Nicole Cunningham shared her experiences of serving two tours of Afghanistan as a combat medical technician in the British Army with the crowd at Strathmerton’s Anzac Day ceremony.
Ms Cunningham’s candid story was a timely reminder of the perils of modern warfare and the mental hurdles so many servicemen and women have to overcome after witnessing unspeakable horrors on the battlefield.
Growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, a city ravaged by its own bloodied battles, Ms Cunningham said she had always dreamed of joining the British Army from a young age.
She did so in 2006 and was deployed to Sangin, in an extremely dangerous part of Afghanistan, as a medical technician.
She described Afghanistan as ‘‘hell on Earth’’, saying foot patrols in the desert always carried the fear of being blown up by a bomb at any minute.
Some of the things she saw corrupted her spirit and happiness, such as treating wounded friends or holding a child no more than five years old who had just been wounded by a bomb which exploded and killed his brother standing alongside him.
Ms Cunningham said what made the effects of the Afghanistan War even more long-lasting was the fact it was a war she and many of her comrades could not understand.
She constantly asked herself what she was doing there.
After returning home, Ms Cunningham’s life became chaotic. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and found the purpose of her life drifting and her relationships beginning to suffer.
Before military life, Ms Cunningham said she was a bright, positive and outgoing person, but the war had restructured her personality.
Her PTSD brought on bouts of depression and anxiety and she struggled to be in large crowds.
After a period of wondering what she would do with her life after being discharged from the British Army, Ms Cunningham decided to become a casual medical aid teacher and found great joy in that task.
She eventually moved to Australia as she found opportunities and help limited in her native Northern Ireland.
‘‘Life is easier here. It is more stress-free and enjoyable,’’ Ms Cunningham said.
‘‘This is only possible because your country values democracy and freedom. Not all counties can say the same.’’
She spent a few years living in Numurkah but now lives in Bundalong and was recently made an Australian citizen.
While she was never part of the Australian Army, Ms Cunningham said she had a great appreciation for what so many of our soldiers had sacrificed.
Her insight into the intricacies of war was fascinating and her personal story brutally honest and confronting.
She understands what our Anzacs went through more than most and her final message was pertinent.
‘‘Freedom costs. It should never be taken for granted,’’ she said.