Col Hamley is a WWII veteran and ex-POW. Enlisting with the 2/2nd Pioneers, he first saw action in Syria and the Middle East. In 1942 his unit was ordered back to Australia but was diverted to Java, where it was eventually ordered to surrender. Col survived more than three years in Japanese captivity, including a significant period on the Burma Railway.
“Most people bottled up their problems, and that was one of the silly things that we should never have done.”
No psychological assessment
While the challenges faced by today’s veterans are quite different to those of WWII, Col’s story is included here in light of his post-war experiences. He recalls how, after being liberated (several days after the war had ended) and repatriated, the men were discharged without any psychological evaluation.
“We went through our discharge at Watsonia Camp in Victoria, and went through all the process and the medical treatment and dental treatment and all that sort of thing. Then they handed us our discharge certificate, walked us out to the front gate, and provided transport to wherever you wanted to go to. And that was it. Just a pat on the shoulder and away we went,” he says.
Despite surviving brutal treatment, none of the men received post-war psychological or mental health treatment.
“There was no assessment of our psychological wellbeing at all before we were discharged. I don’t think they even thought of that in those days,” he says.
“But of course, as the years went by, people started turning up at the Repatriation Commission, complaining of the trauma that they’d been through in recent years. They had trouble sleeping or they were having trouble with their family and couldn’t cope with things like they used to.”
Talking about trauma
At 95 years of age, Col still speaks openly about his experiences and is active at events commemorating ex-POWs and the 2/2nd Pioneers. He says that after war, though, few people talked about what they’d endured.
“The worst time we had on the line I think was when they put us to work in bluestone quarries, breaking up stone for the railway. By that time, it was completely in the wet season. It rained day and night, just increasing or decreasing in intensity at times,” he says.
“A lot of people had to discard their boots. They were going to work in bare feet. Once you got a cut in an exposed area like your feet, they were getting tropical ulcers. These were shocking things that spread so quickly. We had no medications to treat them with.”
Although mateship was essential to their survival, dealing with trauma was much harder for some of the men after they’d returned.
“One of the traps I think most soldiers fell into was heavy drinking,” he says, “I don’t think I talked about it too much with other people. If you had any problems, you bottled it up. I think most people bottled up their problems, and that was one of the silly things that we should never have done. If you had a problem, you should be able to talk about it openly to other people. It’s the only way you’re ever going to get any sort of reprieve from your problems,” he says.
NQ Connect provides a free counselling and support service for current serving and ex-ADF members and their families living and working in northern Queensland. The service is presented by Operation Compass.
Call 1300 059 625 for a private and entirely non-judgemental talk with a professional counsellor. Alternatively, you can opt for web chat. Scroll down to access more mental health resources and self-help tools.
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