The rocky road from combat to classroom
Aaron Cornwall has a pretty good idea of what rock bottom feels like. The former combat engineer and Afghanistan war veteran thought he’d hit his lowest low when – as a young dad juggling university study with work and family commitments – he was forced to sell his furniture to put food on the table. Even now, years later, he finds it difficult to talk about.
“We eventually made it through and recuperated and bought that furniture back, but yeah, it was a punch in the guts,” says Aaron through a phone line in his office at Australian Catholic University’s (ACU) Brisbane Campus, where he works as a coordinator for Student Veteran Services. “I really thought I’d hit rock bottom. I was soon to find out there was a lot further I could fall.”
Aaron came home from Afghanistan feeling relatively healthy. After retiring from the army in 2012, he ran a small business and managed a gym while earning two diplomas. Realising he would need to pursue further study to progress his career, he found a pathway to university and enrolled in exercise and sports science at ACU – a massive step for somebody who “never had any aspirations to go into higher education”.
“I really didn’t think university was on the cards for me,” he says. “I grew up in Tasmania and I didn’t complete Year 12 – I left school to become a metal fabricator. I quickly realised it wasn’t for me so I joined the Defence Force. All through my career, it was always made clear that university wasn’t something available to me.”
Turning up on campus as a first-year student was a jolt for the former soldier. He found the relatively relaxed nature of university life was a stark contrast to the strict and regimented culture of the military.
In one of his first classes, he noticed that on every desk was a flyer promoting tryouts for Quidditch (a fictional sport played by flying wizards on broomsticks).
“It epitomised the new world I was stepping into,” Aaron says. “Here I was, with an army background, deployed overseas, very serious, and now I’m looking at tryouts for a game based off Harry Potter. It took me aback because I thought, ‘I was a soldier and now I’m a student and this is me. This is part of the university experience and this is my new brethren’.”
That was soon tempered by the realisation that he couldn’t take full advantage of the activities and experiences offered at university.
“That shattered me a fair bit because I thought, ‘Well, I can’t do all this stuff because I’m in full-time work, so I don’t have the luxury or the time’. I was studying part-time, so I’d spend a couple of hours on campus in the morning and then head straight to work and finish at night. All I really wanted to do was commit fully to my studies.”
After the birth of his son Oskar in 2017, Aaron decided to switch to full-time study. This required a delicate balancing of a shoestring budget, where every dollar was accounted for.
“I genuinely believed we’d be okay,” he says, “but looking back, I was studying full-time, with a newborn child, and we had taken this significant pay cut. That’s when it got to the point where we were selling furniture to pay for food and bills. It was a tough time.”
With the weight of work, study and family commitments mounting, the mental wounds of Aaron’s time in combat began to fester.
While deployed in Afghanistan, his job was to search for explosive devices and weapons caches in Uruzgan, a remote province that had been central in the conflict with the Taliban. In this hands-on role, Aaron had prolonged exposure to an environment that was riddled with risk.
“When I got home, I’d tell stories about Afghanistan routinely to my friends and family, and they’d stand there in awe and say, ‘Oh, man. That’s quite a situation you’re describing. I don’t know how you’re even talking about this’,” he says.
“But when you’re in such a high-risk environment for a period of time, you become quite desensitised to it. Those situations seemed quite menial to me. I definitely didn’t sit there while I was in Afghanistan and think, ‘Oh well, in seven or eight years from now, this will come back to haunt me’.”
In the months after becoming a dad, Aaron’s mental health began to decline as he noticed signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) stemming from his time in combat. He’d wake with hot and cold sweats and suffer from night terrors. Bouts of ill-temper followed, and Aaron began arguing with his wife and self-medicating with alcohol – both of which were completely out-of-character.
“I found myself getting angry at things which just shouldn’t make you angry, and it would take hours to calm down. I’d be in tears over the smallest of things, and just constantly bickering. What was meant to be a very happy time for me and my wife was becoming something unbearable.”
While Aaron knew he needed help, it took time to take the step of reaching out. He still held the stoic, ‘suck-it-up’ mentality that’s common among veterans – the mindset that others have had it harder, and if they’re not asking for help, then why should I?
One day, while in the car with his wife, Aaron finally realised he was seriously unwell.
“I broke down into an inconsolable fit of despair,” he says. “At that point, I knew something was wrong. That wasn’t normal, that wasn’t right.”
He sought immediate help from Open Arms (formerly the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service) and was offered emergency counselling. When things escalated further, he was booked into a psychiatric hospital and given urgent treatment for depression and PTSD. He deferred a semester of university, was put on anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications, and had regular appointments with psychologists and psychiatrists.
“It was finally an opportunity to talk about events, to process experiences and accept the hand that I’d been dealt.”
Turning the corner
Aaron Cornwall’s ordeal with PTSD predated ACU’s ground-breaking Student Veterans Support Program – a scheme which, since its launch in 2019, has provided ex-servicemen and women with access to a range of services and resources to help ease their transition into university.
It’s been established that strong social support and peer connection is important for veterans as they return to civilian life. These supports can be the catalyst for properly dealing with issues associated with military service.
While Aaron had a limited peer network at the time of his breakdown, there are now at least 141 student veterans enrolled in ACU’s nine campuses – up from 21 in 2019.
Not long before his stint in hospital, Aaron had a chance meeting with another student ex-serviceman at ACU. He quickly formed a connection that helped to soften his fall when his crisis escalated.
“I had made lots of friends at uni, but none were Defence,” he says. “Then one day, I get to my classroom, sit down, and a guy introduces himself to the class. I see him and I’m like, ‘I know for sure that this guy’s going to be a Defence guy’.”
They struck up a friendship that was unlike others he’d experienced at university.
“I could tell him what was happening to me, and he’d listen non-judgmentally and tell me about similar experiences. When I went into hospital, he became one of my points of contact on campus. He would tell the academic staff what was happening and would also let me know if there was anything I needed to know. That was really cool.”
Once he had received treatment and returned to university, Aaron began to thrive. He connected with other student veterans, volunteered on campus, and travelled to Timor-Leste to participate in ACU’s Future in Youth program. Back at home in Australia, he worked closely with a diverse community of refugees and migrants in the Kicking Goals Together program.
“I was actively involved with anything I could be,” Aaron says.
When the opportunity came along to be involved in ACU’s Student Veterans Service, he jumped at it.
“I pretty much just said, ‘What can I do? How can I help? I really want to contribute to this’. I knew there was going to be a demand for this type of support for student veterans, because it was a life-changer for me.”
Now a coordinator for Student Veterans Services and near the completion of a Master of Clinical Exercise Physiology at ACU, Aaron is confident there are strong, visible networks in place to guide former soldiers in their entry and transition into university, and ongoing support through their degree and beyond.
“I think ACU is uniquely placed to support student veterans in a way that hasn’t happened before, and to really lead the charge in Australia in creating veteran-friendly campuses,” Aaron says.
“We want to be the institution that is setting the standard in veteran support in higher education, and in encouraging ex-serving members to consider university as an option. So that when a former soldier says, ‘University? No, I can’t do this’, we can say to them, ‘You know what? You probably can’.”
Are you a current or former member of the Australian Defence Force who is keen to pursue university study? Come along to ACU Open Day to discuss your study options.