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Former solider says faith-based rehab program eased decades of anguish

Immersion recovery: Timor veteran Murray Sutherland and his wife Susan, from Townsville.

A FORMER soldier who served in East Timor 20 years ago has told how a recent return to that country on a spirituality-inspired rehabilitation program has helped ease decades of suffering from trauma.

“I feel like a weight has been lifted, and I can now look at things in a different way,” Townsville veteran Murray Sutherland said. 

“A lot of the anger I’ve had, both for myself and towards others, has been released.”

In 1999, Mr Sutherland was amongst the first Australian troops dispatched to East Timor’s capital Dili, after an independence vote that descended into violence as Indonesian militia went on a rampage.  

He returned to East Timor with his wife Susan and 36 other veterans and spouses last month to participate in the 20th anniversary of the arrival of the Australian-led INTERFET mission.

The Sutherlands also joined Timor Awakening, a rehabilitation program run by the Veterans Care Association, that has completed 11 Timor visits and enabled almost 300 veterans to complete a holistic health and well-being program underpinned by spirituality.

Many of the veterans and their families have experienced immense suffering since the Timor campaign, including post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression.

“The VCA team has given me the tools to forgive myself and others,” Mr Sutherland said. 

His wife Susan told other Timor Awakening participants how Murray left home in September 1999 and “had been wandering in the wilderness ever since”.

“For 20 years he’s been lost and now I have found him again,” she said, thanking the VCA team led by former Marist College Ashgrove graduate and army officer Michael Stone and his father Deacon Gary Stone (pictured) for the healing that her husband had received. 

Deacon Stone said other spouses reported similar transformational changes in their partners after Timor Awakening. 

“The 20th-year anniversary celebrations had been the first formal opportunity that the Timorese government and people have come together to thank our military and police for their peacemaking activity,” he said.  

“Approximately 35,000 Australian troops served in East Timor in the first 10 years of its liberation. 

“Among these troops there was an extraordinarily high experience of trauma as they came to witness and contemplate the unspeakable crimes that had been perpetrated upon the Timorese people; indeed, the incidence of post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression has been twice that reported from troops that deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.”  

Deacon Stone said he had witnessed troops who felt let down by how successive Australian governments had dealt with Timor Leste, the lack of justice for perpetrators of crimes in East Timor, and the extent of poverty that resulted from destruction of the young nation’s infrastructure. 

“Central to the healing of our veterans has been the learning and practice of forgiveness,” he said. 

“Whilst VCA promotes and educates in holistic healing of body, mind, soul, relationships and promotes future life purpose, the veterans themselves indicate on every program that a realisation of the need for forgiveness and the actual practice of it has been central to their healing, and a feature absent in other programs that they had participated in, in Australia.  

“After a range of reflections, veterans on the program are invited to participate at Balibo (a border town infamous for the Indonesian military killing of five Australian newsmen in 1975) in a ritual of forgiveness by symbolically leaving behind black rocks that symbolise all the things in their lives that have caused them grief and by taking up white rocks symbolising all the things that they could be grateful for.  

“After a service including Holy Communion, they then proceed down to the border with Indonesia for an opportunity to reconcile with Indonesian troops and police.” 

For veteran Michael Williams this moment proved deeply consoling. He was shot at, and returned fire with an Indonesian soldier on the border in 1999. 

Mr Williams returned to the spot where the shooting took place, and where he thought he was going to die. 

Deacon Stone prayed for him. Then, reluctant at first, but encouraged by his partner, Mr Williams went to the border crossing point and shook hands with Indonesian soldiers.  

 “I never thought I would be able to do that, to forgive the Indonesians for all they had done,  but I’ve done it now and a great burden has been lifted from me,” he said.

Two decades on, VCA veterans are also helping in East Timor’s reconstruction.

The latest milestone is the completion and opening of an English-language institute in the village of Same in central Timor for the education and training of Timorese veterans and their children to enable them to get employment in the tourism, and oil and gas industries.  

Australian and Timorese veterans have assisted in building the facility, a service that is both practical and therapeutic. 

Mr Stone who has directed the program, has explained to veterans the importance of a life of service by quoting Mother Teresa: “Giving is good for your health”.  

More details about VCA and its East Timor program are available at: www.timorawakening.com 

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