The army discharged me. And then my real battle began, to conquer mental health issues

Luke’s story has also appeared on news.com.au – Medically discharged army veteran overcomes mental health challenges to launch new career.

The son of Lebanese refugees who arrived in Australia in the late 1960s, Luke Rushal was born and raised in western Sydney. He was still a teenager when he enlisted in the Australian Army, immediately after completing school. “I felt an obligation and sense of responsibility to repay the country which had welcomed my parents,” he says.

As a first-generation Australian, he felt the onus to create his own legacy in the country where he was born and raised. He was deployed to Iraq with the Australian Army Training Team Iraq 9 (AATTI-9), where he served seven months from November 2007 onwards. He says the most significant thing he and his fellow soldiers did in Iraq was helping people to rebuild their lives and their homes.

“After training hard for months, I had extreme nerves on the flight to Iraq. Unfortunately, there is a layover before you actually get to the base. The moment it really hit me was when I was boarding the final flight going in to the base. Up to this point it was all civilian flights and attire. But this time we were in full battle kit. Helmet, body armour, weapon, ammunition and essentials – just in case we didn’t make it to the airstrip. The honor of wearing the uniform and representing Australia on a truly global stage was never lost on me.

“I was a Bushmaster (Protected Mobility Vehicle) operator originally, but not too long after our arrival, knowledge of my native language skills spread quickly and I was naturally ushered into an interpreting role. AATTI-9 was responsible for the mentoring of Iraqi security forces, helping them train their own soldiers. There was so much I found in common with the local recruits who had enlisted to help rehabilitate their country. Often, I ate at the mess with the Iraqi recruits, which was uncommon.

“Later in my tour I was seconded to the Overwatch Battle Group – West 4 (OBG-W4). I was in a unique position where my job was to talk to everyone and anyone. The more I could talk, the more information I could gather for the various interested parties. I spoke to villagers, market stall owners, bakers, policemen, children, just about everyone. On one patrol in particular, our sole objective was to provide medical treatment to locals who otherwise would have gone without. This was one of the most confusing times for me personally. The whole time you are alert to a possible threat, but at the same time the people you are treating deserve compassion and treatment.”

But one of the most significant incidents took place about two-thirds of the way through his rotation in Iraq. “It was my first day back from two weeks of R&R when I was fortunate enough to go to Rome. While there, I picked up a bracelet at one of the basilicas and wore it for the next fortnight. It didn’t occur to me to remove it. Clumsily, as I went through my routine for a mission, I overlooked the bracelet that was still on my wrist. That day, we (AATTI-9) were mentoring instructors of the Iraqi recruiting unit on the firing range, which was always deemed a critically vulnerable activity as there were a lot of untrained recruits equipped with live weapons and ammunition.

“Halfway through the exercise I was in discussion with the senior Iraqi officer, a major who was in charge of the range. All of a sudden, without warning, he snatched my arm and I could see he had tears welling in his eyes. I thought the worst was about to happen – after all, there had been plenty of incidents where Iraqi soldiers had turned their weapons on Allied troops – so I reached for my sidearm to protect myself. He was quick to assure me he didn’t want to hurt me, and I inconspicuously ushered the weeping major behind one of our Bushmasters. I had to ensure that the other local soldiers and officers could not see their major in tears, as it would have had irreparable consequences on his command.

“At the same time I signalled to a few of our team that I was unsure of the situation. Once we were behind the Bushmaster, the battle-hardened Iraqi major completely broke down, still holding my wrist. He said to me in Arabic that the sight of my bracelet meant that he couldn’t control his emotions. He and his family were Christians and had suffered harrowing experiences because of their faith. I removed the bracelet and gave it to him and he immediately began to weep again, explaining that insurgents had forced their way into his house a few years earlier and that anything remotely connected to Christianity had been burnt, broken and destroyed.

“Eventually, he regained his composure and just before he returned to his platoon, he hugged me and thanked me profusely. Later, after we had finished all the debriefing formalities, he shook my hand and said in Arabic that on his way to work that very morning he had been praying for the strength to continue in his faith. Later that evening, I went to the store on the base and bought a handful of Bibles. I wrapped them up in the local newspaper and put them in a plain cardboard box and gave the inconspicuous parcel to him the next day, making him promise he would not mention it to anyone.

