got the veterans to stand up and speak their truth as well. They highlight what their journey was and why they would have been able to benefit from something like this.
At the end, I just said, it was really important to understand that what I was proposing was not trying to just say this is the only way that this can work. It was about saying, this is one of the ways this can work.
For a 60-year Vietnam veteran, he's not web-savvy, and he likes going down to the club, having a beer, talking to his mates, and going to a meeting, that's great. More power to you, continue. For a 30-something year old veteran who is very tech-savvy and is constantly on the internet, build a website and show him what's available. He can pick and choose what he or she wants to be involved in.
We can showcase defence family days where they can network with other like-minded people or people who have been through similar experiences. We did that, we went into the presentation, it was unanimous yes. We've now gone into business propositions. We're getting all the quotes and everything worked out for the website.
Then on the 25th of November, we will showcase this symposium. We will have Defence Families, any businesses that want to be involved, and the ESOs here on the Central Coast, all come together for a day where we will collect information. If the website was there, what makes it helpful? What services would you look for? What are you looking for from your ESOs? ESOs, what are you delivering in this space?
There's a lot of hearsay and speculation about what they do or don't do. This is a day for facts. This is, tell us your story, what would have, could have, should have made it better. Once we get all that information on the 25th of November, then we will make sure that the website is built appropriately for the Central Coast for defence families.
Brendan: Exciting stuff. What does that look like in (say) 12 months, do you think after November? What do you hope for it to look like?
Karen: I hope it evolves to probably a space that allows defence families to also start networking and working together. I think there is a very much a ‘them and us’ mentality. There's defence families and then there's the civilian world. We need that to become more cohesive. We need defence families to assimilate back into civilian world better, but at the same time, to do that, the civilian world needs to understand the people that are trying to assimilate back in, to try and understand maybe a bit of that journey as well, and to also respect the fact that freedom isn't free. Anyone that's put on the uniform has done so to protect this country's freedom, irrelevant of position or deployment or not. Just putting on the uniform has written that check.
If a business on the Central Coast has the ability to step up and say, I want to be a part of that, and I want to say thank you, then that's empowering for a defence family. That's telling them that they are seen, that they're heard, and that they're appreciated. I think that's massive. I think that builds that cohesiveness, that builds that ability to soften the transition back into civilian life. It's a big thing to go from army to no army or navy to no navy or whatever.
That's my hope that we build something that even in 12 months time has evolved, where there's a lot of businesses offering a unique service, there's defence families using it to prove that clean, simple, and easy to use is powerful. And the ESOs are proving that they're willing to work together for the greater good. The greater good is defence families healing, transitioning into the civilian world well, and supported.
Brendan: It sounds to me that progress now and from last week and moving forward that somehow you may be able to take ego out of the room to some extent in getting people actually talking.
Brendan: That is something you need to bottle.
Karen: Yeah. It's the Karen way.
Brendan: It’s the Karen way or highway. In all seriousness, it takes exceptional people like you guys to do [...] like this. There's lots of people that talk in this world, there's lots of people that gunner and wander and all that stuff, but you guys are doing [...]. You're making a difference, exceptional.
Matt: Thank you, because our ethos in life is, well Karen's big one, is the family of HOPE—Help One Person Every day. It sounds like an abstract concept to say that this is our ethos towards parenting, but it's also our ethos towards how we want to shape our world going forward. We're the custodians of life, the world, the planet, whatever, for our kids. There's always this underlying mentality there of, I want to build the world that I want my kids to want to live in because the world I was born into wasn't one that I wanted to live in from a young age, and the same we care as much the way it was.
There's a lot of things in society and life that we certainly don't think are being done the best way possible, but we have to start somewhere. Like all humans, if you stick to your strengths, you're likely to have a higher rate of success. One thing we do know is that families have been through a bit, families that need to reenter society, for lack of a better term, and then understand where their place in the world is.
From that perspective there, we're trying to make something better everyday. Every learning moment with the kids is always, if everybody just worries about what their portion of the mess is, then the mess never gets cleaned up because somebody is always not doing their share. We always figure if we try and make everything better one day at a time, then it's going to get us across there.
Karen: Don't get me wrong. Please, don't get me wrong. We screw up. By Christ, we screw up, and we still get [...] wrong. We just do. If there was a book written for how to get parenting perfect, you'd never get to the end of it. I just don't think there is an easy solution to that by any stretch. We don't get it right all the time as far as parenting goes. We don't get humaning rights all the time.
