Major General John Cantwell (retired) has written a sobering account of his career with the Australian Army in the first person, with the editing and guidance of Greg Bearup with the result being the hard hitting and incredibly honest memoir Exit Wounds.
Initially joining the Australian Army as a private, John Cantwell changed over to Officer and went to the First Gulf War in 1990 - 1991 where he survived friendly fire on the front line, navigating through a mine field and poor communication between allied forces. He also witnessed the horrific impact of war and Coalition Forces fitting bulldozer blades to the front of their tanks and burying Iraqi soldiers alive in their trenches.
After the Gulf War, John began to suffer the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but not knowing what it was, he told himself he was being soft, and to get past it. This didn't work and eventually John's boss - a Vietnam Veteran - noticed John's distress, and he agreed to see a psychiatrist. Unfortunately the psychiatrist was dismissive, and told John to stop dwelling on disturbing memories and to get on with work and family matters.
John returned to Iraq in the second Gulf War in 2006 as a Brigadier in an attempt to do some good for the people, believing it would help him heal. Met with political incompetence and indifference, daily violence and retaliation, it was a daily struggle to make a difference and keep the people safe. John was exposed to endless violence and death and his body took a beating too, with countless near misses. He returned home at the end of his posting after 265 days with a broken shoulder and pneumonia and untold damage to his heart and mind.
In January 2010, John (now a General) took over as Australian National Commander in Afghanistan, where tragically ten men were killed during his command, and which he took personal responsibility for. In response to the unforgivable mix-up of Jacob Kovco's remains, John Cantwell took it upon himself to personally identify and farewell each soldier killed under his command. His account of a few of these intimate moments brought me to tears, and I believe it will bring the family and friends of these soldiers great comfort to know their loved ones were looked after with so much genuine and heartfelt care.
These sobering moments in Exit Wounds were balanced out with chapters from John's long time wife Jane and several funny moments; the story of the scorpion in particular comes to mind. I re-read it several times, laughing aloud and enjoying the scenario greatly.
Exit Wounds is a unique memoir from one of Australia's senior Army Officers, once considered for the top role of Chief of the Army, and lifts the lid on PTSD in the ADF for all time. More than that, John explains how a soldier accumulates psychological trauma and doesn't spare the detail although this reader can't help but feel there are plenty more horrors lurking in his memory.
Exit Wounds is also a testament to Australia's Defence history and involvement in three overseas conflicts and I believe is a tribute to all the fallen soldiers. My eyes were opened in so many ways, and for that I can thoroughly recommend Exit Wounds by John Cantwell.
My rating = *****
I have confirmation that Carpe Librum will be interviewing the author John Cantwell soon, so if you have any questions for this inspirational Australian, please leave a comment below.