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Guitars become life-changing instruments for military veterans suffering from PTSD

Email Guitars become life-changing instruments for military veterans suffering from PTSD By Briana Shepherd

Posted April 27, 2019 08:58:46

A woman with a muddy face among a group of soldiers, whose faces are shaded. Photo: Jodi Ball enlisted in the Australian Army at 17 years old, her initial training taking place at Kapooka. (Supplied: Jodi Ball) Related Story: Military veterans with PTSD turn to yoga and meditation Related Story: Former soldiers advocate for scuba diving therapy External Link: The battle after the war: inside the PTSD healing process Map: Perth 6000

As a young girl growing up in Hobart during the late 1970s, Jodi Ball dreamed of one day joining the Royal Australian Navy, determined to follow in her father's footsteps.

Key points:

  • Jodi Ball was abducted and raped while she was in the Defence Force
  • Ms Ball is one of many veterans using music to help improve mental health
  • The Defence Force says it recognises the need to assist past victims

It was a dream she accomplished, but it came with a cost.

During her eight years of service — first in the Army, before a position for a female became available in the Navy — Ms Ball was both abducted and raped.

"Back when I joined, things did happen to people and it did happen to me," she said.

"Even though I didn't go overseas I still had a lot of things happen but they condition you in life in the Defence Force so you just push it out the way.

"You pretend it's not an issue and even though I can live with it, it does come back."

Ms Ball was just 17 when she joined the army in 1988, describing herself as "young and naive", living in a world "dominated by men".

Jodi Ball standing in uniform in a row with other officers whose faces are blurred. Photo: Jodi Ball was just 17 when she joined the Army in 1988. (Supplied)

'I lost all my self-worth'

On Anzac Day the following year, while stationed at Bandiana, an Army training facility in Victoria, two senior officers took her against her will and locked her in their room.

She managed to escape with the help of a friend, almost physically unscathed.

While terrified and angry, it was the way the Army dealt with the matter — insisting it be handled internally — that caused her the most distress.

"Their fines were that minimal — it was nothing, maybe $200 — that I felt so … I lost all my self worth," she said.

"Then shortly after that, I got raped by another [officer] but I didn't tell anyone about that because you feel so … well like they don't care and I didn't want to be a trouble-maker.

"It's so stupid when I look back at it now but that's what it was like, you just accepted it because that's how the culture is.

"It's very male-dominated, well at least it was back then."

Her time in the Navy was better in many ways, which she attributes to a better culture and being older and more "hardened", but she left in 1996 after just four years of service.

In the decades since, Ms Ball has struggled to come to terms with her time in the armed forces.

A mid-shot of an unidentified man sitting on a stool playing a guitar outside. Photo: The Guitars for Vets program is based on the principle of sharing the healing power of music. (Supplied)

However, she has recently found hope in a surprising place — the strings of a guitar.

"I like playing music, it's like a relaxation thing because I don't relax easily," she said.

"It gives me that time for myself where I can sit and focus on playing the guitar and enjoy just learning, you know, getting my hands and brain working together."

Guitars turn into 'life changing' instruments

Last year, Ms Ball became the first person in the country to take part in Guitars for Vets Australia, founded by David Cox in 2017, who was inspired by the long-running program of the same name in the United States.

"Guitars for Veterans Australia is a program to help veterans … particularly with PTSD," Mr Cox said.

"Our theme is where words fail, music speaks and it's based on the idea that music has a way of healing.

Jodi Ball sitting in the middle of a room on a chair playing guitar and smiling at the camera. Photo: Ms Ball said playing the guitar had become a form of relaxation. (Supplied)

"We take donated guitars from the community, clean them up and then we marry them up with a veteran and give them 10 lessons with a formal guitar instructor.

"That's enough to give them the tools to go on and play in their own time, go to a place where they can relax and refocus on the music, maybe a tool that can change their lives."

Guitars for Vets was founded in the US in 2007 and since then more than 3,000 veterans have taken part.

Mr Cox, who spent nine years in military service, said six veterans had taken part in Australia so far in what he said was "solid and sustainable" growth.

