Trading one life for another… by Jarad Henry

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For every cop who dies in the line of duty, five take their own lives. One… then five. That’s six.

In anyone’s language, Six is a significant number, but in this context it comes with an equally significant (albeit coincidental) meaning, which we will get to.

Like firemen, paramedics, soldiers and others who work the front line, everybody has a limit. It’s like a sailing a yacht close to a shoreline of reef and jagged rocks. Some of the rocks stand out and you avoid them, but a lot are hidden beneath the surface and if you sail too close, you might clip the edge and suddenly you’re in the water. And, in many cases, so is your whole crew.

Your family, partner, colleagues and friends.

They’re in there with you, but you’re the only one without a life jacket and wetsuit. The water is cold, the waves churning, flooding your mouth and throat. If you don’t move fast, you’ll drown or smash against the rocks.

In Pink Tide this happens to my main character, but this is fiction. For many, sadly, it isn’t fiction. It’s reality.

Allan Sparkes is one such person.

As a dedicated member of the New South Wales Police Service, Sparkes didn’t think twice about rescuing an 11-year-old boy from a flooded storm water drain in 1996. In doing so, he dived off his own yacht into dangerous seas with no life jacket, and became one of only five people to be awarded Australia’s highest decoration for bravery, the Cross of Valour, but the rescue came with a cost, including a downward spiral into post-traumatic stress disorder and clinical depression.

Allan’s recovery from debilitating mental illness was a rollercoaster ride of personal challenges that tested his courage and resolve over more than a decade. His is indeed an inspiring story.

“There is no darker place in your soul than the place you are when you are planning to take your own life,” he says in his memoir, The Cost of Bravery. “It is a very private place. When I used to visit this place it was as if I was going down into a deep, deep cave where there was only darkness, silence and loneliness. The thing I remember most is how quiet it was. There was no sound apart from the beating of my heart…. This is where I used to sit and plan ways of killing myself.”

Another story is that of Lachlan McCulloch, who in previous books added a sense of dark humour to his stories, but in Packing Death (underworld code for ‘out to kill’), McCulloch sheds a more honest and open account of his time working undercover with some the country’s most dangerous criminals. He won a Ned Kelly Award for this book, which again details the cost of bravery and the toll it took on his health, family and career.

A common thread in many of these stories is mental illness, in particular Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you haven’t heard of PTSD, just a quick search on the internet provides a myriad of definitions. This is just one, from Wikipedia.

PTSD is caused by the experience of a wide range of traumatic events and, particularly if the trauma is extreme, can occur in persons with no predisposing conditions. Persons considered at risk include combat military personnel, victims of natural disasters, concentration camp survivors and victims of violent crime.

Individuals not infrequently experience “survivor’s guilt” for remaining alive while others died. Causes of the symptoms of PTSD are the experiencing or witnessing of a stressor event involving death, serious injury or such threat to the self or others in a situation in which the individual felt intense fear, horror, or powerlessness

Those employed in occupations which expose them to violence (such as soldiers and police) or disasters (such as emergency service workers) are also at high risk.

The following two clips are made by aspiring film makers and feature PTSD as just one of the ‘costs’ of bravery’, specifically soldiers.

A full length film released in Hollywood last year and shot in documentary style pays real tribute to the cost of bravery and PSTD as a theme, and in a particularly poignant moment, the two main characters (recently awarded medals of valour) ask each other if they ‘feel’ like heroes. Neither of them do.

Medals of valour are indeed an honourable recognition of service, but what is the hidden cost?

“Watch your 6,” is a phrase used in policing as it is among soldiers of war. Your “6″ is your back. Watch your back.

When one abandons their “6″ and leaps into the water to save another, they are quite rightly awarded with recognitions of bravery. But given that for every cop who dies in the line of duty, five more take their own lives, something else may be needed.

There’s that number again… six.

I’m not sure on the stats for military personnel, but it might well be higher… If so, one might argue these medals are symbols of bravery as much as they are a call for help.

Perhaps, in sailing the yacht too close to the shore we throw our heroes into the water. When this happens, maybe it’s a not just a medal and a ceremony of recognition they need. Maybe what they really need is support and understanding when the PTSD comes knocking on their door.

Perhaps, what they really need is a life jacket.

For anyone suffering issues of mental illness, there are services available. One reputable Australian service is Beyond Blue.

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