After five overseas deployments, former commando Mick Bainbridge was at breaking point from PTSD. When he sought help, he says he was ostracised by Defence. But instead of getting mad, he waged a new war.
Artist Ben Quilty painted a portrait of Mick as part of his After Afghanistan series. (Australian Story: Marc Smith)
When Ben Quilty gave Mick Bainbridge a beer and asked him to strip naked, he was asking the Afghanistan veteran to do more than just take his clothes off. The Archibald Prize-winning artist was asking Mick to bare his broken soul.
It was the start of a deep conversation between artist and former commando that continues today.
“I didn’t know what the Archibald Prize was, let alone Ben Quilty, so you can imagine how concerned I was when I met this bloke and he asked me to get my gear off,” Mick laughed.
“It was confronting for me and him,” said Quilty of the portrait-painting session. “The way to disarm the subject is to have that conversation and have a couple of beers and just talk.”
For about a month in late 2011 as Australia’s official war artist, Quilty had been attached to the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan.
He did not meet Mick during his artistic tour, but back in Australia. He asked a number of returned soldiers to visit his Southern Highlands-based studio and sit for him so he could recapture some of the sense of immediacy he had experienced in Afghanistan.
“When I met Baino, he was an anxious mess. He was a bit of a wreck really. He was hyper alert … right on the edge of the precipice, as he was crashing over and falling into PTSD.”
When Mick posed naked in Quilty’s warehouse studio that day, he was suffering through one of the lowest points of his life. Quilty could see that he felt like a no-one.
Mick wasn’t a no-one — he had done five overseas deployments in the elite 2nd Commando Regiment, the first in East Timor in 2006, followed by four tours in Afghanistan.
In the years since, he has exerted his enormous power of will to overcome major physical and mental health issues, battle the Australian Department of Defence for entitlements and deal with an unwarranted police raid on his home, as well as excel at a university degree many told him he wasn’t smart enough to do.
“I think the anger, five years ago, is very much subsided, but, I think it was that anger that drove me to get to where I am today, and it’s been the fuel,” Mick told Australian Story about his transformation.
“A lot of people might not see that as a positive thing, but it’s certainly given me something to wake up and work towards.”
Mick, 33, is close to finishing a law degree at Wollongong University and, in 2017, was elected as the youngest-ever vice-president of the NSW RSL. But his experiences of war have left him with lasting mental anguish.
“Baino was the first man that I saw actually, physically go through the whole process, and to see it was life changing for me,” Quilty said, of his friend’s struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The tools of the trade at the art studio of Archibald Prize winning artist Ben Quilty in Muswellbrook, NSW. (Australian Story: Marc Smith)
A thick mixture of paints swirled together in the studio of artist Ben Quilty. (Australian Story: Marc Smith)
Ben Quilty says his naked portraits may be confronting for both he and his subjects, but it mimics the awkwardness of their experiences. (Australian Story: Marc Smith)
‘Blood, smoke, smell seared in my memory’
Mick said he developed a strange attitude towards death during his time in the Army.
“Every time you go out on a patrol you and everyone would have to write what they called dead letters. So, a letter to your parents, or significant other. You would carry your own body bags in your vehicle,” he said.
Among many incidents, two in particular haunt him. One was the loss of a close mate, Mason Edwards. During a pre-deployment training exercise on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula in October 2009, Edwards was shot in the head during a night live-fire training exercise. Mick and his colleagues worked feverishly to save him.
“I just got the tap on the shoulder and said, ‘that’s enough. You’ve done well’. I think that will stick with me forever.”
Little more than six months later in June 2010, Mick was in a helicopter behind the Black Hawk helicopter that crashed in Afghanistan, killing three Australian soldiers.
He joined others scrambling to get people out of the wreckage. “I remember blood, the smell, inhaling the smoke and vomiting from it. It’s seared in my memory.
“Losing three of our blokes, it was a big loss. I attended the funerals interstate, for each one. It just, it took it out of me. I think then I really started to notice the wheels were well and truly starting to come off.”
Former commando Mick Bainbridge served in five overseas deployments including four in Afghanistan. (Supplied: Mick Bainbridge)
Mick Bainbridge pictured during his overseas deployment to Afghanistan. (Supplied: Mick Bainbridge)
Mick Bainbridge joined the Army when he was just 18 and served for 13 years. (Supplied: Mick Bainbridge)
‘Go on the next trip or we’ll f*** you off’
In 2011 on a flight back to the Middle East, Mick met the woman who would become his wife, Brooke — a flight attendant on a non-working route.
Brooke thought that, because of his job, he would be a macho man. But she found a gentleness in him she loved.
“I really liked his integrity, how honest he was and he was just a lovely, funny guy. He has a great sense of humour, and I just felt at home with him.”
She could see he was “rattled” from his work but it wasn’t until later that year when they both had returned to Australia and moved in together in Wollongong she started to realise the extent of his trauma.
“Our relationship just changed drastically and that’s when I noticed a big change in him as well,” said Brooke, now 30.
Mick eventually built up the courage to go to his commanding officers to reveal the issues he was struggling with. He was adamant he didn’t want to be a pensioner for the rest of his days and asked if he could be posted to a training location within Australia.
He was shocked by the response. “They said, ‘either go on the next trip or we will f*** you off’,” he says. “I was treated as a leper.”
