A former soldier says he and fellow Australian Defence Force Academy recruits were so traumatised by their extreme training regime they began hallucinating and some became suicidal.
James Geercke joined the academy in 2008 as an 18-year-old. On Monday, he told the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide that recruits were routinely pushed to their limits.
He recounted witnessing “some of the youngest, brightest, most driven, intelligent, promising people in the country” take their own lives.
“We started seeing a lot of self-harm,” Geercke told the inquiry on its first day of public hearings in Wagga Wagga in regional New South Wales.
“It was very, very common. And you start to see everyone’s mental health slowly deteriorate … every year there was a suicide, at least one.”
Geercke said instructors had warned recruits a study in the 1990s found every trainee suffered from mild PTSD symptoms at the end of their three-month basic training in Wagga Wagga.
“They explained to us that that happens because when they put us through this intense training it can have similar effects on the brain as taking psychedelic substances such as LSD,” he said.
“When you keep people away with food and sleep deprivation for several days, things happen in your brains, you see and hear things that aren’t there.”
The inquiry was told recruits were actively encouraged not to report their psychological problems because they could risk being discharged. Instead, they were encouraged to look after each other.
Geercke said that culture of silence extended to a serious and ultimately catastrophic spinal injury he suffered during training in 2010. He said he had been carrying a 50kg backpack and was suffering “indescribable pain”.
He said his decision to push through the pain for another four days, before he collapsed, left him with seven crushed and disfigured discs and a level of acute pain that had never passed.
“It was very difficult to breathe [and] when my lungs pushed into my spine I had a stabbing pain,” Geercke said. “That’s when I basically had become very delusional.”
The royal commission chair, Nick Kaldas, said Wagga Wagga was home to the army’s first recruit training battalion at Kapooka and the Royal Australian Air Force No 1 recruit training unit.
“We know that some of the risk factors that contribute to death by suicide in the military community may have their origins during recruitment and training,” he said on Monday.
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email [email protected] or [email protected]. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org