Stories of Resilience: Luke Millwood Shares His Journey From Army Major to Veteran Rehabilitation

Real-life stories of veterans navigating their rehabilitation journey, focusing on the role of mental health, physical health and community (friends and family) in their recovery.

In the wake of Anzac day, we want to take the time to reflect on the resilience of our veterans, whose battles continue long after leaving active service. The transition back to civilian life is fraught with challenges, with many veterans struggling to navigate mental and physical challenges, while building strong support networks to aid them on their healing journey. 

Here at Hope in Health, we are lucky enough to work with so many inspiring people through our veteran rehabilitation programs. To commemorate the recent passing of Anzac Day, we will be sharing the personal narrative of a former Major with the Australian Army, Luke Millwood. Luke has not only completed our veteran rehabilitation program himself, but is now part of the Hope in Health team, helping other ex military personnel successfully rehabilitate. Through his personal stories, we highlight the transformative power of resilience, care and community support in veteran recovery journeys.

Q: How long did you serve and where?

A: “I was a Major in the Australian Army. I was deployed to East Timor in a senior international engagement role for 5 years. I was as deep in a job as anybody can get. I went and learnt two languages to be able to operate over there and I really threw myself into the role.

It was very challenging from both a work and environmental perspective. There’s a lot of poverty, a lot of social issues. There were some pretty confronting moments over there. But in all, the first three years were amazing. The last two years were almost torturous.”

 

Q: What did you find most challenging about your experiences in East Timor?

A: “Typically, military personnel on ‘hardship assignments’, which is what I was on, spend a few years on the ground before returning home. They are very draining assignments, tiring, with a lot of additional pressures and stressors.

Part way through my third year I wanted to come home. I was pretty tired. I’d given it everything I could. Defence wasn’t able to fill the position, so they asked me to stay one more year. I did that. That’s when things got very tough, and I started to develop some pretty poor coping mechanisms.

Unfortunately, my deteriorating mental health coincided with the outbreak of Covid, which compounded things. My wife and young son were over in Brazil visiting family when the world shut down. They were trapped halfway across the world so we were separated for several months while I struggled to keep things together.”

 

Q: Could you discuss the mental, physical and social challenges that impacted you?

A: “Because of Covid and all these new restrictions, I was pretty isolated in Timor. I was tired and burnt out and my family was stuck in South America, so there wasn’t much to do but work and drink. It wasn’t long before I was basically non-functioning.

I didn’t drink during the day. I wasn’t nudging vodkas while at work, but outside of that, absolutely. I drank all the time and in a big way. I went from being very driven and one of the most motivated individuals in the organisation, to essentially unable to get off the lounge. 

The resulting hangovers just made my exhaustion and mental health worse. I stopped exercising and adopted a horrific diet. The balance I had in life just went out the window.”

Q: How difficult was the transition back to civilian life after your experiences?

A: At long last, my wife and son had managed to get back to Timor from Brazil in 2022, navigating all kinds of loopholes and border closures. As soon as she arrived, my wife knew she had to get me out of Timor, so she pulled the pin for us. We came back to Australia, and I immediately went on medical leave. I was an anxious mess, not socialising, losing all semblance of who I was – what made up my character.”

Q: What steps did you take towards rehabilitation and mental recovery?

A: “I began seeing a psychiatrist and a doctor to try to work through things, but I still wasn’t taking care of myself. It got to the day before I was supposed to return to work, and I just messaged them and said that I couldn’t do it. I had nothing left in me to give. I was burnt out massively and I was unhealthy.

After almost two decades of service, I began discharging from the military. I reached out to the Department of Veterans Affairs about getting support for his illnesses and injuries.

I needed my right shoulder completely replaced and his left knee reconstructed. Emotionally, I was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, a major depressive disorder and severe anxiety disorder.” 

Q: What roadblocks did you encounter in your journey to rehabilitation?

A: “Help is hard to find. Having my illnesses and injuries recognised by DVA took almost a year, leaving me in a state of limbo. I also underestimated how hard it is to leave military life. I thought it would be straightforward, like walking through a door and closing it behind me. I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

When you enter the Defence Force you need to be broken down and rebuilt, amending the character traits that you have to suit the military. You’ve got a new family and you become dependent on the military for housing, medical and income – all the requirements to live a fairly stable life. Having that ripped away in the blink of an eye was devastating. 

To put it into perspective, my training period – my onboarding in the Defence Force – was about four years. My transition out, the off-ramp, was essentially two-and-a-half days. I was left with all the struggles, injuries and the pain and the only thing I felt that I could do to deal with it was drink.”

 

Q: What was the turning point for you?

A: “I hit rock bottom on the day of my son’s birthday party. I got massively drunk for no real reason. I didn’t do anything ridiculous. It wasn’t like a scene from a movie or anything, but it was embarrassing, and it really embarrassed and upset my wife.

My wife and son left and went to a hotel for a week and when she came back she gave me an ultimatum – rehab or the marriage was over. That’s when I knew I needed to get my life together.”

 

Q: How did you come to be involved with Hope in Health’s Veteran rehabilitation program?

A: “When I contacted the DVA, I was given only two options to choose from for approved treatment facilities – one was a hardcore detox, which I didn’t need and the other was a military bootcamp-style program that would have been triggering and ultimately unhelpful.

My psychiatrist suggested a rehabilitation facility called Hope in Health, so I applied with DVA to be approved for an inpatient stay. It was mid-December by that point and DVA said they were closing for Christmas and that I’d have to come back in January. It was a case of: ‘If you want help, we’ll see you next month.’ That attitude sat very uncomfortably with me. 

I’m lucky that I’ve never been suicidal. I’ve been reckless and careless to the point of almost death. But I hadn’t considered harming myself. But so many do…Part of the indoctrination into the Defence Force is learning to ‘put yourself last always’, so imagine someone with a hard exterior, who has been taught to put himself last, gets to breaking point and asks for help, but it’s refused because an office is closed. Sometimes you only get one chance to help someone.

Thankfully, my doctors eventually navigated the DVA’s bureaucratic challenges and I entered Hope in Health’s program at the start of last year.

Q: In what ways has the program helped you address your mental, physical and social needs?

A: “The Hope in Health program taught me that you’ve got to put the work in to stay well. I find even now that the points where I start slipping back into bad behaviours, it’s those times that I find that I’m not watering that garden, if you know what I mean.

Finding a sense of purpose was crucial in my recovery. Purpose is at the foundation of what you need, whatever that looks like, whether that is. It could be a new hobby or building an empire. I think you need something that’s intrinsically linked to who you are and what makes you up as a character. For me it was helping other veterans. 

You have to build healthy behaviours. You need to sleep, you need to eat well, you need to limit those bad things in your life and put steps in place, routine in place, to have a structure to work off. Because if you’re out of balance, if you don’t have a structure, it’s going to be very, very difficult to maintain any level of consistency and happiness.”

Holistic Programs for Veterans Navigating the Road to Rehabilitation

As we reflect on Luke’s story, we remember the countless other veterans on similar paths, each in need of support and understanding. For those still navigating their healing journeys, Hope in Health builds customised rehabilitation programs in coordination with each of our veteran clients, designed for your individual needs and experiences. 

With a holistic focus which encapsulates mental health, physical recovery and community support, we can assist with trauma recovery and substance addiction rehabilitation, while helping you develop healthier and more sustainable lifestyles. 

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