News & Media

Firefighter walks off the war within

By: Leith Hillard

Category: People

  10.01 AM 16 April, 2015

Location: General

Views: 4414

Setting off from Mildura on April 16 in his army boots, career firefighter Nathan Shanahan is putting one foot in front of the other to walk almost 400 kilometres and reach Adelaide by Anzac Day.

His 25 kilogram army pack isn’t the only burden he’s carrying.

Nathan is ‘walking off the war within’ to actively combat his diagnosed major depressive disorder and anxiety. This ex-soldier is also raising funds for Soldier On, a charity that supports injured soldiers and those suffering post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and other mental disorders.

“Anxiety and depression can accumulate and something like 72 per cent of men go untreated,” says Nathan. “They go on in silence. That was me. I was silent for a long time but it was going to consume me.”

Beyondblue statistics are that, on average, one in eight men will have depression and one in five will experience anxiety at some time in their lives.

Last Anzac Day, Nathan revealed to his wife Kosha that he was “really struggling.

“Every so often things just didn’t seem right. I’d lost confidence and motivation but I put it down to being tired or maybe not eating right. I was feeling a bit vague and not really enjoying new challenges but I kept ignoring it until the feelings came more often.

“I did the beyondblue checklist of the signs and symptoms then saw a doctor, and I’ve been seeing a counsellor for the past year now.”

This is a man who has never shied away from a challenge.

Nathan joined the Australian Army in 2005 at age 28 and trained as a tank soldier before joining the 1st Armoured Regiment in Darwin. The following year he was deployed to the Solomons in an infantry role, conducting patrols to locate outstanding weapons and people suspected of rebel activity.

“It was a heart-and-minds role,” says Nathan, “getting onside with locals to get information but also showing them we were there to help.

“Some patrols would get the adrenaline pumping. We might use night vision in a building where we believed people or weapons were hidden.

“I was enjoying the role. It’s similar to CFA in some ways: it’s outdoors, hands-on and physical, working in a close-knit crew of like-minded people. You’re maintaining  fitness with knockabout guys with a sporting background.”

Nathan returned to Darwin after a four-month deployment and applied to join the SAS within the year; something he saw as a “dream role”. He was successful on his second attempt but soon realised it wasn’t the right lifestyle for a family man, married and with a daughter, Lila.

Nathan can carefully lay out the path of his life, but even a year into counselling he can’t put his finger on the source of his depression and anxiety.

“It can be triggered by a particular incident but that doesn’t seem to be the case with me,” he says. “It’s been there for a long time. The arrows point to the army, but things I’ve seen as a firefighter are probably worse.

“It is what it is.”

Donate here to Nathan's campaign.

Nathan left the army in 2010 to become a Northern Territory firefighter before moving with his family – now including son Ari, three years old – to Victoria and CFA to be closer to their extended clan.

That clan now also includes the other members of Mildura Fire Brigade, both career and volunteer, who are right behind Nathan as he embarks on his ‘walking off the war within’ journey. Some will walk alongside him on their days off while others will join his wife Kosha in the support team comprising two 4WDs with camping and cooking gear.

“Everyone at Mildura CFA has been fantastic.,” says Nathan. “I wondered how to tell them about my struggles and what are they going to think, but people aren’t judging and you can still function.

“I told my boss to have a second set of eyes and then I told C shift, family members and close friends. I’m ready to tell anyone. I’ve felt OK at work. It’s the thing that’s kept me together the most. Your training takes over.”

In fact, the understanding that has flowed since Nathan started talking about his depression and anxiety has toppled some of his own limiting beliefs about masculinity.

“I’d thought it was a weakness for men to show chinks in their armour,” he admits. “I’d been the captain of a football side and we’d won premierships. If you’re injured when you’re training, you just put up with it.

“I was looked on as a leader and people trusted my judgement, so how can I tell guys who looked up to me for leadership about my depression and anxiety, but it sometimes reduced me to tears.

“We’re scared of what we don’t understand. You’re afraid that it’s shameful and no one wants to talk about it but people have been more than supportive. I’ve had a lot of people since then who’ve said they have depression or someone else in their family has it. I’ve known some of these people my whole life and didn’t even know – that’s the sad part.”

But back to those 400 kilometres…

Nathan plans to break the walk down into a series of smaller achievable challenges.

“That will make it physically and mentally easier to get through,” he says. “I’ll start each day between six and seven am and walk 10 kilometres before taking 20 minutes off to stretch and have a bite to eat. The plan is to walk 40 kilometres a day, finishing by five to six pm.

“I have mixed emotions about getting underway. I’ve been training for six months but I do get anxious and intimidated. Given where I’ve come from and what it’s for, it will be a mental battle.

“There’s a dual purpose.

“My wife and I came up with the Soldier On fundraising idea to take the focus off the negativity around depression. As well as fundraising for them, this is a healing process for me. I want to spread the word and help others.

“Fitness is a very useful tool and Soldier On really encourages active rehabilitation. It’s geared to the younger generation of soldiers with mental and physical injuries and has plans to branch out to the emergency services.

“The anxiety and depression will by no means be over for me when the walk’s done, but I’m building up self-belief that I can still set large goals and achieve them.

“I’m anxious and excited to see what the end will bring.”

Photos courtesy of Lewis Loder Photography

Last Updated: 17 April 2015