"The US program is 11 years down the track and they've also got hundreds of thousands of veterans so they've got a real, real need for it," he said.

"But the need in Australia is still very, very valid.

"It's a very simple thing and I think it's a very Australian thing — a second-hand guitar and a few lessons to a mate sits pretty well."

David Cox sitting in bushland on a large dead tree log with a guitar on his knee. Photo: David Cox founded Guitars for Vets Australia in 2017, inspired by the US program that has worked with more than 3,000 veterans. (Supplied)

No shortage of donated guitars

Mr Cox heads up the program in Victoria and NSW, with team leaders recently signing on in both Queensland and Western Australia.

It costs between $200 and $250 for the lessons and the guitars are donated.

"The response I get in donated guitars is quite amazing, they just feel like they're giving something very simply back to those who have served our country," he said.

For Ms Ball, who has an 18-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son, the program has been life-changing.

"I just feel like I'm more capable," she said.

"My self-worth has been really, really low — like terribly low — and it just makes me feel like I'm capable of achieving something.

"As hard as it was to start with — you've got to put a bit of practice in — the fact that I can actually play songs, some my kids even recognise, it's a real achievement."

Jodi Ball and Dave Cox standing in the room of a house, with Jodi holding a black guitar. Photo: Jodi Ball was the first person to take part in the Guitars for Vets Australia program. (Supplied)

Taking steps to build up mental health

In fact, the simple act of learning an instrument led Ms Ball to take further steps to improve her mental health.

Last month, she took part in Trojan's Trek, a program that takes both service and ex-service personnel into nature to work on reconstructing their psychological health and wellbeing.

It is only since then that she has been able to openly talk and even begin to understand what happened to her during her years of service.

"I've only been away in the last month and learnt about all this stuff, how you learn to think differently to how society normally thinks," she said.

"I've always questioned why I do things the way I do and I'm realising it's because of the way the military trained me, especially the Army, to just respond to orders.

"And it's my whole way of thinking, I don't have much sympathy for people, I'm in a rush all the time to get things done, I don't have an off switch, I just keep wanting to do everything all the time.

"Not everybody is that way but I know that it certainly changed me."

And despite everything she has been through, Ms Ball thinks a part of her will always regret leaving the Navy and her childhood dream behind.

A young woman in a Navy uniform smiles and shakes the hand of an officer, whose face is pixellated. Photo: Jodi Ball had always wanted to join the navy and said her decision to leave after only four years was still something she regretted despite all that she went through. (Supplied: Jodi Ball)

"While it was awful, there were also so many wonderful things that did happen — it's one of those love-hate things I suppose, it's quite bizarre," she said.

"Because I was so young and impressionable when I joined I feel like I belong, even though they were so terrible to us.

"But I'm also proud of my service and I'm proud of what the Defence Force does."

'Unacceptable behaviour not tolerated': Defence

In response to Ms Ball's abduction and rape while in the Army, which she has official paperwork to verify did occur, a Defence spokesperson told the ABC unacceptable behaviour was not tolerated in Defence — and when it did occur, action was taken.

"Defence has acknowledged past abuse and worked to develop and implement ongoing cultural reform programs and improve policies," the spokesperson said.

"The initiatives that have been introduced are particularly focused on encouraging victims of abuse and sexual misconduct to report and seek Defence support services, ensuring they feel safe to do so."

Defence said it had also recognised the need to assist those past victims.

"People who experienced serious abuse and sexual misconduct while in the Australian Defence Force are able to seek reparation and support through several avenues," the spokesperson said.

"These include: the Defence Reparation Scheme administered by the Defence Force Ombudsman; the National Redress Scheme; the Department of Veterans' Affairs; and, by making a civil claim to Defence Special Counsel."

When informed of this response, Ms Ball said while she had not known she could seek reparation, she was unsure whether it was an avenue she would pursue.

For her, no amount of money could change what she had lived through.

"I just want to forget about it really," she said.

"But I also feel it's right to speak about it because I know I'm not alone."

Topics: guitar, music, mental-health, health, defence-and-national-security, veterans, defence-forces, navy, army, perth-6000, wa, australia

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