It’s a theme that we all too commonly see in movies – the returned solider, traumatised by what they’ve seen (and done) whilst at war, struggling to come to terms with adapting to being back at home, or even just civilisation in general.
It’s made some Hollywood studios a lot of money, but the reality of the problem is more stark and real than any film. In Australia returned servicemembers from tours of Afghanistan suffer in plain sight from PTSD, often turning to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain of the aftermath, which while occasionally diluted, never goes away.
“It’s something that needs to be talked about,” says lyricist Jon Roberts, who has penned A Sapper’s Song, about the plight of returned soldiers.
“It’s not in the news cycle, Afghanistan is over and nobody’s talking about it but the guys who’ve come back and the people left behind are… fucked.”
Roberts wrote the lyrics to A Sapper’s Song following conversations with a young workmate. “I was on a plant shutdown and shared off-site accommodation with the crew tearing the kit down. Good bunch so we’d have a few beers most nights. I’ve got 20 years on the eldest and am telling tales of a misspent youth in South East Asia. One’s about an ex-medic in the US 101st Airborne who I met in Burma. First action in Vietnam he’s in a village after it had been “pacified” patching up a local woman when his sergeant comes up, puts a gun in her face and shoots her head off. He freaks but the sergeant shouts him down and says they’re all killers blah blah…The medic was seriously wounded in one of the Hill battles. I met him not long after Saigon fell and he seemed alright but I questioned how anyone could live with that.
“Josh, the young bloke, had his own story. He’d started drinking and taking whatever in his early teens but had always just managed to keep it together and keep working. At the end of 2019 it caught up and he was unravelling fast but, by some miracle, his folks got him into rehab.”
The facility was in NSW and was counselling about a dozen people, a number of whom were active servicemen who had done multiple tours in Afghanistan. Josh realised very quickly that they were all suffering PTSD.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has been described as a normal response to a completely abnormal situation. A 2019 report co-authored by Orygen and Phoenix Australia states that:
‘… while young men and women make up only a quarter of full-time serving personnel in the ADF, they have the highest rate of mental ill-health among their colleagues, including conditions such as panic attacks, alcohol-use disorders and depression.
‘Ex-serving male personnel aged 18–24 have a suicide rate twice as high as other Australian men of the same age’.
The military recognise this and have psychologists in the field for debriefing and free phones so soldiers can call home at any time. But, as Roberts says, “It’s hard because it’s their job. Soldiers see and sometimes do things in war that they don’t want to think about so they’re not going talk about them. In the field there are mates to lean on but home can be very alone.”
Accommodation at the facility was in shared rooms and Josh ended up with The Sapper. In group counselling Josh heard his story, told in the song, and saw him fighting with the memories early most mornings.
‘..the scene re-runs every night
And I wake in fright
On my brain’
– A Sapper’s Song
Halfway through his treatment, Josh was rushed to hospital with a twisted bowel. It was the week the first Australian cases of Covid-19 were reported and having been in a public hospital he wasn’t allowed to return to the safe haven of the rehab facility.
That was the last he saw of The Sapper. Roberts says, “The shutdown was in early 2020 and Josh was in great nick when I met him. He said that hearing their stories and seeing the shit the Afghan vets went through changed his life. He’s a coiled spring so I hope he is still straight. And I hope The Sapper and his mates are out of the army and doing okay. I don’t think there’s anywhere else to go for a lot of these guys.”
Roberts has written lyrics and occasionally complete songs for decades. “Never done much with them, although the Balding Men video with Dick Haynes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvuVGcKMzd0) nearly got us a contract and the RooBeeDooAh album of kid songs I wrote with Brett Townsend actually did okay commercially. Still great little songs (type in RooBeeDooAh on YouTube) – sort of an antidote for the Wiggles.
“The disastrous abandonment of Afghanistan in mid-2021 bought back the sapper’s story. Apart from the bit about locking up refugees at the end of the last verse, it’s the sapper’s story as Josh told it. I wanted to say something about treatment of refugees because this government keeping people whose “crime” was to seek a better life isolated and muzzled for years brings great shame on this country.
I’m blessed with a family band. Step-son Sam Air is an incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist who’s co-written, arranged and played on just about everything I’ve done for the last 20 years. His brother Ben has a huge voice and has provided lead vocals on most of the songs”
Ben Air was teaching in the Pilbara so Roberts asked Pete Black, the son of one of his oldest friends, to join the project.
“Pete’s got a great voice for dark songs. He was really helpful with the lyrics, as was my daughter who spent 15 years in the air force. Pete also added a line of music to Sam’s tune and it worked well.”
The name of the band, Black Air, doesn’t require too much of a stretch of the imagination.
“We wrote the song round the table at home and it appears that the chorus is really catchy because pretty soon half the street was singing it.”
‘What You See is what you get
Another burned-out Afghan vet
With nothing left but regret
What you seen is what you get’
– A Sapper’s Song
Hard hitting lyrics and a catchy tune make this a song worth listening to.
As such, A Sappers Song by Black Air is now available on Spotify and most other streaming services.