Healer or Warrior? – army medics research unveils mental torment in juggling alternative roles

21 APRIL 2023

Healer or Warrior? – army medics research unveils mental torment in juggling alternative roles

As the nation pauses to reflect on ANZAC Day, a Charles Sturt University academic says research is vital to prevent exacerbation of current mental health issues within the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the associated wide-ranging consequences.

Research uncovered army medics’ mental torment reconciling their roles as both military personnel and nurses when on the battlefield.

By Dr Kristina Griffin (pictured, inset), Associate Head of School (Nursing) and Lecturer in Nursing in the Charles Sturt School of Nursing, Paramedicine and Healthcare Sciences.

As we mark ANZAC Day 2023, it is important to remember that deployment and combat have wide-ranging effects on the men and women who have served and continue to serve the nation in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) for more than a century.

Deployment overseas as a member of a military organisation is, by its very nature, a defining moment of existence for each individual.

However, the glamour and excitement of return may be tempered by feelings a great adventure has ended.

Despite the importance of these deployments on the military personnel, they come with varying degrees of negativity and adjustment for the military members and their families.

My PhD research explored the emotional and psychological scars left on service personnel in the aftermath of their return from warzones, and is detailed in my PhD thesis, Healer or Warrior: An historical account of the role duality of the Australian Army medic in war zones (published November 2022).

The thesis presented an historical analysis, based on individual experiences of Australian Army medics serving in the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO) in recent times during ‘the War on Terror’ and their forebears, the Australian Army stretcher-bearers of the field hospitals of World War One (WWI).

I examined the role duality of this specialised group within the Australia Army as part of the medical corps (who are both soldiers and members of the healing profession as nurses) and its effect on the individual, and in consequence their families.

I also examined how this specialised role within the Australian Army differs from other serving soldiers and the impact it has on the personnel performing these duties.

This exploration was done with a focus on personal reflections, and an analysis of how these reflections have changed in the course of time. These reflections were embedded within their social context and aligned within the distinctive medic role and the military circumstance of overseas deployment as a whole.

The role dichotomy, and possible conflicts, of being an Australian Army medic as both a fully trained soldier as well as a member of the nursing profession, is a principal concept of the thesis.

The impact of these dual roles, with their own sets of principles, morals, doctrine and accountability, and the stress of making life-saving decisions in a warzone were explored.

These unique challenges faced as the ‘warrior nurse’ who must operate as both soldier and nurse with dual loyalties, were explored with a specific focus on the psychological impact, both short- and long-term, on the individual as they return home from deployment.

Letters and diaries of personal experiences were used to tell the stories from WWI. These historical documents were contextualised within the social and political climate of the time.

The current serving medics told of their experiences through individual interviews, which again were related to the current times to set the historical theme.

The historical perspective is a vital component in this research as the community support for the war in which the soldiers fought significantly affects the impact this portion of their lives has on their short- and long-term, mental wellbeing.

The similarities and differences between the memories, feelings and experiences of these two unique groups of people who performed the specialised role, separated by a century, were compared and contrasted.

Despite the vast differences inherent within these two distinct groups from which the information was gathered, there are many similarities that are reflected in these personal memoirs.

In the case of army medics, their experiences are strongly moderated by the structures of the institutional traditions of the military and established ethical practices for nurses.

Each of these value systems are reinforced by both their training and working with peers within the same structures. However, there are gaps and conflicts between the two structures of military service and nursing duties.

The army medics experience dilemmas, moments of doubt, and the obligation to rely upon their individual justifications for the actions they take.

These conflicts are sometimes solved through confident individual reasoning, but sometimes are difficult to negotiate and can lead to an acute sense of loss. This features in the narratives of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Lest we forget. 

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Dr Kristina Griffin contact Trease Clarke at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0409 741 789 or news@csu.edu.au

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