We start our Breaking the Stigma surrounding our veterans campaign with a one-on-one chat with Matthew Wyatt-Smith, veteran and CEO of the Australian Student Veterans Association (ASVA). His transition from the Australian Defence Force back into the local community was a turning point in many aspects of his life and through his recovery and speaking with other veterans, he witnessed first hand the obstacles that many veterans were facing.
Now based on the Gold Coast, Matthew dedicates all of his time and resources in to his role as the founder and CEO of the Australian Student Veterans Association working tirelessly to bridge the gap for veterans who want to get back into study and continue to contribute to society.
Tell us a bit about yourself:
My name is Matthew, I am 30 years old and I live on the Gold Coast. I medically separated from the ADF in October 2011, and I now serve in the leadership of the Australian Student Veterans Association, a veteran-centric and education-focused charity. I’m also very lucky to have received a Winston Churchill Fellowship, where I will travel to the US, UK, Canada and Israel in 2020 to study each country’s post-service veteran education programs.
What were the circumstances surrounding you leaving the Australian Defence Force?
I never chose to leave the Australian Defence Force myself, I was medically discharged after my 5th orthopaedic surgery which resulted in me having 3 proximal bones removed from my right wrist. This surgery represented a key change in my medical treatment from trying to rehabilitate completely to return to full duties, to a focus on ‘salvage’ surgeries, which sought to retain as much function in my hand & wrist as possible.
Through your own integration back into the local community, what were a few of the biggest challenges you faced - either through your own personal stigma or the stigma you felt from the general community/public:
Following my discharge, I faced some complex challenges transitioning back into the community. Unfortunately, I had another 5 consecutive surgeries on my right wrist/hand to further address complex bone, nerve, ligament and tendon issues – and have now had 12 ops in total. These operations have resulted in the 100% loss of movement in my right wrist, severely reduced thumb movement, permanent numbness in my thumb and index finger, and chronic pain.
When I joined the Australian Defence Force (ADF), the nature of training and service required me to, to a degree, separate from my civilian friendship group, and deep lifelong friendships were formed with my mates in uniform. However, upon discharge, I was unable to engage in most of the civilian activities that I previously enjoyed - plus my civilian mates had grown up and opportunities to socialise were limited due to my friends’ work and family commitments.
Medical treatment, rehab appointments and working through the Department of Veterans Affairs system after each new operation, were my priorities, and I slowly became more and more isolated from my army and civilian peers, and more reliant upon medications and alcohol to deal with the bone and nerve pain after each surgery.
I also found that whenever I did see people, they constantly asked about my injury rather than about me – and I felt that in people’s eyes, I was defined by an injury or a medical condition rather than a person.
Upon reflection, when I lost my ADF career, was isolated from my mates (some of which was my own doing) and was unable to do the things that I used to love before I joined up, I lost the things that I felt defined ‘me’ and my internal perceptions of my purpose and self-worth completely disappeared. Regardless of any physical challenges, this loss was the most challenging thing I have ever had to deal with.
What was the turning point in your journey of transition?
For me, after my 10th surgery and once I had my wrist fused and my hand had begun to stabilise, I was able to withdraw from a majority of the painkillers that I was on and I felt my clarity of thought returning. I recognised that given my limitations and an uncertain medical future, I had to retrain in a field that would provide an engaging career with longevity.
With the support of the Department of Veterans Affairs and my rehab team, I moved to Victoria with my best mate and enrolled in tertiary studies. This was a great move for me, and I began working towards a new future and immersed myself in studies as well as, at that point, volunteering with ASVA.
Tell us a bit about the Australian Student Veterans Association (ASVA) and the organisations main goal?
The Australian Student Veterans Association is a veteran-focused charity which was founded by a few mates on a university campus in 2017 to increase the economic opportunity of Australia’s Veterans through education opportunities and employment outcomes.
Service within the ADF can be one of the most rewarding careers imaginable, however not all military roles equip members with the qualifications required for meaningful employment in the civilian world. Our Veteran community is one of Australia’s greatest assets, though the labour market is rapidly evolving and often demands qualifications, so post-service education can be a great way to upskill and launch into a successful and equally rewarding professional post-service career.
At ASVA we empower all veterans by providing the opportunity for them to capitalise on their vast ADF training and experience to enter and thrive in Higher Education. Where possible, we also help veterans to receive accelerated degree timelines thanks to Credit for Prior Learning received from courses completed whilst in uniform. With our fantastic partner universities, ASVA has conducted the first ever research into Australian Veterans in Higher Education and we’ve used this data to develop veteran-centric support structures on campuses, ensuring our Student Veterans are able to thrive in their post-service education.
There are many more initiatives and programs coming up, too. ASVA is working on delivering textbook subsidies and short-term cost-of-living bursaries to support Student Veterans who are required to undertake periods of unpaid block placements to complete their studies. These programs are incredibly important considering that 26% of our community are studying to be nurses, paramedics, and teachers!
Watch this space!
How did you hear about LIVIN and what made you connect with the organisation as the mental health charity to represent the message of ASVA?
As a Queenslander, I’ve known about LIVIN for years! I was lucky enough to connect with LIVIN thanks to a good mate, and former ARA Psychology Corps Major, who delivers mental health training to the community and shares LIVIN’s message that ‘it aint week to speak’!
I, like many others, have lost close friends to mental health injuries. Given that the veteran cohort face a range of complex mental health challenges, often uniquely related to the rigours of service and transition, it is crucial that we stand up, lead, and continue to break the stigma around mental health injuries. LIVIN is the perfect organisation to work with to share this powerful message!
What piece of advice would you give to a veteran or an individual who may be struggling with their own mental health?
Others are way more qualified than me to give advice, but if I have learned anything through my injuries and transition process it is simply that vulnerability is strength and you need to keep moving forward. The moment I was able to talk to my mates and family and began sharing what was going on inside, I no longer felt alone, and it was like my world began to open up.
Too often, I worried about people thinking that I was weak or broken, and when I was able to begin talking, I realised that wasn’t the case. I had a world of support available to me, but I had to reach out.
Take the mask off, it was the best thing that I have ever done.
If you are struggling and feel you need to speak up, check out our Get Help page for organisations that can help. If you would like more information about the work of ASVA, click here to check out their website.