From troops to troupe for war-wounded Australian soldiers
Soldiers march past a giant projection of Corporal Tim Loch in "The Long Way Home", a Sydney Theatre Company production starring Australian troops who have have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Pacific, on February 6, 2014 - by William West
Lance Corporal Craig Hancock served three tours of Afghanistan -- two of them carrying the silent psychological wounds of a roadside bomb attack that left him self-medicating and unable to ask for help for fear of letting down his friends.
But that's nothing compared to stepping out on stage in front of a full house at the Sydney Theatre Company.
"Put me over in Afghanistan, no dramas. (But) Sitting in there with 1,000 people looking at me..." he said laughing.
Hancock is one of 12 soldiers appearing in "The Long Way Home", a production devised by and starring Australian troops who have served abroad in the past decade in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Pacific.
Commissioned by chief of the defence force General David Hurley and based on a similar show in Britain in 2012, the play is a public awareness initiative for the Australian military.
But there is also a therapeutic goal, with the scriptwriting workshops and performance itself intended to help the soldiers process their pain -- both physical and psychological.
"A number of them were involved in incidents where people lost their lives, so for them this is a very personal experience," said Brigadier Alison Creagh, head of the Australian Defence Force theatre project.
"They were (initially) very cynical, some of them get ribbed by their mates, but they are all struggling in some shape or form, either physical or psychological injuries, and they all wanted to do something that would help them in their recovery."
- 'A stigma attached' -
Hancock, a tank crewman who enlisted at the age of 18 almost a decade ago, is attached to the Soldier Recovery Centre in Darwin -- one of several such specialist facilities across Australia to treat those carrying the scars of war.
When initially approached by military brass to share his story with the Long Way Home project, Hancock -- in the process of being medically discharged with spinal injuries from an IED strike -- said his response was "no way".
"There's a stigma attached. (The Australian Defence Force) is making all the efforts to try and break down that stigma and make it more accessible for guys to step forward and ask for help, but there's a long history of that alpha male mentality," he said.
"So it's not going to just happen in a short period of time."
What ultimately convinced him to get on board with the theatre project was the chance it offered to inspire others to reach out.
"Definitely a lot of guys carry injuries because they don't want to let down their mates," he said.
"It's extremely important... to get it out there and to demonstrate to them that 'we're getting help and getting the right medical treatment that we require' and it will probably give them the ability to make that step themselves."
Writing the script was a collaborative effort for playwright Daniel Keene, who spent six weeks with the soldiers absorbing and recording their experiences. The emotions were so raw it could take five, six or seven times before they could narrate a story through.
"Everything you hear on stage is something that I've learned," said Keene. "How do you know you need help and when do you have the courage to ask for it" was a major question for returned servicemen and women, he added.
- 'Total darkness' -
Though fictionalised, and with the soldiers playing characters, the play is a collection of their personal stories about the toll of conflict once the guns fall silent.
The last of Australia's combat troops withdrew from Afghanistan in December, marking the end of the nation's longest war which claimed 40 of its soldiers.
"Because Australia's war in Afghanistan was very long and is winding down now I think the Australian public have a right to know what happened to these people," said Keene.
"There are headlines in the newspapers, official stories, but this is a chance to hear from the people themselves who went and have been through that experience," he added.
"These people are coming back into our society so I think they need to be listened to and embraced."
Hancock's character, Nick, struggles to return to pre-Afghanistan life, telling his wife fighting is "all I can do, I'm good for nothing else, I'm useless".
"When I look in the mirror do you know what I see? Nothing...because that's all I'm good for now".
Nick strikes up an unlikely friendship with Tom, played by Corporal Tim Loch, who he meets at the military psychiatrist's office.
Like Nick, Tom battles his phantoms -- shadowy, uniformed manifestations which stalk him across the stage and are invisible to those around him.
"I leave the light on at night, I'm afraid of going to sleep. I wake up soaking wet," he tells the audience.
"I don't hear the explosion, I don't hear anything -- my eardrums have burst. I'm screaming but I can't hear myself.
"There isn't any pain, there isn't anything. Just my mouth wide open, screaming. I fall into my own mouth, into total darkness."
"The Long Way Home" tours Australia, taking in major troop base towns, when it completes its Sydney run.