WHEN Cpl David Cantley returned home after serving for the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan, he found himself fighting his own battle.
“It was becoming hard just to drive to work and walk out of the car,” he says.
“I had so many panic attacks, depression and anxiety… it was a horrible time.”
In March Cpl Cantley will be one of 13 soldiers to appear on stage alongside professional actors to talk about the physical and psychological traumas they endured while on operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor in a new play at The Playhouse, “The Long Way Home”.
The play, to be co-produced by the Sydney Theatre Company and the Australian Defence Force, is written by Melbourne playwright Daniel Keene but draws heavily on the testimonies of the servicemen and women, their families and professionals tasked with mending broken bodies and minds.
Its aim is to use theatre as a way to rehabilitate soldiers wounded or suffering from psychological trauma, and help lift the lid on military life.
Brig. Alison Creagh, who is based in Canberra and volunteered to help co-produce the play, says “The Long Way Home” was inspired by the success of a similar play, “The Two Worlds of Charlie F”, which premiered in London in 2012 starring British soldiers.
“The idea was put to our soldiers and these guys have bravely put their hands up and really taken on a significant project to aid their recovery,” she says.
“Within weeks I’ve seen soldiers who were in a very black place smiling and laughing again, and their confidence just growing.
“They’ve found sharing their experiences with one another very powerful. They realise from the experience, they’re not the only people that have struggled and that has helped them in their recovery journey. Some of them have a long way to go, but they feel more confident about where they’re heading.”
Brig. Creagh says many of the soldiers in the play have harrowing injuries; one sergeant was badly injured when a rocket exploded in her Baghdad sleeping quarters while others have seen their mates “blown up” and are unable to admit to their loved ones the extent of their psychological distress.
“It will be a confronting experience for both the audience and the soldiers, but the reason why it’s achievable for these soldiers to do this, is because it has been written in a way that is artful in designing the characters so no one character is a complete reflection of one individual story,” Brig. Creagh says.
“We’re not asking them to play themselves. They’re playing a character that has elements of themselves, so it’s a piece of fiction that has their experiences woven throughout.”
Although the play is still in rehearsals, Cpl Cantley says he’s “starting to feel proud” of himself again.
“I’ve been able to stand up, learn lines, and I’m actually enjoying it… you just switch off, the panic fades – and that’s a huge huge step for me,” he says.
“What I want the audience to try and get out of it is if there’s anyone out there with any injuries or mental illnesses, just put your hand up and speak to someone. Things aren’t that bad. Don’t do it on your own, you’ve got so many people out there to talk to.”
“The Long Way Home”, The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, March 19-22.