Hope is the overarching message Major retired Andrew Cullen and his wife Zoe aim to spread when they visit Moree next month as the guest speakers at the annual ADF and National Service Reunion.
As a member of the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team - responsible for disarming improvised explosive devices (IEDs), recovering bodies and cleaning up after bombs went off - during two tours of Afghanistan, Andy, a 17-year veteran of the Australian Army, was no stranger to pain and suffering.
However, it was the battles he faced on his return home to his family, wife Zoe and four young children, that threatened to destroy his marriage and nearly cost him his life.
Battling a loss of identity and purpose following his retirement from the army in 2012, Andy eventually ended up in a mental hospital after falling into a dark depression, leaving Zoe to pick up the pieces of the broken family.
It wasn't until he was finally diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and sought help, that Andy and Zoe began their long journey of recovery.
Together, they fought their way through the many challenges that living with PTSD brings and, after coming out the other side as a stronger family unit, the pair co-wrote a book, Resurrection - a raw account of their story; a broken veteran's battle with PTSD and his wife's refusal to give up on a marriage that she had every right to walk away from.
“According to everything that happened in my relationship and everything that the children had to go through, I had every right to leave but I did stand my ground," Zoe said.
"When Andy finally started getting help, I realised I do care …We were both educated on PTSD and put on the same page and said 'okay, let’s do this together'."
“We wrote the book on our personal journey of fighting PTSD as a family and how it affected myself, and my wife and kids," Andy added.
“Often the partner doesn’t get a voice in these types of discussions."
With the book being so well-received, speaking engagements followed before the couple established a charity, PTSD Resurrected, which aims to help veterans and first responders, as well as their families, heal from PTSD and depression.
After meeting a Moree Vietnam veteran at a business function and bonding over stories of service, Andy and Zoe were later approached to be the guest speakers at the 2019 ADF and National Service Reunion dinner in Moree on Saturday, March 9.
With a big focus of the annual reunion on veteran welfare - last year's special guest was Australian entertainer Little Pattie who is an ambassador for the families of veterans - organisers hope Andy and Zoe's talk will not only resonate with the veterans and serving personnel who attend the reunion, but their families as well.
During their talk, Andy and Zoe will share their story and speak about the challenges they've had to overcome on their journey of healing.
"We will share our story of hope that people suffering from PTSD can go on and live normal, happy lives," Andy said.
“Our motto is restoring hope, healing and finding purpose.
“The talk is designed to make people aware of some of the challenges veterans and their families are facing.
"It’s quite candid, open and honest. It can be confronting, we don’t hide anything. Suicide is a topic we talk about as I was suicidal at one point which is something we've had to work through as a family.
“We discuss the physical and emotional side effects of PTSD; the alcoholism, drugs, medication. It’s a talk about our journey of healing and how we found our way through it and where we are now."
A big focus for Andy is breaking down the stigma associated with PTSD and mental illness.
He said it's particularly important for veterans to start speaking about how they're feeling to begin to heal.
“Mental illness has been hidden for too long," he said.
“Many people don’t feel like they’re in an environment or have the mental capacity to be honest about how they’re feeling.
"A lot of veterans, particularly older vets, are still carrying wounds and a lot of those wounds are unhealed, unresolved.
“PTSD is not something that impacts everyone. Not everyone who goes to war will come back with PTSD. Everyone is different and everyone copes with things in different ways. However, in my experience, there is a large proportion of individuals that are suffering in silence. They probably haven’t faced it or haven't been given an opportunity to face it.
“So many people really associate with [our talk] and empathise with it, drawing parallels to their own experiences. It allows people to start taking positive action and healing; rather than living in a state of denial, bring things out in the open and start discussing it in a healthy way."
And for the wives, partners, and even children of veterans, who attend next month's reunion, Zoe hopes her story might give them hope and let them know they're not alone in what they're going through.
“I’m really passionate about reaching out to partners, even children if they’re there, to say they’re not alone in the feelings they experience," she said.
"I really felt alone, like nobody understood what an army wife goes through and the impacts of service and everyuthing that comes with it.
“For me, I’m giving a voice to those you who don't get heard. You never hear from the wives, but when someone goes to war, the partners are doing service as well.
"I say what partners are scared to say. It’s a really good way to open dialogue between couples as well.
“The biggest message from our talk is hope for people going through the same things, that life can get better."
Andy said their story is confronting and can be uncomfortable, which is exactly why it needs to be shared.
"We're not going to let the uncomfortability of this topic stop what we’re doing; talking about it can save lives and does save lives.
“We’ve got to move past the taboo idea of these topics. We need to be able to tackle these issues head-on."
And although Andy is a veteran, he said anyone who has suffered or is suffering from a mental illness will be able to relate to his story. Those currently suffering in silence as a result of the drought are particularly encouraged to come along and hear Andy and Zoe's story at the reunion dinner on Saturday, March 9.
The dinner, to be held at Moree Services Club from 5.30pm is open to members of the Moree public to attend. Cost is $50 per ticket which includes a two course meal, coffee and entertainment by Serendipity. Tickets are limited and can be purchased from Sylvia's Fabrics or Moree Services Club by Monday, March 4.