Sports

When the deployments stop, it’s sport helping veterans on their ‘darkest days’

Davin Bretherton remembers the moment he knew things had to change. He was overweight, he felt lost and that his life was a mess.

Key points:

  • Basketball gives Davin Bretherton "a reason to get out of bed"
  • He and fellow veteran Jeff Wright will play at this month's Invictus Games
  • They say sport is a crucial part of life after the military

About 10 years ago, the military veteran went out to his shed where he housed several of his prosthetic legs and decided he was done.

"I was about 180 to 184 kilograms and the beam broke. [It] left me on the floor crying," he said from his home in Townsville in north Queensland.

"I thought something had to change."

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Bretherton, 47, went from wanting to take his own life to looking for ways to get better and what he found was sport.

Townsville is a military town, home of the Army's Lavarack Barracks. It was also home to a national men's basketball team and although the team is gone, the love of the sport lives on.

Like many of Australia's regional centres, sport is one thread that binds the community together, but for Townsville's former military population it's also a lifeline.

"Sport is definitely … my happy drug at the moment," Bretherton said.

"I love the competition and love knowing there's so many things out there that you can stick your hand up for and have a go.

Bretherton plays wheelchair basketball. On the court he ribs fellow teammates with good-natured banter, makes a shot and celebrates with his team.

"It keeps you happy and for someone who was unhappy for such a long time and working on the PTSD, it does wonders," he said.

He grew up in Adelaide's tough northern suburbs and from an early age was keen to join the military.

Once in the Army, Bretherton joined transport before moving to infantry in Townsville and travelling overseas to Somalia with 1RAR in the early 1990s where he was on the frontline.

Nearly a decade later, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"It was pretty daunting," he said.

"There [are] a lot of things there that still play on the mind. You're trying to always process it, but I suppose at the end of the day, our presence there did some good."

'We decided to get rid of the leg'

On his return, he was involved in a training accident in Adelaide, falling out of the back of an armoured personnel carrier and severely injuring his ankle. He was 31.

"From there it just turned into a little bit of a nightmare," Bretherton said.

He endured 26 operations over eight years, suffering multiple infections and taking morphine daily.

"I know that eventually in there somewhere … the addiction came," Bretherton said.

"I was drinking heaps, smoking everything out there that I could and I thought, you know what, bang, something's got to change.

"That's when we decided to get rid of the leg."

During his 27th operation, doctors amputated his right leg below the knee.

Bretherton had hoped removing the injured leg would also remove his pain but the surgery was not the panacea he was hoping for. There were more complications, infections and run-ins with the bureaucracy.

"They [the DVA] couldn't do any house modifications because they covered my ankle and now I was an amputee. I didn't have an ankle, so I wasn't covered," he said.

"[They were] some of the darkest days that I can remember."

The Department of Veteran's Affairs said in a statement it could not comment on individual matters, but it would fund home modifications for Gold and White health card holders depending on their assessed needs.

Basketball gives Bretherton 'a reason to get out of bed'

Bretherton and his wife Elle married the year before he deployed to Somalia. She raised three children while weathering a storm few could.

"Sometimes I'd go out on a Wednesday and not come home until Sunday," Bretherton said.

Ms Bretherton did not know if he was going to come home at all.

"We've had several conversations in the past and I think it was probably me saying, 'I can't do this anymore' which instigated the change," she said.

"If you knew him 10 years ago you wouldn't recognise him physically and you wouldn't recognise him mentally either I don't think."

Ms Bretherton said a specialist recommended Bretherton play basketball and he did not look back.

"It just gives him a reason to get out of bed in the morning," she said.

"He's got more motivation, he's happier so [he's] just more pleasant to be around in general."

All of Bretherton's teammates play in a wheelchair regardless of their ability.

The games are run by not-for-profit organisation Mates4Mates as part of their social connection program.

The group's local manager said the rehabilitation service was aimed at equipping veterans for life after Defence.

"We can't be their new permanent Defence Force family, we're more of a stepping stone as they continue on with transition and moving on with their life," he said.

Jeff Wright also plays. He was paralysed in a motorcycle accident well after he left the Army.

"It's a competitive thing and the military is competitive by nature anyway," he said.

Two men in wheelchairs face each other on a basketball court.

Invictus 'gives you hope'

Later this month, both Bretherton and Wright will be representing Australia in the Invictus Games in wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby. Bretherton is also competing in sailing.

For both of them, it will be the second time they have taken part.

Bretherton said Invictus "gives you hope".

"It's not always going to be easy but all you want to do I suppose is feel a sense of belonging again and I definitely think that's what Invictus does … for me, anyhow," he said.

The games will be held in Sydney from October 20 and will bring together the military community to support "our wounded warriors".

Michael Handley from Tweed Heads in northern New South Wales will be at the games showcasing an app he has developed to provide immediate help to users.

The app is called RedSix — red is the colour for danger and six is a Defence term meaning "I've got your back".

Handley also served in Somalia and said the growing suicide rate in the Defence community prompted him to develop the app.

Two men in wheelchairs play basketball.

'Talking with someone who has worn the uniform is easier'

The app is restricted to serving and ex-Defence members and uses GPS technology to link users with others within a 200 kilometre radius.

The app allows users to check in to indicate how they are feeling: green, amber or red.

"Green means you're good, amber means you're okay and red [means] you're in a bad headspace [and] could use someone to reach out," Handley said.

That could mean contacting them via the app and asking them for coffee or if they just needed to talk.

He said in its first weeks, two people checked in with the red symbol for help and their call was answered immediately by other members.

"I just wanted to save one life and I think we're way above that," Handley said.

"Talking with someone who has worn the uniform is a lot easier than talking with someone who hasn't."

He said RedSix allowed an intervention to happen immediately, instead of veterans waiting several weeks to see a psychologist.

Handley was diagnosed with PTSD in 2005 and knows what others are going through.

"I rarely slept. I was extremely aggressive. I lost my temper at the drop of a hat," he said.

But he said that instead of focusing on the long road ahead, he concentrated on taking little steps and, like Bretherton, fitness became key.

Handley found the gym, started bodybuilding and reconnected with other veterans in the area.

"We have this little thing at home, that when I come home from work every day that my daughters greet me at the door, no matter what they're doing," he said.

"So no matter how bad my day is, I've got these two little humans who just want to be around dad. It turns my bad day into a bright day."

Two men in wheelchairs playing basketball in a large stadium.

Original Article

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