Sometimes both him and I can be assholes, we just can be, that's human nature. But we do try and that is probably what will separate us from a lot of other people. We are relentless in our need to want to leave this place better than how we found it. We take that across all levels. Sometimes, we probably take that—that’s a royal ‘we’—to an extreme. Matt is very much my, hey, buddy, come back a bit. Let's step back a bit, calm down, relax, it's okay.
Matt: Kaz would honestly give you the last dollar out of a wallet, even if we had no food in the fridge because that's just Kaz. She wants to help other people. Of course, it falls into the trap of my family. They're fine because they're my family, they're real strong, they're capable people. That's not a problem. This poor person, maybe he's struggling, but we've got to find that balance and so we do that. We do that for each other. Really one of Kaz's many admirable qualities is just that unrelenting desire to help people.
Karen: I'd also go to the extreme if you weren't there to balance me, too. We are the Yin and Yang in that regard. I know exactly who I am, it doesn't stop me. I know who I am. I'm just very grateful that he's in a headspace where he can say, Kaz, slow down, or maybe put the dollar back in your wallet because we need to buy food this week, or whatever the situation is. We balance each other out in that regard.
Matt sits really quietly as we talk about the symposium, and we talk about all the work. Yes, I've done the legwork in that regard. But we also have three kids at home, a house to keep maintaining, and all the things that come with that. We homeschool two of our three children. None of that happens by fairies flying out of the cupboards at 9:00 AM. It all falls on Matt to keep everything going and he keeps me going, too.
He allows the space for me to be this focused, driven, and all the rest of it because he is the one that's monitoring it all, making sure that we're all checking the right boxes, and keeping us as a family balanced. On the times that he can't, I've learned enough now to understand his spiraling out or falling into the black hole. That's when I step back and go, no, no, we're focusing over this way now, and we just pivot in that regard and we get [...] done.
Brendan: It's very obvious that you guys are a fantastic support network for each other—the family unit that you guys have built, the extended unit, and the green army unit. You're building support networks, which is obviously really, really important for all of us in our lives.
There's one person I haven't mentioned today. I think it'd be very remiss if I didn't. I'm not sure where he sits in this Yin and Yang scenario, but the name Peter Goom. What does he mean to you guys?
Matt: He's pretty big.
Brendan: Just put some context around, that was a guy that was your support network in the army when you guys were just fighting the army. That's a big beast to fight. Tell us what this guy means to you guys.
Karen: Life support, I think there's no better way to summarize that. Again, when Matt first had the accident, we spent seven months trying to convince the army that Matt was broken, that there was something wrong. We didn't even know what that was. We had no concept. That made the whole depression components so much worse than it probably was ever going to be. Had they done it right from day one, they didn't.
He would come home just broken, like they don't believe me. If it was a broken arm, or a broken leg or something, if it was tangible. If they could see the break, it would have been so much better. But it was the brain. You said it at the start and I've said it again, he looked physically able, healthy, confident, and there was no trigger point. I couldn't say do this and he'll have a seizure. We didn't know it was a seizure. I couldn't say do this and he'll stop talking to you for 30 seconds.
He would go on to the barracks, and he would suppress all of his anger and everything like that. What was coming home was 10 times bigger because he had to try and hide and hold all this in, because he couldn't go to his Warrant Officer or his RSM or whatever they were at the time and go, you dumb bleep, bleep, bleep, I'm broken, fix me. He used to have to go there, almost with his hat in his hand and say, please help and they would say no.
Seven months of this continuous rejection, rejection, rejection, I cracked and I wrote a ministerial. It wasn't until I wrote a ministerial that people started. For those that don't know, a minister is writing a letter to the government to say, do something before I go public. Then all of a sudden, all these bells and whistles started opening. The Australian Defence Force sent Pete Goom to us as a caseworker. He came from Canberra, we'd never met him, we had nothing to do with him. He rang me one day and said, hey, I'm Warrant Officer Pete Goom, I've been assigned to your case, I'd love to come up and meet with you and Matt. Great, please come.
Matt: Which seems (for starters) a really odd thing to begin with, given the fact that he was a Warrant Officer Class 1, which is an RSM level, the most senior of senior soldiers at that level. You non-commissioned officers like this is the pinnacle for that. These guys are capable, they're subject matter experts, they're normally hard-hitting. Ideally, they'll be very hard-charging people.