It was the start of years of wrangling over his future and his entitlements.
“I was sick, sitting at home with no job. I felt like I had no identity and no purpose. It was a very lonely, lonely stretch,” he recalled. “Going from a role as a green beret and its absolute intensity the whole way through to having nothing. I’d lost a large part of my identity, and who I was.”
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Mick said his wife was the one thing that kept him together.
“When things went pear shaped with the army, I think it broke him,” Brooke said.
“I think he was just devastated, I think he felt replaceable as well, knowing that he was just sort of left to the wayside.”
Mick said he was just after the basic recognition of his injuries and assistance to transition, “and it wasn’t there.”
He went to barrister Glenn Kolomeitz, who runs a pro bono legal practice in Gerroa, on the Illawarra Coast, that focused almost exclusively on PTSD-related criminal cases involving defence and police veterans.
He believes the Defence Department treated Mick very poorly during his transition process.
“The transition out of Defence into the civilian sector is not a particularly good process and certainly not in Mick’s case,” Mr Kolomeitz said.
With the assistance of Mr Kolomeitz and the knowledge he was acquiring from the law degree he had started, Mick worked to put his case together.
From board meeting to police raid
But the fight became a nightmare when police raided his home on July 22, 2016.
Mick had attended a Defence “welfare board” meeting in Nowra with Mr Kolomeitz beside him. The boards are designed to support soldiers with their health and career needs.
During the course of the meeting, Mick explained how he had spent a year or more fighting to get a hearing aid, among other medical support for his conditions that included “a busted back” and ongoing issues arising from fractures sustained during his service.
The welfare board announced that Mick would be posted out of his unit and lose pay entitlements.
“[It] was unheard of,” Mr Kolomeitz said, who describes the board as “adversarial”.
“By him being vocal about those things, I suspect they didn’t like that … having a private soldier telling them how it is.”
When he got home that day, Mick was ropeable. He hit the phone. Now he recalls what unfolded as “a few heated discussions with the bosses on the phone … but nothing, nothing out of line.”
The next morning, Mick was hanging out with his baby son Mason at home, when his wife told him “there’s a whole bunch of police out the front”.
Someone in the Defence Department had reported that a former special forces soldier, highly trained in the use of explosives, had threatened suicide.
“I walked out and there was police with body armour and pistols at their ready,” Mick recalled. He said had not threatened suicide.
“I was with him the whole day,” Brooke said. “I know what phone calls he made, what he said on the phone, and I know what was alleged didn’t happen.”
The police quickly established that Mick was calm and presented no threat of self-harm but the damage had been done.
His mind was sent straight back to memories of battle.
“I’ve seen the best and the worst of outcomes that can happen on missions. I was concerned that I’d be shot there and then by the police.”
Defence reviewing complaint
Mr Kolomeitz and Mick went to then-senator Jacqui Lambie.
“When I was a senator I met many broken veterans — some are driven to suicide — but Mick’s story really stuck out with me,” Ms Lambie told Australian Story.
In November 2016 Senator Lambie raised Mick’s case in the Senate, naming the commanding officer she said had sent a “vexatious report” to police.
Through Ms Lambie’s intercession, Mick was offered mediation by Defence Minister Marise Payne.
He is still waiting for this to happen and has commenced legal action against Defence.
In a statement to Australian Story, a spokesperson for Defence said Mick’s complaint was subject to an inquiry being conducted by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force.
Defence said it had provided extensive transition support to Mick. This included funding for his tertiary education.
Former commando Mick Bainbridge has overcome PTSD and is now helping other veterans as vice president of RSL NSW. (Australian Story: Marc Smith)
A mission to help other veterans
Mick Bainbridge hopes his new found legal knowledge will be able to help other veterans. (Australian Story: Marc Smith)
Mick said he had to fight to access assistance for returned personnel for university degrees.
He decided he wanted to study law and after the Defence Department bureaucratic hurdles, including two IQ tests, he was admitted to Wollongong University.
In 2017, the university’s law faculty awarded Mick the prestigious Jack Goldring Memorial Scholarship.
He is also doing pro bono legal research work with Mr Kolomeitz’s firm, saying he wants to help former Defence personnel who find themselves in strife.
Veteran homelessness, criminality and suicide are huge issues.
Mick said he has seen figures that have led him to believe more than 100 veterans commit suicide each year.
“I’ve got a long road to travel and this RSL and this board, we desperately want to curb and stop the suicide rate. You know, I lay awake at night thinking and wondering how I’m going to make this thing work and I’m not going to stop till I do.”
Quilty saw Mick’s intellect from the day he handed him a beer.
“There was a very raw wound, but he was also a very clever guy. Very philosophical, quite intellectual.”
Quilty laughs now as he describes his friend as a “hippy uni student”.
And he says he was never an art critic.
“Look, when I made the painting he … didn’t really like it, he didn’t get it, he said I got his proportions wrong; lot of parts of him were too small and some too big. You can guess.”
The Bainbridge family: Former commando Mick Bainbridge with his wife Brooke, daughter Matilda and son Mason at their home in Wollongong, NSW. (Australian Story: Marc Smith)
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Editor: Stephanie Wood
Producer: Kent Gordon
Photos: Marc Smith
Digital Producer: Megan Mackander