In 2009, Corporal Tim Loch was deployed in Afghanistan where his work as a combat engineer involved detecting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that threatened the movement of Australian troops.
While a searching a road one day, their “means were defeated” as he puts it.
“I was crew commander that day. I was standing up in the little manhole in the top of the vehicle and we were crumped (blown up). ‘Crumped’ – because that’s what it sounds like,” he explains.
“My right heel was crushed, my right femur was snapped. The machine gun in front was hewn off its bolts and hit me in the face. I can remember being conscious for a few minutes and seeing my leg at a 45 degree angle and I can remember claret (blood) all over my jacket and then I passed out.”
As he floated in and out of consciousness he was taken to hospitals in Tarin Kowt and Khandahar (he thinks) and then flown to Germany where his leg was properly set. He was then brought back to Brisbane where, he says, “they put a Meccano set in my right foot – and that felt like someone had parked a truck on it.”
His weight dropped from around 90kg to 57kg and it took him two years to learn to walk without a walking stick and run again and to bulk up after his . “I still can’t pack march, there are still a few things I can’t do, but then you look at other guys and think, ‘hey, I’m still alive and I’ve still got a leg so I guess I’m lucky,’” he says.
His tone is neutral as he talks matter-of-factly about his experience, neither dramatising nor underplaying it (though he has a vivid turn of phrase), emphasising several times that everyone who has been injured in active service has “a sob story”.
Corporal Loch is one of 13 servicemen and women performing alongside four professional actors in The Long Way Home, a new play co-produced by Sydney Theatre Company and the Australian Defence Force (ADF), which opens in Sydney next month and then tours nationally.
The project was initiated by General David Hurley, Chief of the Defence Force, with the aim of aiding the recovery of the participants and giving audiences an insight into what our armed forces have to cope with both during active service and when they return. Hurley was inspired by a play he saw in London in 2012 called The Two Worlds of Charlie F, directed by British director Stephen Rayne, in which wounded British soldiers told their stories on stage. Rayne is directing the Australian production.
The Long Way Home was written by Melbourne playwright Daniel Keene after a five-week workshop during which 15 soldiers – all of whom suffered physical or psychological injury in Afghanistan, Iraq or East Timor – talked openly and honestly about their experiences.
“It’s been an extraordinary experience emotionally and artistically. ‘Intense’ is the word,” says Keene.
The soldiers opened up to him and the other theatre-makers “with various degrees of difficulty”, says Keene. “At the very beginning people didn’t know what to expect from us and we didn’t know what to expect from them so it was tentative, but ultimately everyone was very open and very honest and very direct and courageous, actually, in what they were telling us.”
Neither Rayne nor Keene wanted to produce a piece of verbatim documentary theatre, but a drama.
“The whole notion of creating something rather than (the soldiers) just repeating their experience was very important for us,” says Keene. “We wanted them to create a piece of work. They all play characters so they have a mask if you like. They re not playing themselves, they are playing someone else so in a way that’s a freedom for them.
“It’s a complex piece of work. There are five different narratives that run through the play, it’s not just one story. Everything that any character says is based on something we’ve been told, so all the stories, all the little narratives that unfold are drawn from the core material we had from the ADF members.”
Loch describes it as “a fiction based on reality. I play a character called Tom. I won’t give too much away. He’s returned from overseas and he’s having a difficult time adjusting back to life in Australia. The hoops he has to jump through are some of the things I’ve had to do and things that some of the other participants have had to deal with.”
Though the play moves between Australia and Afghanistan, Keene says that the essential focus is on the difficult transition between being deployed in a dangerous war zone, where your life depends daily on the decisions you make, and then returning to life in Australia.
“That’s a huge problem for returning soldiers,” says Keene. “That’s why it’s called The Long Way Home because it’s about the emotional and spiritual cost of that return.”
Like most of the participating soldiers, Loch knew little about theatre at the start of the project. The only show he has seen was The Pirates of Penzance with Jon English, which he was taken to see as “a wee tacker” in Rockhampton.
He has only been inside a theatre once since then – and that was to search a Townsville venue for bombs during a training exercise.
“I can tell you where the best spots are to hide things in a theatre but how to project your voice from the stage is a new territory,” he says.
Loch admits that when he was first approached about participating in The Long Way Home (“because I’ve got a little bit of a name for being a character and because I was working in Afghanistan”), he was hesitant.
