When Warrnambool's Christopher Rantall returned from his military deployment to Timor Leste, he knew he was home but his mind was still back on the front line.
It was October 2000 when he stepped back on Australian soil. Walking through Darwin airport, the flashing Christmas lights that adorned the roof and walls triggered memories of cross fire battles that raged during the Timor Leste (formerly East Timor) crisis.
Mr Rantall joined the Australian Defence Force (ADF) when he was 22.
He left behind his wife Berni and their four daughters to serve 15 months in Queensland and Timor Leste.
Mr Rantall said he blocked out his family back home and didn't let his mind wander from the conflict before him.
The now 54-year-old said he came close to killing people on three different occasions.
Upon his return, Mr Rantall had reoccurring nightmares involving floods of bright red blood and he became a self-described "workaholic", often working for 20 hours per day and sleeping for just four.
Mr Rantall worked as a commercial cleaner, a security guard, industrial coater and doing inventory at the Warrnambool Reserve Barracks.
He said he suffered intrusive dark thoughts and hatred towards everyone from police members to civilians.
He knew he needed help - not only for himself but for the well-being of his beloved wife and daughters.
So Mr Rantall sought help.
One doctor told him to go home and listen to music.
Two army psychologists took turns barking questions at him.
"It was too much," he said.
"They had no idea how to handle people with mental illness. They said that because I hadn't suffered one single traumatic event, there was nothing wrong."
Mr Rantall said the lack of mental health support and knowledge "did a lot of damage to me".
"I didn't need to have experienced one single incident (to be diagnosed with PTSD) because there was a multitude of minor incidents," he said.
There used to be an unwritten rule among veterans, Mr Rantall said, that the Department of Veterans' Affairs would "muck you around for about six years before you received proper help".
"I was blessed that it only took me three (years)," he said.
In about 2007 Mr Rantall was formally diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Not long after his army Regimental Sergeant Major approached him during a shift and said to the words of: "This is your last night, it's time to go."
That was the end of Mr Rantall's defence career and nearly his life.
Filled with suicidal ideation, he began stock piling sleeping tablets, ready to end his own life.
"I'd had enough and so I took all the ones that were in the open packet and went to get the rest of the stash to finish the job and it had disappeared," he said.
"I think it was an act of God."
Later that year, Mr Rantall was baptised.
He said his relationship with God, as well as the "never-ending" support from his wife and children, saw him still standing today.
"My level of PTSD is still the same level and I still haven't had a good night's sleep this century but I am dealing with it and I'm still here," Mr Rantall said.
"I am so grateful for my family, particularly Berni who deserves a medal. She is a really good woman that one."
Mr Rantall's story comes as a Royal Commission into Veteran Suicides was this week confirmed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
After a long-running campaign by former soldiers and pressure from all sides of parliament, the PM released draft terms of reference for consultation on Monday, with a tentative starting time of July.
Mr Rantall said the Australian government had "a good system that looks after veterans but there's so much room for improvement".
"The royal commission is overdue," he said.
"We need to get onto the problem straight away because we have younger veterans that still have so much life left to live."
Mr Rantall's wife Berni said she hoped the royal commission would provide peace for future families of veterans.
"The wives and children (of veterans or serving members) are often the forgotten ones," she said.
"We had no support the whole time."
Mrs Rantall and their four daughters - Bianca, Tiahna, Raya and Shkara - remained in Warrnambool during Mr Rantall's deployment.
She said there was no ADF support for them back home and she would have been totally isolated if not for the help of her family and friends.
Mr Rantall's military wage, which was deposited into his wife's account, was always late and Mrs Rantall was forced to attend a tribunal on more than one occasion to avoid losing her house.
Their second daughter Tiahna, then aged nine, had behavioural issues after listening to shots being fired on the other end of a satellite phone call to her dad, who then disappeared without saying goodbye.
"That really traumatised her and when Chris found out, it traumatised him too," Mrs Rantall said.
When Mr Rantall returned home, it didn't get easier.
He was repeatedly hospitalised at a residential treatment centre and the family was in constant fear of losing their beloved father and husband.
"We couldn't speak to Chris (when he was hospitalised) and the kids would say 'where's Dad? where's Dad?' and I just couldn't answer," Mrs Rantall said.
At home, Mrs Rantall said her partner suffered mood swings that affected the whole family.
"Sometimes it was like walking on egg shells," she said.
But Mrs Rantall loved her husband and could never forget the person he was before he joined the military.
"I knew it wasn't his fault and it wasn't the man I'd married," she said.
"He'd seen a lot, we will never know how much, and I knew that and I was and am proud of him."
Mr Rantall now finds solace in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, scuba diving and RSL Active which was founded in Warrnambool by Adam Kent.
Mr Kent spent a six-month stint in Iraq in 2003 sorting and delivering cargo in the early days of the war.
He left the ADF in 2006 for family reasons and started Warrnambool RSL Active in 2019 after noticing a gap in connectivity for returned servicemen and women in the region.
Since its inception, veterans and their families have enjoyed weekly fitness classes at Warrnambool Snap Fitness, yoga, and retreats which have welcomed veterans from all over Victoria to Warrnambool and Port Fairy.
Mr Kent said it was less about the activities and more about the constant social interaction and peer support.
"There's 24/7 comradery in the military and you lose that when you get out," he said.
"Through RSL Active you have a bit of that comradery back with people who have been through similar experiences."
Mr Kent said RSL Active also provided a welcoming space for the partners and children of veterans.
"It is really important that they are involved in this too because there is intergenerational trauma that goes back to the Vietnam War," he said.
"Sons and daughters grow up to have their own issues and we're very aware of that. Unfortunately we can never eliminate the difficult transition period when re-entering the community but we're trying our best to mitigate negative experiences."
Mr Kent said the main aim was ensuring veterans weren't isolated.
"When you're in the military you're always in a team environment. You're never alone," he said.
"When you're discharged and you move to towns like Warrnambool, Port Fairy and Terang, you feel like you're on your own, that no one understands and there's no real support out there.
"What we're trying to create here is a group of peers who have been through what you're going through. We're focusing on what we can control on the front end. We know there's ebbs and flows with mental health but we're trying to make those low points not as low."
Mr Kent said too often veterans stayed at home on their own, drinking alcohol and ending up in hospital or taking their own lives.
"That really has a ripple effect on families and the whole community," he said.
"What we are attempting to do is support each other and empower people to live a better life."
Mr Kent said he hoped Australia could work together to contribute to the royal commission.
"I'd like the royal commission to focus not just on people who have taken their own lives but also those who might have attempted and have since recovered," he said.
"We know they still suffer suicide ideations and we need to delve into that."
Mr Kent said supporting veterans in the future needed to be a whole community approach.
"We have local veterans who have been gone for 10 years as young men and women and when they return in their late 20s and early 30s, they struggle to mingle with school friends," he said.
"As a collective we've put our hands up, we've approached south-west councils and local members and organisations and we've said 'we're a bunch of veterans who have this unique skill set and training and yet we don't know how to transition into the community. Let's work together and see how we can do that better'.
"I hope we can see that occur for veterans all across Australia."
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