For him to turn around and say, hey, you know what, Kaz, you're doing a bit tough. I'd like to come and meet the whole family and just find out what the skinny is on this whole thing, so then we can start working through this. That's massive for somebody of that level to put his focus onto that and to take this course on. That says a lot just in the fact that he was addressing us as people.
Karen: He probably didn't have to get in his car and drive to Armidale from Canberra and meet us. He could have just done it all remote.
Brendan: It gave you some confidence that, hey, the Defence Force was taking this seriously or the government's taking it seriously.
Karen: I finally felt like I had an ear. There might be some hope now. He came to meet us and he was there for two days. He stayed in town overnight. On the second day, before he was going back to Canberra, he gave me his mobile phone number. We still talk to Pete today, but it's probably the one thing he regrets. Probably not, but he gave me his mobile phone number and he said, you ring me any time. He was the only lifeline I had.
I took him at his word and I took it literally. On the days that I was just, you asked me before, did I ever think about leaving? On the days where it felt like I was staring down the barrel of no choice but to leave, I would ring him and I would just sit. I remember one day I was sitting in the car park of the shopping center, and I was literally hyperventilating.
I was just so at the end, I just didn't know where to turn, and I was screaming down the phone to him, why? Why does it have to be like this? Why are they doing this to us? Why can't they see the pain they're inflicting on us? Why are they not moving mountains to help us? I don't understand it.
I'm literally screaming at my car. I must have looked like a ripe twat sitting in my car screaming on the phone. He couldn't fix it, he couldn't resolve it, he couldn't wave a magic wand, but he could listen, and he could empathize with me. He could get to the end of my ranting and he could just say, I got you, Kaz. That's the best he could do, but it was enough for me to breathe. It was enough to know that I wasn't going insane. I wasn't mad, I wasn't losing my [...]. This was really hurting. This was genuine. I was losing my best friend, and I didn't know if he was going to kill himself tomorrow or not. It was an everyday relentless, is he still with us? Okay, good. Today's another day that we've got through.
The only person I had that could in any way, shape, or form grasp that was Pete Goom. I rang him, sometimes two or three times a day, and I'm sure he had probably 30 or 40 other families that he was case-managing and all the rest of it, but he never once didn't pick up that phone and answer me. To this day, he was a large portion of what kept me in the thick of it, to work with Matt, to try and save us. We will be forever grateful to him for that.
Brendan: It sounds like we need to spend some of those billions rather than on some of these submarines that are going to be delivered in 30 years that we need to do some cloning of Pete Goom's.
Karen: Absolutely. Yup, well and truly. That's one guy that could go to the top and never forget where he came from, in all honesty. I don't know if he wants the top. I can't speak for him, but there's so many that are there that could take a leaf out of his book and learn a lot.
Brendan: How do we get hold of this book?
Karen: From our website, kazpage.com.au. It's also up on Amazon, and will soon be released on Audible as well. From the website, kazpage.com.au, you can get hardcopy or ebooks for either Mac or Android. You can also go to (I believe) Amazon to get it as well, and we will have it released to Audible soon.
Brendan: Let's just briefly talk about that. My good friend, your good friend, Mark [...] has been working on the audiobook for a while with you guys. What's the release date? Has he given you anything? Should we put him under some pressure?
Karen: It depends. How soon do I want it released? [...] for another three months now after this.
Brendan: The great thing is you guys have put a lot of work and self-narrated to both the parts you've written. Kaz you've narrated. Matt, the bits that you've added too as well in your corresponding views, you've narrated as well. It's from the heart. It's what you guys felt at the time.
Hopefully we hear that soon. It's going to sound fantastic. I know Mark's putting a huge amount of effort into it.
Guys, do you have any parting advice? Again, this whole context today around mental health and link back to Matt's injury, Defence, the lack of support and really how you guys have turned anger, which you talked about the start into something really good, really powerful, and moving forward in a direction that actually, there's some light at the end of the tunnel.
What advice do you want to share with probably, let's say defence families, people out there that hopefully get a chance to hear this and know that help is there, but hopefully even more help is just around the corner? Kaz, start with you.
Karen: For me, I'd probably like to go a bit broader than that and just go not just defence families, but anyone who is supporting a sufferer of mental health. I'd really like my message to go to you, know your worth, know that if that sufferer is not seeing you for your worth and not prepared to work as hard as you, in the space of making it okay and manageable, that it's okay to walk, because there's a lot of partners out there right now that won't walk out of guilt, and you need to know your own worth. So please, please look at your reflection in the mirror, and I understand you as a person and I want better for you.