“It’s nothing against the theatre, it’s just going from being a combat engineer, which is something considered very alpha male, a beef-eating type, to something in the theatre, which is not what a strong silent type does (is a big step),” says Loch who grew up “on a cattle station with the cowboy mentality of suffer in silence.”
However, once his Regiment Sergeant Major explained the project to him in depth, he decided to do it not just to explain to audiences what soldiers go through but also in the hope that it may help soldiers suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) admit they have a problem and seek help.
“I see a lot of guys in the military who are having a hard time and they just don’t want to communicate or they feel uncomfortable about it,” he says. “They can’t stick up their hand and say, ‘I have a mental injury, I need to do something about it.’
“I personally don’t have PTSD but some of the other cast members do so I guess it’s like, ‘hey, we have this, but we are able to stand up in front of several people hopefully at a time and we are able to be open about it and there is no reason why you can’t either,’ and essentially if that’s what we can achieve that will be great. If we can get together and make an entertaining show that’s great too – but if we get the first priority done I’m happy regardless.”
Though Loch may not have PTSD he admits to having experienced some difficult times during his recovery, particularly while in hospital in Brisbane.
“I spent God knows how many months in that place. That’s when I started to get angry and that irrational it wasn’t fun,” he says. “I lost a relationship out of it. I was dumped on Facebook. That was good fun. But everyone’s got a sob story.”
Loch admits he also struggled with guilt that he was back here while his mates were still in Afghanistan – though he takes some comfort from the fact that he was the worst injured when they were crumped, praising their section commander who realised such an attack was likely and took precautions to minimise injuries in the event of it happening.
Loch is still a member of the ADF (which he joined in 2004) and currently teaches at the School of Military Engineering – at his own request.
“When I was injured in 2009, I had to learn to walk again and I wasn’t able to run and I asked my regiment, ‘can you send me to the School of Engineering’ and they said, ‘why?’” he explains. “I said, ‘well, even if I have a walking stick I can still give a PowerPoint presentation. At least I’ve got something to do’ – and I found that was a very big part of my individual recovery process.
“However, the recovery process needs to be individually structured. What works for one guy may be the worst thing you can do for another guy and that’s where it gets very tricky. If you talk to other guys about their recovery process you rarely get the same story twice.”
For all the challenges of being deployed in Afghanistan, Loch admits he’d “go back in a heartbeat. I’ll be honest, as hot as it is, as much as it sucks, as much as everything annoys you, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.
“The main thing is everything feels real. You are getting stressed about how close you are to a rocket range, or (that) we may not have enough ammunition or we are starting to run low on radio battery and if we have no communication we are buggered. That’s what you get stressed out about. But then you come back to Australia and everyone is stressed out about them playing the same song on radio all the time or ‘I don’t like this television show’. It’s like, really? Get some real problems.”
Loch believes that it will be hard to get returned servicemen and women suffering from PTSD, most of whom would rarely, if ever, go to the theatre, to come to see The Long Way Home.
“When guys are going through depression, PTSD and alcoholism you tend to go into a shell, you lock yourself in a room and you don’t want to come out,” he says. “Everyone’s got their own favourite little hiding spots. When I was going through a tough time, mine was the backyard with an outdoor table setting and I’d sit there with a bottle of rum and a packet of cigarettes and I’d go through the whole lot. I’d run out, I’d drive to the shop, get some more and come back. That went for a couple of weeks until someone clipped me around the ears and told me to wake up to myself.
“But what I’m hoping is a lot of the family members will come and look at the show whether it be soldier’s mothers, grandmothers, fathers, grandfathers, uncles and aunties. That’s one thing. But what we’re really hoping is a lot of the people who have these symptoms, hopefully their partners will see the advertisements and say, ‘hey, maybe we should go along to this and have a look.’”
After opening in Sydney, The Long Way Home tours to Darwin, Brisbane, Wollongong, Townsville, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. (Full details of the tour are available on the Sydney Theatre Company website).
“The main garrison cities if you like are Darwin and Townsville,” says Loch. “And even Wollongong, there are a lot of navy guys down there. But Townsville and Darwin are definitely going to be the biggest shows simply because that’s where a lot of us come from. That’s why I am most looking forward to the Townsville show because that’s where my old regiment was. Hopefully, I don’t embarrass them too much.”
The Long Way Home plays at Sydney Theatre, February 7 – 15, and then tours nationally. Bookings and tour information: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777