Last week on Trenchline we had an article from Scott Samson, the Officer Commanding Trainee Rehabilitation Wing (TRW), where he talked about the psychological aspect of being injured and the long process of rehabilitation. This week we hear from Ebony O’Brien who bravely explains her journey from joining the Army, being injured at Kapooka, being transferred to TRW, and then having her career path altered as a result of her injury.
It wasn’t the injury that ruined the chances of having the career I had dreamt of, it was the fallout from the choice to push on with injuries for just another couple of weeks. I didn’t think those couple of weeks would cost me nearly a year of rehab, my job, and my long-term health; not to mention my sanity at some points. But here we are, granted some of that time was due to my own clumsy state by nature, but I’ll get to that later.
July 2016, I enlisted as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operator and was in the first Pre-Conditioning Program at Kapooka. I joined a month after surgery (unrelated to injuries to come) and was advised that participating in this program would give me time to build strength gradually and get me into recruit training sooner. Looking back, I guess that sheer determination despite health risks was always a trait of mine. I don’t regret doing the program, I met some great people and had many experiences that other recruits weren’t exposed to, including activities undertaken with the Adventure Training Wing such as caving.
After marching into Alpha Company, my body started to break. The first fracture was in my foot. I believe it happened within the first few weeks. My awkwardness came across to my firing positions and I believe it happened when I was sitting on the side of my foot during my kneeling unsupported position. Let’s quickly move past the fact that I may have fractured my foot by sitting on it. I eat a normal number of cheeseburgers thank you very much.
At first it felt like a bad bruise, so of course I didn’t mention it. Then it got worse. Pulling my boots on and off became a struggle. I figured during the day when I was wearing my boots, my foot was supported: in my mind, if I could walk then why would I stop? I’d worked too hard to get where I was. There was no way I was going to spend more time at Kapooka than absolutely necessary.
Eventually I got caught out and I could barely walk without my boots on. “No, I’m fine, there’s nothing wrong at all” I said as the medic pressed her thumb onto the fracture while my eyes welled with tears from the pain.
The regimental aid post (RAP) doctor sent me to hospital and the scans showed not one fracture, but three. Turns out I had two fractures in my foot and one in my shin bone. After a day or two of rest, I had managed to convince the doctor to let me go back to my platoon with minimal restrictions. I have no idea how this happened. It wasn’t that the medical staff were incompetent or that they wanted to get rid of me. I’m pretty sure the speech and performance I gave to the doctor should have won me an Oscar. The RAP doctor called my Sergeant (SGT) the day after my escape to get me in to see her. She explained her shock that she was talking to me about career halting injuries just two days after my release from hospital. She showed me my scans. I showed her my blind senseless determination and off I went back to Alpha (this time with not so light restrictions).
Everything was cruising along nicely with my 23 year old broken body. Then as old ladies sometimes do, I started getting pain in my pelvis. But I was way too close to marching out and final field phase was just around the corner.
Everything was going as good as it could for me. My staff knew my situation and supported me as much as practically possible. They still didn’t take it easy on me but I was determined to be a part of the team and pull my own weight. My battle buddy had the same mentality and her knee was cooked. We tried convincing our section leader to let us carry our own packs, however failing that we settled for carrying one pack between the both of us and insisted we carry the two F89’s for our section where ever possible.
I was absolutely determined to push through and wouldn’t let anything stop me. Then one night after being given stand down, my leg stopped working. I had gone to jump out of my pit to send a message to the guys out of sight. When I tried to stand up my leg gave way and became a dead weight. I couldn’t put any pressure on it, I could barely move it. I sat there in the dirt trying to figure out my next move until my battle buddy came over to ask what I was doing. I told her I couldn’t move my leg. I had my battle buddy help me into my pit to rest it and see how it was in the morning. For piquet that night one of the guys half carried me to the gun pit and then another girl helped me hobble back to my pit afterwards. In the morning I could take a slight amount of pressure, so again I made the decision to push on regardless of my obvious injuries. If I stopped and evaluated my injuries maybe things would have been different now. But where’s the fun in that?
I spent the next couple of days hobbling around trying to maintain a fit and healthy facade. Then came the culminating challenge. I was realistic about it as I knew I wouldn’t complete the challenge, but was resolute in my decision to step off with my section. I remember the RAP doctor strongly suggesting that I step off, then step out immediately. So naturally I decided I needed to pack march at least a kilometre. I got about 2.5 kms before my leg couldn’t take any more. I was hurting. I was so disappointed in myself, which is silly because I was aware of three fractures and now obviously something wrong with my leg. Of course I wasn’t going to be able to continue.
I was taken straight to the RAP and got sent for more scans. This time it was going to be a struggle to get out of the hospital. All up I had the two fractures in my foot, one in each shin, then the final nail in the coffin was a fracture in my pelvis. What a wreck.
Even though I was broken and unable to walk properly, all I could focus on is that I wanted to be back with my platoon. It was the last week and I wanted to be there with my mates. This time however, the doctors weren’t letting me out as quickly.
I was getting encouraging messages from my roommates and some half-hearted offers to break me out of hospital overnight. A few days later they let me back out with the longest chit ever. One of the many restrictions I had read ‘No standing at all’. One of the Corporals (CPLs) thought this was great and decided to march me around with a milk crate and then would stare at me every time we stopped until I sat on the milk crate. It gave everyone quite a laugh.
I didn’t get to march out on the parade ground with the platoon. Watching from the bleachers was very disappointing. It almost felt like I hadn’t finished. But I am glad that I got to finish Kapooka with my mates. It just wouldn’t have been the same marching out with another platoon.