 In his own words

“Being discharged meant I had a stark, bleak and uncertain future on my doorstep. You work, sweat, cry and most definitely bleed for an organization that is considered more as a family than just a job, and then that organization effectively tells you that you are too broken to be useful.”

“He kept his word, but the next time I saw him he was marching a large body of troops. In the loudest voice I’d ever heard from an Iraqi officer, he gave the unprecedented command to salute me. To put this in context, I was a private soldier, I had no rank and the order to salute me was definitely not protocol. So I turned and faced the Iraqi troops and saluted them in return. As a result, I received some negative counselling, but I didn’t reveal the reason why I had reciprocated.

“When we eventually flew out of Iraq and returned to Australia, I felt a real sense of uncertainty. I was unsure about almost everything. Was I going to have difficulties readjusting to life back home? Would my relationships be the same? Would my friends and family look at me in the same way? Would I look at them the same? What would work be like? Did the people we helped with their bids for asylum ever make it to Australia? Was the Iraqi major still steadfast in his faith? What lay ahead for me?

“The answer to that last question was revealed incrementally, like the slim layers of an onion. Undoubtedly, the unequivocal and most damaging was the sense of separation from the army mates with whom I’d spent so much time in Iraq. In particular, there was guilt that lingered, because of the ones that got hurt, even though there was nothing I could have done to prevent it. The person I was when I left Australia was most certainly not the person I was when I returned home.

“Allow me to explain this. For the most part, while you’re deployed there is no real down time, even when you’re off duty, because your brain is constantly in a state of heightened awareness. Don’t get me wrong – there are many activities, such as gym and gatherings, clubs to join, fun runs and other things you would normally find in everyday peacetime community living. But there’s a significant point of difference because you would never expect rockets, mortars and improvised projectiles to rain from the sky at any time while playing for your local cricket club back home.

“This really started to sink in on the flight home. But perhaps more daunting was the perception that I could no longer make any real difference in the world. The last role I had before coming home was assisting with the relocation of people who had been granted asylum. As a 22-year-old, being able to play a direct part in helping families start a new life in a safe place such as Australia was a stark reminder of the opportunity that my grandparents (and their children) had been given half a century earlier. This filled me with a sense of purpose and now I felt like it was being stripped away from me. Serving in Iraq was one of the biggest influences I’ve ever been exposed to, and it was a privilege and honour to serve with the Australian Defence Force.”

In February 2014, Luke was discharged from the army, primarily on medical grounds. He admits frankly that it was a mental health issue. He was 27 years old.

“The most difficult thing about being discharged medically is that most times, the individual does not want the separation. Putting things into perspective, I had enlisted at 18 and had spent every moment of my adult life in the army, where I was literally taught how be an adult. I learnt how to stand straight, take pride in myself, show honour to the cause, and even how to iron my uniform so as not to get yelled at by the sergeant-major. Every tiny aspect of your life is impacted by enlisting – even a simple everyday thing like how you make your bed.

“But the discharge meant I had a stark, bleak and uncertain future on my doorstep. You work, sweat, cry and most definitely bleed for an organization that is considered more as a family than just a job, and then that organization effectively tells you that you are too broken to be useful. I was actually admitted to hospital at the time when my discharge was officially decided. I had two knee operations, and I wasn’t faring too well with my mental health. I remember the feeling of absolute shame and failure, the idea that I wasn’t strong enough, just utter dejection. One of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do was to actually acknowledge that I need help with mental health recovery.

In his own words

“Based on my performance on the course I was offered a role of business process consultant at SAP in Canberra and I didn’t need to think twice about accepting it. I was immediately put to work on a project that had huge sentimental weight, the Australian Defence Force ERP project. It improved my mental health not just vastly, but exponentially. I rediscovered a real sense of purpose and I grasped the concept of challenging myself to better myself. Now, I would welcome the chance to help other people like me to realise that it is possible to get things done better and safer.”

