FOR 15 years former Navy medic Kerri Howie struggled with major clinical depression.
Now the 48–year-old Kedron veteran has found a life-changing mission – thanks to the Veterans’ Care Association, headed by Catholic Deacon Gary Stone.
A year ago Ms Howie travelled to Timor Leste as a member of Timor Awakening, a unique VCA rehabilitation program designed for veterans and with spirituality at its core.
“My life changed and after all those years feeling isolated and alone I came out of the dark – I felt part of a community,” she said.
Since her 11-day Timor visit, and with ongoing treatment, Ms Howie has been brimming with new-found energy and purpose.
She has just returned from trekking across the rugged heart of Timor Leste, from north to south, visiting isolated villages where she used her medic skills as part of a team screening for symptoms of rheumatic heart disease and carried out health education.
Rheumatic fever is rampant in rural East Timor. Bouts of the debilitating condition causes crippling heart failure in young villagers leaving them breathless and lethargic, and without medical treatment can lead to a slow death.
The trek helped raise $20,000 for the East Timor Hearts Fund – to provide emergency heart surgery in Australia. It was led by Earth Trails Expeditions cofounder, Mick Stuth, a former artillery medic and Timor Leste veteran.
“It was a perfect opportunity to combine a physical challenge with helping people,” Ms Howie said.
“I felt I’m here for something bigger than myself.”
Her trans-Timor trek, with local guides and other Australian health professionals, took her to the summit of Timor Leste’s highest mountain, Mt Ramelau.
Adorned with a statue of the Virgin Mary at its 2986 metre peak, Mt Ramelau is a pilgrimage site of deep religious and cultural significance, with sweeping views across Timor Leste.
“It is absolutely spectacular country, with so much potential,” Ms Howie said.
Ms Howie’s Timor visit also took her to Adare, Atauro Island offshore from the capital Dili where she participated in delivering critical, basic health education.
She said if Timorese people hope to improve their lives that they get greater access to health care and education and develop first aid skills.
She said, “she felt extremely honoured, inspired and grateful to have witnessed other Australians like ETX trek leader, Mick Stuth, “giving back” to Timor Leste’s village poor.”
Ms Howie looks back at the last year since joining the Timor Awakening program as her own “life healing”.
“It is helping me find my soul,” she said.
“It’s all about being in a community of like-minded people, meeting people who inspire you like Gary (Deacon Gary Stone), and learning.
“I still enjoy my time alone, but that’s okay because now I am busy planning stuff that is fulfilling.”
“I’m nearly 50 and it’s finally time to get on with it.”
Ms Howie, who grew up in Bowen, served in the Australian navy for 15 years, much of the time based at HMAS Penguin in Sydney.
Her work included the care of navy divers.
While serving at sea as a petty officer, Ms Howie said she was subjected to sexual harassment.
Even after lodging official complaints, her grievances were not taken seriously.
“I had had a great career, but I left the Navy quite depressed,” she said.
“Since leaving, the next 15 years of my life were ruled by depression. I had difficulty transitioning, I isolated myself.”
Ms Howie said she suffered addiction to ice, and in the depths of depression attempted suicide.
After her naval discharge she received the best conventional medical care including months of hospitalisation, electroconvulsive therapy, the latest medications, psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy.
However Ms Howie said “her soul remained empty and her life was only one of day to day survival”.
“Only being well enough to function, to work. There was no happiness, joy or purpose, no zest for life. I worked in a job I came to detest to pay bills to live a miserable, isolated life,” she said.
“There had to be a better way.”
She attributes her remarkable life turnaround to Timor Awakening, and is full of praise for Deacon Stone who heads the Veterans Care Association program, and his son Michael Stone, a former platoon commander in 2RAR, who conceived, developed and is the director of TA program.
Timor Awakening is a 12-month immersion experience for ex-services personnel supported by doctors, psychologists and chaplains – all veterans themselves.
“If it wasn’t for Timor Awakening I’d still be living that miserable, empty, lonely life,” she said.
“Having a goal and focussing on it is so important – and being accountable.”
Ms Howie said experiencing the hospitality of Timorese culture was memorable.
“Although it was only for a short time, living as part of a community who have such strong faith, love and care for their fellow human beings, despite having very little themselves, provided me with many profound moments,” she said.
Being invited to Mass in a small village, in a predominantly Catholic Timor Leste was another memorable experience.
“Sunday is a day of rest in Timor. They must work very hard just to feed their families. Starting the day at Mass with these beautiful people filled me with so much loving, joyous energy. I felt alive again,” she said.
“They sang, there is a vibe … it is beautiful. This is their faith and I understand how important it is to have that in your community,” she said.
“You need to have that faith and sense of community to grow personally.
“That’s given me great insight back into my own spirituality. I’m finding my soul, I’m inspired, I have purpose. I feel alive and look forward to the many opportunities ahead.”
The Veterans Care Association relies on donor support for its ongoing operation.
To assist veterans in need, tax deductible donations can be made by visiting www.veteranscare.com.au.