If you are supporting and you're staying because your partner is meeting you on that equilibrium, then both of you need to understand your worth combined and push harder for the help you so rightly deserve. It doesn't matter what organization you come from. Defence, farming, corporate, dental, I don't care. As human beings in society, mental health is going to affect many. We need to be okay with that and we need to be prepared to do more to help in that space.
For me, the big one really is, firstly, know your worth. Be prepared to own it and stand up for it. Secondly, my mentor is hope. Help one person every day. It doesn't have to be big. It can be opening a door for someone, or smiling at someone just because you just don't know what somebody is going through. A kind gesture can go a really long way.
Brendan: Thanks, Kaz. Matt, what would be your parting words?
Matt: I guess my parting words are that the stigma is created because of people not wanting to feel different and feel weak. The real active strength is having the ability to self-reflect and say, hey, I'm not doing my best work, I'm not doing my best humaning. That takes a real courage to be able to turn around to the person you love the most or that you're supposed to be most vulnerable to and be able to say, hey, I'm struggling, because without that level of conviction or truth to yourself, then you're not going to be able to get on to that path again. Be totally non-egotistical when it comes to your foibles.
Brendan: Guys, I have to say that, as I've said a couple of times, I've read the book. I actually haven't known you guys for that long as far as lifetime goes, maybe a couple of months. Kaz and I ran into each other when you're doing some of the audio process. The vulnerability that you guys have shown through the book, if I hadn't met you before that and I just read the book, I think, well, I know these people, you can connect with these people.
It's just to me, such a valuable, not only the words in the story, but just the fine example of true leadership. It's about being vulnerable. It's about opening that door and—Matt, you touched on this—it's just sharing what you've got. Not being afraid to share, that's the stuff that builds trust. That's the stuff that brings people together and makes a difference in one of we’re trying to make a difference in.
I cannot express enough how much it means to me that we've been able to spend some time together today. You guys are exceptional human beings. Thank you very much for coming on our program and sharing your story with us.
Karen: Thank you for having us because without you guys and people like you helping us in the space get them word out, it's just that, it’s just the word. Please, for what it's worth, don't underestimate your power in this as well because you allow us a platform to stop mental health being dirty words. For that, we appreciate you.
Brendan: Thank you. It's an absolute pleasure.
Karen: Thanks, guys.
Brendan: What a powerful and emotional conversation. If you're watching on Youtube, you'll see the tattoo Kaz wears proudly on her forearm. It's a symbol and an acronym of HOPE—Help One Person Everyday. It also includes the words, "Stay humble, stay hopeful." It isn't just a tattoo. It's what Kaz and Matt are staying for.
It shines through in the interview through the vulnerability of the story in the book, My Broken Soldier, as well as all the work in bringing the many organizations together to focus on the collective goal of providing better support that works for veterans and their families. Kaz and Matt Page are exceptional human beings. I'm honored and privileged to know them and call them friends.
These were my three key takeaways from my conversation with Kaz and Matt. My first key takeaway: Leaders have a relentless drive for improvement. They want to always perform at their highest level, as well as knowing there's always room for improvement.
Matt and Kaz are doing everything they can to leave this world better than they found it. Our aim is for all leaders to have a relentless drive for improvement. This will make every workplace a much better place.
My second key takeaway: Leaders face challenges head on. As you heard in the interview, Kaz and Matt have certainly had their fair share of challenges. They've never taken an easy road and walked away. I can't begin to understand the life and death struggles they've both faced. What I do now is, if I face the challenge, I want both these guys in my corner supporting me through.
My third key takeaway: Investing time in people builds quality human connections. There's not a true example of this in Kaz and Matt's IVF journey. What an emotional rollercoaster that ended in heartache. Science just can't fix everything. When they invested quality time on each other, they connected on a human level. Together, they produced three beautiful daughters—Willow, Scarlet and Adelaide—and it all happened naturally.
In summary, my three key takeaways were: Leaders have a relentless drive for improvement. Leaders face challenges head on. And investing time in people builds quality human connections.
If you want to talk about culture, leadership or teamwork, or have any questions or feedback about the episode, you can leave me a comment on the socials or leave me a voice message at thecultureofthings.com.
Thanks for joining me and remember, the best outcome is on the other side of a genuine conversation.
Outtro (music): Thank you for listening to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. Please visit brendanrogers.com.au to access the show notes. If you love The Culture of Things podcast, please subscribe, rate and give a review on Apple podcasts and remember a healthy culture is your competitive advantage.