Medics, war and morality ─ an age-old dilemma

25 AUGUST 2021

Medics, war and morality ─ an age-old dilemma

Two Charles Sturt University academics say the public discourse about the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) and studies of the role of army medics must be open to a spectrum of experiences so future problems are addressed before they reach crisis.

Research by Ms Kristina Griffin (pictured, inset) RN, Associate Head of the Charles Sturt School of Nursing, Paramedicine and Healthcare Sciences, and historian Dr Therese Taylor in the School of Social Work and Arts, has documented the experiences of army medics who have served overseas as part of the ‘War on Terror’.

In particular, research by Ms Griffin for her PhD thesis, to be submitted this year, offers an analysis of the medics who are trained both as enrolled nurses and as soldiers, and live out a duality of roles in conflict zones.

The unique dilemmas of the military medic in preserving the lives of others means these soldier-nurses often put their own long-term health at risk.

There are profoundly distressing ethical dilemmas in contemporary warfare ─ even short of war crimes ─ and there are debilitating psychological injuries, even in people who are not at risk of suicide.

The end of Australia’s military involvement in Afghanistan, and the beginning of legal proceedings into alleged war crimes, mark a turning point for ADF members. It is also a significant moment for the nation.

Another public event is the establishment of a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.

Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel Mr Andrew Gee, MP, has said, “Our country asks so much of the men and women of the ADF and we owe it to them and our veterans to make sure that this Royal Commission and its findings lead to lasting results.”

There are many examples of the distinctive nature and specialised service of army medics.

One soldier who has given formal evidence, and spoken publicly, regarding incidents in Afghanistan, army medic Darryl ‘Dusty’ Miller, was deployed with the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) in Afghanistan in 2012.

He has given testimony in relation to the treatment of an Afghan civilian who subsequently died, and allegations relating to an attempted cover up.

The toll taken on Dusty Miller caused him to be admitted to a mental health facility, diagnosed with PTSD, and be medically discharged from the army.

Mr Miller’s courage in speaking out against what he perceived as a breach of human rights and medical ethics, despite personal and professional ramifications, embodies the bravery that is intrinsic within the medic role from World War I to the present.

This case also exemplifies the pressure put on army medics, and the unique ethics of their dual role as soldier and nurse, which will challenge Australia’s national conscience in time to come.

The trauma of the returned soldier is a reproach to us all. A former army doctor who served in Afghanistan, Dr Dan Mealy, has suggested, “All Australians had to take responsibility for what happened in war zones”.

In order to explain the role of the Army medic, and to consider how the demands of their service impact their lives, the research examined the records of First World War stretcher bearers – the forerunners of the Army medic – and documented how these men saw themselves and their duties.

These were compared this to the first-hand accounts of experiences in Afghanistan by currently serving medics.

The dilemmas of nursing duties on the battlefield are given a historical context, and while much has changed, much remains the same in this selfless and demanding form of service.

To conduct the research interviews, both ethics approval and special permission from the military authorities was needed and obtained.

The research found that Army medics wanted to communicate and to have their stories known, and consequently the research has provided detailed recommendations for improved services for medics who return to civilian life with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The research interviews reveal no animosity in ADF personnel views of Afghans, but rather the opposite. They wished to protect the civilian population, and regarded armed militants with a wary reserve.

In some ways, Afghans were the only people who shared their knowledge of the suffering of the conflict and returning to civilian life in Australia sometimes meant being silenced and misunderstood.

Part of the training of an army medic consists of learning professional nursing ethics, and these standards are well-respected. But this idealism is often accompanied by anguish at the inhumanity of the military conflict and an awareness that their best efforts are sometimes of little avail.

In preserving the lives of others, soldier-nurses often risk their own long-term health, and the public discourse should be open to the range of experiences that will help to address future problems before resulting in crisis.


Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Ms Kristina Griffin and Dr Therese Taylor contact Bruce Andrews at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0418 669 362 or news@csu.edu.au

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