Always looking over your shoulder…part 2

The first six weeks of your time at ADFA is spent doing an insanely fun variety of new things (there are videos and info provided by ADFA now available here). Things are a little different now to when I was there but it basically runs as orientation week, single service training (i.e. in your respective military groupings of Army, Navy or Air Force) for two weeks, then common military training for two weeks and then a week of nearly non-stop marching getting ready for CDF Parade day – the day you are presented to the Chief of the Defence Force and where you kind of move from an officer candidate to a real trainee. Marching in that parade is very important for every first year – it’s when the Corps of Officer Cadets accept you into the fold.

Over the six weeks, it doesn’t necessarily always feel like fun – you’re often being yelled at and things are all very serious but how cool is it that over a six week period, you are having free fitness classes, free food, free lessons in weaponry (specifically 9mm hand guns and semi-automatic machine guns), those in the Navy get to go to the Navy base on the coast and learn fire fighting on ships, damage control (mostly standing in a replica of a section of a ship with holes where at different times water floods out – it’s a big exercise in getting flooded).

We also learned NBCD – nuclear, biological and chemical defence where you get to quickly put on chemical defence suits and masks, you get to experience tear gas and purging the gas masks out that you’ve put on after entering the gas filled room without it….one word, snotty! We also got a day trip on a Destroyer from Sydney down to Jervis Bay which was great, especially when they did a firing display – in less time than it takes to say the word “beep” as fast as you possibly can, the CIWS (pronounced sea whiz but it stands for Close In Weapons System or also called the Phalanx) fires off about 1000 bullets – ok, maybe we can say it fater than it fires but it’s the last line of defence for a ship and we were told that if it needs to fire you’re in trouble. For a crazy video of how fast it fires, have a look here – this video was shot on a US Navy Amphibious Boat and the firing demonstration here is about the length we were shown when we were onboard one of our ships.

As an active person who cannot get enough of life and new things, the first six weeks should’ve been soooooo cool but I was sick. While I was down at the Navy base, I’d gone to “sick parade” – where you see the doctor instead of going to roll call. They’d run more blood tests, stool samples and other delightful tests just as had been done at ADFA but before the results were back, it had been decided that my condition was psycho-somatic: all in my head because my Mum had terminal cancer of the pancreas and so I was displaying the same sort of symptoms.

I was devastated. Two years of working to join the Navy and I was ruining everything because I was screwed up in the head. I cried like I’d never cried before in my life. I was booked in to see a psych at the nearest military hospital (45mins away from our base) and until I was there I just lay in bed bawling until there was nothing left in me. I couldn’t speak, I just stared. I wanted to tell my friends who were all so worried about me but how do you begin to tell them you’re problems are only mental and because you’re a nut case you’re making yourself physically sick.

I was taken up to the hospital the next day and the psych started interviewing me. After an hour of questioning he offered me a cup of tea. When he came back he told me that he’d before he helped me with a coping strategy for when the time came for my Mum’s death, he needed to make a phone call and he’d like me to listen and take note of what he said. I was emotionally and physically drained (although the tea was soothing) so I didn’t anticipate what was about to happen.

The psych rang the doctor at the Navy base I was at – he was far from polite but didn’t raise his voice nor swear or anything inappropriate. He was just blunt and very clear in his choice of words. The ones that meant the most and now 16 years on pretty much to the day, still ring clear in my mind “…There is nothing wrong with this girl mentally or emotionally. If anything we need more strong minded and strong willed people like her in our Navy. It is clear her problems are physical and you need to do your job to find out why she is so sick…”

As good as it felt to be cleared from ruining my career because I’d caved mentally, I really didn’t want to see the doctor after the bollocking she just got. By the time I’d been transported back to the base, some test results were in and they had found I had giardia – a stomach bug. It was likely that I’d picked it up on the flight stopover in Bangkok (I remember drinking from a water fountain in the airport) and it had gone untreated for several weeks so it’d become a mature parasite and required a heavy hit of medicine.

Having a diagnosis was awesome. Now I had direction and a reasonably clear indication of when I could get on with life. I returned to ADFA and, still under medical restrictions, got on with it. After our Navy training time, we moved into common military training – obstacle courses, rope climbing, fitness assessments, drill work, weapons handling and field training. WAHOO! My appetite for food was coming back but I was still wiped out – I had lost 20% of my body weight afterall! I had to get medical clearance before I was allowed to go “out bush” for field training, so on the morning we were due to leave I went into see the medics.

They took my blood pressure, then swapped machines then took it again. There was no indication there was anything wrong, so I wasn’t alarmed when they said “OK, lay back and we’ll get the doc in to see you.” A few minutes later there was a doctor and a woman who I knew was the matron of the hospital – a rather prickly/nasty Army Warrant Officer who already thought I was faking being sick in the first week. I didn’t like it that she was there but she took my blood pressure again, got a second machine, then a third. All three showed my BP as 60/40 (these days my BP is nearly a consistent exact 120/70).

For the first time I saw compassion in her eyes as she asked if I felt ok. I said yes and asked if I could go bush because I was really looking forward to being painted up in camouflage paint and clothes and run around the field. The stoney eyes came back and she said “Don’t be ridiculous, you’re staying here”. She smartly turned and walked out telling the medic to find me a bed. The medic was sympathetic handing me tissues and explaining that my blood pressure wasn’t quite normal so I’d have to stay for the day so they could monitor it. The Doctor was also great – he ordered more tests and said he’d come back once I was settled to talk and try see if he could figure out what was going on.

It was 2 weeks before CDF parade, 2 weeks before I would see my family again and 2 weeks before my 20th birthday but here I was back in hospital, terrified and alone.

Part 3 coming to a computer screen near you soon!

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