About 20 minutes before I got on the bus to go to Puckapunyal to commence initial employment training (IET), I was told I was going to Trainee Rehabilitation Wing (TRW) in Holsworthy. Once we got to Holsworthy I helped the engineers unpack their things from the bus and saw their accommodation. Then I got taken up to TRW where I saw my accommodation; I was pretty jealous of the engineers at this point.
The staff at TRW were very supportive and my CPL told me that sometimes I would mentally struggle, things may get pretty gloomy and it can be a long rehabilitation for some.
I got what she meant pretty quickly. A lot of the trainees there weren’t going to be able to go back to their original chosen job and others were going through the rehab process only to get discharged at the end due to the severity of their injuries. I met some young guys who had always wanted to be infantry, their fathers and grandfathers were infantry, it was in their blood and that’s all they had ever wanted. Now they are getting told that’s never going to happen. It was a challenge for a lot of people and the morale was generally low.
It wasn’t through the fault of the staff or the Army, it was just what happens when injuries are involved. I had never felt so useless and purposeless than in my first few months at TRW. I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing anything. My course had started without me, and my rehab had no end in sight. With only one doctor for about 50 trainees it took months for me be consulted by the doctor and establish a plan. From there it was the same routine every day. Sleep, parade at 6am, participate in non-impact cardio, sit around at TRW, more rehab and then knock off.
Some Wednesdays I would go to the Sydney Dogs and Cats Home to walk dogs and sit with the cats. This was the highlight of my week and little things like this would put smiles on our faces. The Officer Commanding (OC) was such a compassionate and caring person by nature and he and his staff did everything they could to try to boost morale and encourage trainees to take a more active role in their rehabilitation. However, what lingered for me was the idea of feeling stuck. In the moment you feel like you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and the idea of completing rehab seems unattainable. I had no idea when I would be able to get out of there and commence IET and be posted to a unit. I didn’t even know if I still had a job to go to. I was away from my family and friends. It felt like a prison.
I tried to make myself useful and worked in the office every day doing whatever I could. I was in charge of making sure everyone got their cab charges for their appointments and doing all the paperwork associated with it. Keeping my mind busy and actually doing something useful is what got me through.
After months and months of rehab and determination, I was getting healthier and stronger. I was about to do my first stages of fitness testing to finally get to IETs when I did something only I could do. I slipped in the shower and cracked three of my ribs. I couldn’t even sit up on my own. I hadn’t worked that hard for over a year to not even try the Basic Fitness Assessment (BFA) and start getting out of rehab. So of course I did the push ups, sit ups and even attempted the run. The run was the most painful and I could barely breathe. The SGT Physical Training Instructor (PTI) stopped me and questioned me about my ribs and needless to say my testing didn’t count that day. I spent another four months in rehab.
The day I left I felt like my life and career were now finally on track. I went to the holding platoon at my IETs and realised immediately it wasn’t going to be that simple. The next course for my chosen job was still nine months away and I was not guaranteed a position on the upcoming course. After waiting in holding for the course panel to be released, I found out I wasn’t on it. I felt like I had not only wasted nearly a year in rehab, but I had wasted a further seven to eight months waiting for a course and a job that wasn’t going to happen for me. I felt like I had wasted my time. In that moment I regretted ever enlisting. This wasn’t what I signed up for and now I had no choice of what job I would be trained for.
I was told I would get three options, and if I failed to accept any offers I would then be discharged.
My first offer was a combat role. I’d just spent over 12 months in rehab, there was no way my body would handle a combat Physical Employment Standards – Assessment (PES-A). I got my second offer when I was in hospital for my knee giving out during a BFA run. Turns out my knee had been injured this whole time, it was just that no one picked up on it throughout all the fractures. I got offered Clerk. I’ll be honest, I told myself before that moment that if they offered me Clerk then I would discharge. I didn’t join the Army to sit at a desk. But as I was sitting in the hospital bed I thought about it more. I wanted to contribute something to the Army. I wanted to be a part of the organisation and if my body wasn’t going to let me do my chosen role, perhaps this job may suit me better.
I signed the letter of offer and went off to Bandiana to complete IET. It wasn’t the job I wanted, but I wanted to be the best so I threw myself into it head first and gave it my all. Now I’m posted to Heaquarters 6th Brigade and I am surrounded by an incredible team and I put in as much as I can to contribute to the bigger picture. I’m learning to set new goals as they come, and accept the setbacks in my stride. Regardless of the wonderful opportunities I’m now exposed to I’ll always remember how useless and lost I felt when I was injured and how I felt like I had accomplished nothing. My family and friends couldn’t give me the support I needed from so far away and at times I felt very alone.
I believe I have a tough mentality, but it was definitely a challenge. It was hard watching my peers complete all their training without a hitch, whereas mine seemed like setback after setback. Yes, I accept responsibility that it was my own fault for not stopping when the injuries first occurred and I pushed harder because I didn’t want to seem weak. If there is one thing that I learnt from all of this is that it’s ok to stop because of injury. It doesn’t mean I’m weak, it means I’m giving myself a chance to heal and be stronger.
I met many trainees who had it much worse than I did and some are still in training working towards marching out. I admire those with the mental strength to continue on with their rehab and make a career for themselves when it feels like the odds are always against you. The fact is, we are not all built the same. Some people get injured doing things that come easy to others.
My hope is that one day, soldiers will stop being perceived as weak based on their physical injuries. It’s ok to be injured as long as you’re making steps towards recovery and making yourself even stronger than before. It’s ok to stop yourself before you end up losing the career you chose and causing damage that cannot be undone. I wish I knew this back when my injuries began and sought out help without fear of being seen as being weak.
About the author: Ebony O’Brien is a Combat Clerk currently posted to Headquarters 6th Brigade.