“On my last day in the army, there was no ceremony, nor even a presentation. I sat in front of a major who thanked me for my service with a handshake and then handed me an ‘interim separation certificate’

in a manila folder. That was it. I was out.”

Now he was an ex-soldier, and his biggest battle was just beginning. Having spent time in a foreign land helping others repair their lives, he was now confronted with the inescapable and unexpected reality that he had to do the same for himself.

He recalls his state of mind in the last four years of his enlistment. “My mental state was not that good,” he admits. “I was a wreck. I had very little regard or self-worth. I developed almost a second personality, while struggling to keep afloat. I was able to hide my health issues and sometimes used the excuse that I had a hangover. My routine was to finish work, catch the bus home, walk through my front door and have a drink even before putting my bag down. I would sit in front of the TV but I couldn’t tell you what I watched, or even if the TV had been switched on. I would drink until I passed out, often setting a few different alarms to ensure that I woke up. Sounds clichéd, doesn’t it? But I had become so used to it that I convinced myself that everything was normal. Looking back on it now, all the textbook signs were there.”

After his discharge, he found work in the fashion industry, then in a warehouse. Spending time as a coffee roaster in Brisbane brought him a sense of affinity. “It was the place where I could really disappear and take comfort in what I was doing. My interest in coffee started when I was first hospitalised for mental health concerns. One of the most common symptoms of post-traumatic stress order (PTSD) is losing interest in things and activities you would usually enjoy. At the time I had zero interest in anything. One day, after rehab, I stumbled across an article about coffee. From there it morphed into something that I would really pursue.

“I was turning out about one and a quarter tonnes of coffee each week. It wasn’t just a question of loading 25 kilograms into the machine and hitting a switch and then waiting for the process to finish. I had to monitor the software all through the process to make sure everything was in order. There was a level of involvement all through, and it was all about quality. Moving 70-kilogram bags in the summer heat of Brisbane was quite something. All up, it really helped me mentally. Still to this day I enjoy sharing a coffee with anyone who will listen to me waffle on about the origin of what we are drinking, tasting notes and how it was brewed. I feel that because coffee helped me out of the ditch I was in, it may just help someone else out as well.”

In June 2017, he took a turn for the worse and had to seek help and advice from local veterans’ organisations, including Mates4Mates, Pathways and Ironside. During that soul-searching process he heard that SAP were looking for participants in a training programme in the United States, geared towards working with security agencies.

“While there were no guarantees of employment in any form, it was a glimmer of hope. I was one of two people chosen (see photo alongside) to be a part of the program. We were housed, fed and trained for free. Twenty veterans, most of whom had little or no IT experience, were thrown in the deep end trying to learn SuccessFactors and HANA modelling during our stint from September to mid-November. A mentor of mine warned the experience would be akin to ‘trying to drink from a fire hose’, and he couldn’t have been more accurate.

“I guess you could say it never rains but it pours in my life. I embraced the opportunity wholeheartedly and when I returned to Australia last year after the course, I got married in April. Based on my performance on the course I was offered a role of business process consultant at SAP in Canberra and I didn’t need to think twice about accepting it. I was immediately put to work on a project that had huge sentimental weight, the Australian Defence Force ERP project. It improved my mental health not just vastly, but exponentially. I rediscovered a real sense of purpose and I grasped the concept of challenging myself to better myself. Now, I would welcome the chance to help other people like me to realise that it is possible to get things done better and safer.

“Working at SAP has helped me feel like I am contributing once again to an organisation that I truly care about. The environment and culture here are such that everyone feels part of the same bigger picture. Personally, transitioning into not only a new organisation but also a new industry has undoubtedly been made so much easier due to the distinctive SAP culture. The opportunity offered to me in the form of a job has given me a renewed sense of purpose. Truth be told, having a job that you genuinely enjoy makes it easier to get out of bed in the morning.”

The photograph above shows Luke with his dog Yuki in Canberra,
while the image below is of Luke and his wife flanking Yuki.

This is number 48 in a series of employee stories to mark SAP’s 30 years in APJ.