Join military veteran and peacekeeper Richard Margesson as we learn about his experience of post-traumatic stress injury and how he recovered from it.
Richard is a former Major in the British Army’s Coldstream Guards. He embarked on a quest to find respite from the psychological injuries of war by walking the length of NZ.
As a United Nations peacekeeper, Richard spent seven months in war-ravaged Central Bosnia during the winter of 1993-1994. He and his troops were tasked to deliver life-saving humanitarian aid to trapped and starving civilians. This meant negotiating with militia leaders- as well as criminals, warlords and their followers, some of whom were under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
Their job also entailed protecting aid delivery routes, scouting for new routes and escorting UN and EU human rights monitors and war crimes investigators through volatile areas. As well, they supported the numerous NGOs, such as Save the Children, Feed the Children, Medicin Sans Frontiers and Oxfam, by providing security and protection.
Richard’s rifle company came under fire from machine guns, mortars and shells. At times, they had to return fire within strict Rules of Engagement. They also had to deal with “mission creep” as they maintained the balance between peacekeeping and peace enforcement. All this was done during a severe winter and in mountainous terrain, on poor roads, with mines and IEDs an ever present danger and in full view of the international media.
At the peak of his command, Richard led about 220 men and women, including local interpreters. He took his responsibilities seriously and knew that every decision could result in the injury or loss of life of those under his command. These responsibilities peaked when he and his men liberated and defended a besieged Muslim enclave in Maglaj.
During his tour of duty, Richard witnessed the worst that people can do to each other as well many examples of courage and selflessness. About six months after leaving Central Bosnia, Richard developed severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress injury. However, like many servicemen, he considered mental illness shameful and harmful to his career. As a result, it took him eight years to seek professional help.
In this interview Richard talks about how PTSI develops in some people and not in others. He explains how the survival “Fight, Flight, Freeze” stress response hijacks the mind of the PTSI sufferer and how to release it. He explores how lack of sleep, nightmares and flashbacks erodes the health, energy and willpower of someone in the grip of PTSI.
This brings up the topic of suicide in the veteran community, and more broadly within NZ as a whole. Research indicates that about 200,000 NZers think about taking their own lives every day. The comedian, radio presenter and suicide prevention spokesperson Mike King says that around 2,000 people attempt it and a certain amount actually die by their own hand. (NZ has one of the highest suicide and self-harm rates in the developed world.)
Richard has long since left the Army. He is now a mental health counsellor on Waiheke Island where he specialises in the treatment of stress-related patterns of depression, anxiety and anger, including recovery from trauma. A dedicated community volunteer, he serves on the committee of The Friends of McKenzie Nature Reserve and within the Waiheke Island RSA. He is actively involved in campaigns to help Waiheke Island become the world’s first predator-free and Dark Sky sanctuary urban island, as well as the campaign to prevent the spread of Kauri Dieback disease.
He is a keen proponent of eco-therapy. In this model, stressed out people heal themselves through activities that restore stressed-out land to health.
Richard founded the NZ charitable Trust, Walk Off War, to highlight and provide information about the recovery and prevention of psychological trauma, especially through connecting people with the natural world.
The idea for the Trust developed during a four month solo walk down the length of New Zealand a few years ago. Richard embarked on the hike to test the idea that nature immersion can cure modern stress-related maladies, including poor mental health. Enroute, he discovered that walking in wilderness- as our Stone Age ancestors did for millennia- gave him much-needed relief and healing from his war experiences. The beneficial effects lasted about two years and, with regular ‘top ups’, they continue to this day.
Richard says that even though the mental injury of war is painful and life-limiting, it ultimately offers a gift. Trauma can make us more human and understanding of others. It forces us to focus on what is truly important in life and to strip away unnecessary complications and possessions. He also believes that when you are surrounded by beauty, bird sound, and natural colours, you can regain a profound sense of gratitude for what nature provides. It is our ancestral home and the source from which we spring. It is where anyone can walk off their war and step toward peace.
About Walk Off War: Walk Off War is a project with charitable status headquartered on Waiheke Island here in New Zealand. Initiated by Richard Margesson, Walk Off War aims to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for those on the front lines of public service.