As a musician, diplomat, peace monitor and storyteller, Fred Smith can provide several perspectives on the experience of Australian troops in Afghanistan.
With our 12-year engagement there nearing its end, Smith also understands the new battle that many soldiers are fighting, or are about to, in Afghanistan’s aftermath.
Smith and Griffith University are collaborating on a research project, The Difficult Return, to confront Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other acute mental health issues affecting returning veterans and their families.
Funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant and administered by Griffith University, the project will seek to connect people to support services and deliver arts-based programs for positive mental health outcomes.
“While there is more recognition of conditions like PTSD these days, more can be done,” said Professor Michael Balfour, research leader and Chair of Applied and Social Theatre at Griffith’s School of Education and Professional Studies.
“There is a real need to tackle a tendency, especially among younger returned veterans, to isolate themselves, withdraw and self-medicate.
“As part of The Difficult Return, we are designing a website for veterans and families and we are considering the best ways for them to share their stories.
“We hope to break through to them, to engage these young people through popular culture and new approaches to arts-based work. We want them to be sure that even though there may be issues ahead, they are not alone.”
Fred Smith’s contribution to The Difficult Return is a charity single, Going Home. To be launched today (November 6), it will be linked to support groups such as Mates4Mates.
The song could not have a more empathetic creator. Having joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1996 and completed stints in regions including Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, in 2009 Smith was the first Australian diplomat to be posted to Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province.
Tasked with building relationships with tribal leaders and improving cooperation and understanding between the local community and Coalition forces, Smith spent most of the ensuing 18 months stationed either at the Multinational Base at Tarin Kowt or a Forward Operating Base in the Chora Valley.
The experience demanded the best of Smith’s diplomacy skills, provided intimate insight into contrasting cultures and inspired his songwriting. In 2011, he released the album Dust of Uruzgan.
“I’ve seen how much we’ve achieved in Afghanistan in the face of real difficulty and I feel a responsibility for letting Australia know we have made a difference,” Smith said.
“But coming home is a hard adjustment for many and even harder if they’ve been traumatised in combat or lost mates.
“These days the Australian Defence Force knows PTSD is a real problem and is taking active steps to monitor and manage it. However, soldiers themselves also need help to acknowledge their own vulnerability and access the support that is available.
“Telling their stories is so important and that’s what The Difficult Return project will encourage, so everybody understands the experience and accepts there should be no shame around PTSD.”