PTSD – when memories won’t go away

Dransfield Timor

In 2000, Lt Col Martin Dransfield commanded the New Zealand Battalion responsible for securing the border between East Timor and West Timor, Indonesia.

The battalion had been involved in clashes with the pro-integration militia. Unfortunately, in one of these clashes, Private Len Manning, a New Zealand soldier, was killed.

“At the time, his death had an enormous impact on those serving in the Australian and New Zealand battalions on the border,” said Lt Col Dransfield.

Almost 20 years later, he was invited back to Timor by Australian Deacon Gary Stone, president of the Veterans Care Association Inc and his (Gary’s) brother, Michael, who is a programme director of Timor Awakening Programme.

“The main reason being that some of the ADF veterans attending the programme, had served alongside us on the border in 2000 when Len was killed, and I discovered that his death still affected them,” Lt Col Dransfield said.

He said the programme enabled him to spend time with veterans. The aim of Timor Awakening is to prevent veteran suicide and improve the wellbeing of veterans and their families.

“I discovered men and women who had served their country with great distinction and pride. Men and women who had effectively led their charges and comrades through a series of difficult and challenging circumstances. From my observation, many had witnessed an event, or series of events, which had dramatically changed their lives and, in some cases, they still carry the scars with them today,” Lt Col Dransfield said.

“Our people have witnessed events in Timor-Leste and Afghanistan, due to the nature of operations, involving acts of terror against local communities, which have affected them dramatically. I am not a psychiatrist, but my sense is that our people are most affected by their perceived inability to control or change a situation in which they believe they should, in their role as peacekeepers, have been able to control. These events include civilians being killed by acts of terror, or the loss of a mate in a contact.”


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was first called “soldier’s heart” during the American Civil War. After the first World War, the term used was “shell-shocked”, according to behavioural expert, Michael Hempseed. Mr Hempseed, who is Christchurch-based, is the author of Being A True Hero: Understanding and Preventing Suicide in Your Community, a book being used by the New Zealand Police, emergency services, GPs and counsellors. \

“The problem with PTSD is that people relive their experiences as if they have happened again and again. There is no sort of fading of the memory over time,” he said.

For a long time, he said, this disorder had been associated only with soldiers.

“In the last 50 years, we’d started to realise that things like earthquakes, natural disasters, physical and sexual abuse [and] rape . . . can trigger post-traumatic stress. Some people can even end up with PTSD from watching a traumatic event,” Mr Hempseed explained.

Mr Hempseed said that what research has found is that people with PTSD have less of a chemical called cortisol in their system. Cortisol is the hormone that helps to regulate stress response.

“[PTSD] is not a sign of weakness, it’s not a sign someone’s done something wrong. They may not have the chemical they need to help them,” he explained.

“We also know that, during sleep, most people heal the memories from the previous day. But people with PTSD often wake up many times in the night, before they can get into that healing place of sleep,” he added.

There is help

The big message that Mr Hempseed wants to put out there is that PTSD can be managed, if not treated. “It is exciting times to be alive because we are finding so many new treatments for this,” he said. y

Mr Hempseed recounted the experience of a male survivor of sexual abuse as a child, who found relief in a therapy called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR).

“I used to be the chair of [a] men’s centre. And one of the services we had there was for male survivors of sexual abuse. There was one man there, I think he was sexually abused at age five. He said that literally every single night of his entire life he has had multiple nightmares, and he had never ever gotten those images out of his head,” Mr Hempseed said.

This therapy is similar to early forms of hypnosis, in which an object is moved in front of a person’s face and gets the person’s eyes to follow the movement from side to side.

“It seems to trick the brain into thinking it is in the stage of sleep and it allows memories to be pacified,” he said.

He said there are other therapies that people who suffer from PTSD can try.

“I think the first thing to do is to really acknowledge what people are going through. Sometimes when we hear that someone has got PTSD and, say, they were sexually abused in childhood, we can be tempted to say it was so long ago, you just need to get over it,” Mr Hempseed said.

“What we need to do is to acknowledge that this person is probably trying to do his [or her] absolute best.”

He said this applies to people who might have been hurt by priests, whether the abuse was done recently or decades ago.

“Often when people in the Church hear about sexual abuse, we say things like, ‘oh, it was only a small percentage of priests, most of them aren’t like that’. And we do everything but acknowledge the pain and the trauma many people have been through. We, actually, need to acknowledge that people have been terribly hurt by the Church and not defend (the Church),” he said.


Mr Hempseed said there is a need to listen and acknowledge those suffering from the disorder.

“It’s important to remember that people with PTSD are not deliberately trying to stay in this state. They are trying to get out of it. No one wants to relive a traumatic event once, let alone hundreds of times,” he stressed.

Lt Col Dransfield also suggested listening to those with PTSD.

“I am not sure if I helped, but by listening and participating I discovered that in each of our veterans there was the need to tell their story, and to be around people who could understand their story. I believe the last thing veterans want is sympathy; they do however need and deserve empathy,” he said.

He added there is a need to provide a programme like Timor Awakening for New Zealand veterans.

“The Australian programme is well funded, and acknowledged as having a critical role in supporting ADF veterans move forward in life with a positive outlook. We also need to remember that it is not only our veterans who are affected, but their families too,” he said.

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Rowena Orejana

Reader Interactions


  1. Chris Loughnan says

    Besides Len Manning, there was another K.I.A, a Gurkha also serving under NZ command. After this very wholesome ADF/NZ mutual support, how would NZ/Nepal catching up go.

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