Before dawn, Matt Syron pulls on a black jacket adorned with four medals.
They honour his years of service to his country, which included more than nine months on the frontlines of the War in Afghanistan a decade ago.
He’s heading to an ANZAC Day Service on the New South Wales Central Coast, accompanied by some of his fellow ex-servicemen and friends.
It’s a bittersweet day.
For the Biripi, Worimi and Darkinjung man, it stirs up memories of mateship and pride at what he accomplished in the service, and it gives a chance to rekindle the sense of camaraderie he formed with other diggers across the country.
But there’s another side to that coin.
The day is also a reminder of what he, and many other former soldiers, have had to deal with post-service.
“I've been through things that nobody else can understand,” he told The Point.
“We were told to forget about what we've been through and that was a bit of a shock to the system to be honest, because I thought they had our back.”
Matt stands proudly throughout the service with the sounds of The Last Post filling the air. There is a reflective look on his face, and a number of thoughts running through his head.
He’s remembering those who never came home, and the journeys of other Black Diggers past and present, who had to face monumental challenges both during and post service.
He also reflects on some of his comrades, who have been lost after returning home.
“A lot of friends of mine have gone the wrong way, and some of them aren’t here with us anymore.” he said.
In the wake of an announcement that there will be a Royal Commission into veteran suicides, Matt is sharing his story now in the hope it will help others to speak up and seek levels of support he, and other soldiers, have not yet received.
There's been more veterans lost to suicide than those who died on duty since Australian Defence Force personnel were first deployed to Afghanistan two decades ago.
“There's too much of a stigma, the fact that people have to keep it to themselves and be the strong upholding soldier that is unwavering and can't be hurt … that's not true,” he said.
“We need to talk. We just need to talk.”
With all guns blazing
Matt has been out of the service for five years now. He has a family that includes four young boys who love his medals and listening to his stories, and it was his own family’s ties with the army that originally inspired him to join in the first place.
“A long time ago my pop showed me a photo of his dad, Daniel Syron. He was in the Light Horse in World War One and ever since then … it's been something inside of me that just always wanted to join the army and the older I got, the more I sort of, I couldn't get away from it,” he said.
“A cousin of mine - He's looked into our family history with our service and we've got like a 40 plus and still counting serving members from the Boer War to now, and that's a sense of pride for me like I get shivers up my spine and goosebumps every time I think about it.”
His two eldest boys, Chase and Vallen, were just toddlers when Matt joined the fight in 2009. At that time the younger man had a very different outlook on things ahead of his deployment to Afghanistan.
He tells of tears flowing when saying goodbye to the family, then excitement as he got on the plane with his comrades.
But once they landed, the reality of the situation soon hit.
“It felt like a dream to be honest with you … it become very real, an eye-opening experience, nothing can prepare you,” he said.
“You can train as much as you want but once you hit the ground over there that's when it starts to really sink in.”
Matt served in Uruzgan province as part of Mentoring Task Force Two in 2010 and 2011 training the Afghan National Army. His role included protecting and assisting when trouble came, which he said happened regularly.
“We weren't really expecting so much, so much time in the fight … that's basically what happened pretty much once we got there for quite a while,” he said.
“You cannot prepare for it.”
Going to war was an extremely confronting experience for Matt but returning home would prove just as challenging.
From Soldier to Civilian
He said a couple hundred discharge papers were handed in from his battalion alone and there was a “heartbreaking” mass exodus at one time.
“I was just at a bit of a loss to be honest with you, I didn't want to go back to my old life,” he said.
“It was just heartbreaking for me because I planned on staying in for the rest of my life .. I loved my job as I just lost the passion.”
Despite losing that passion, he found the immediate transition from soldier to civilian particularly tough.
He turned to alcohol and drugs as a way of dealing with how he felt.
“I couldn't control my temper and I drunk myself into a stupor and slept for days and it didn't affect my work, but it affected my friendships and it affected my relationships,” he said.
“I subsequently got divorced from it and I can’t apologise to my family enough for how I used to be. It wasn't me, it’s still a bit shameful for me to be honest with you.
“I wasn't a physical person I was more of a yelling and screaming and drinking, but it was just not what my boys should have seen as a father figure.”
'Just a number'
Alongside his personal issues, Matt says things weren’t made any easier by the attitudes within the bureaucracy when he reached out for support.
In fact, he says the Department of Veterans Affairs made him feel worse.
“They at first told me that they didn't have any service record of me. So that was another heartbreaking experience,” he said.
“Everything’s just so long-winded like, you've got to get the paperwork, obviously it has to be done but the amount that they drop on you and some of it's just confusing if you don't work things properly, you know, they can misconstrue things and they really make it daunting.”
Speaking to The Point, The Minister for Veterans Affairs Darren Chester stressed that there’s almost twelve billion dollars per year provided by the Department to help our veterans, which includes 230 million for mental health support.
But he conceded they could do better with their processes.
“There’s also no question that there are some issues and some ways to improve it and some problems with the system that has been identified as being too complex.” Minister Chester said.
Minister Chester's description aligns with Matt's experience when seeking support. Despite the Royal Commission announcement, Matt is sceptical of what it will achieve.
When he first approached the Department for help in 2013, Matt says he could only access six dollars a fortnight under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. He chose to dive straight back in to work instead.
From that point, the physical and mental toll led him to again reach out in the hope he could get some assistance with physiotherapy on his back and neck.
He says it was a painstaking process involving loads of paperwork, red tape and being "passed around" to other people.
Then last year, Matt says that he was offered approximately three-hundred dollars a fortnight, a figure he says was tested against the income of his partner.
“It just shouldn't be so bloody hard like they know what we've done, they know what we've been through … it's like an insurance company really, that's my opinion of it,” he said.
“We’re just a number to them.”
Keeping it together, just
Matt is currently flying across the country to work on the Coronavirus vaccine rollout in the state. On this day he has just flown into Newcastle from Central Queensland and will be heading home to the Central Coast.
He says he is taking on any work he can get in order to get by and is hopeful that by speaking up, he can connect with others and instigate some change.
He wants to break the stigma of the super-solider who won’t admit to any weakness or chink in the armour. He wants others to talk to each other.
“There’s guys out there that are legitimately in a lot of trouble and half the time they’re the ones that won’t say anything.” he said.
Matt’s now on the verge of 40, and he admits he is still not in a good headspace. He says the way he feels now is the worst since he’s returned from service.
“I’m at the end of my tether but I am keeping it together because I have kids.” he said.
The four boys waiting for him at home and his wife are his primary focus. He is grateful for the love and support that others in his situation may not have.
He sees a psychologist regularly and puts effort into doing the things he loves, like surfing.
At Newcastle airport, he looks across the room and sees a bunch of young men in Army uniform, looking jovial as they prepare to travel to whatever training or assignment awaits them.
“I remember when I was that proud,” he said.
“I hope you come out of it alright boys, because my mates and I didn’t.”
- The Point airs every Tuesday, 7.30pm on NITV
Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact: Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 or find an Aboriginal Medical Service here. There are resources for young people at Headspace Yarn Safe.