John Enchong, of Nambour.
John Enchong, of Nambour. RSL (Queensland branch)

Three times he pulled the trigger, three times it failed

JOHN Enchong might save more lives at home than he did as a member of the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps but first he had to save his own.

Mr Enchong turned to drink and violence to cope after returning from Rwanda in 1995 and at one stage, attempted to take his own life.

But he has gone from needing help to giving it as RSL District Vice-President, a Nambour RSL Sub-branch welfare officer, and a driving force behind a veteran suicide prevention initiative.

The turning point for Mr Enchong was when his doctor realised he had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. He broke down at the news.

"Finally, we had a name for it and therefore a chance of it being fixed," he said.

Mr Enchong knew he had come back a changed person after his time in the first contingent of Operation Tamar in the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda.

"I could handle seeing adults being killed but it was seeing the children being killed and dying of starvation and cholera and dysentery that killed me inside," he said.

"I was able to help but I couldn't save all of them and it's the ones you can't save that stick with you."

He pretended to himself, his wife, Naomi, and the world that he was okay but after a couple of years, he could not keep up the act any longer and one day picked up his weapon to finish it all.

Three times he pulled the trigger. Three times it failed to fire. The round in it was hard-struck. The odds of it were infinitesimal but he did not see it as lucky.

"You don't see God stepping in. I didn't see that it would have killed Naomi. I didn't want to die. I just wanted to end the pain."

He drank. He fought. He drank more.

"I'm ashamed to admit it, but the last three years of my career, I can't remember a lot."

Once diagnosed, he began the long road to recovery with medication and treatment from a psychologist and a psychiatrist.

By his side through it all was Naomi.

"If I hadn't seen him wanting to change, I wouldn't have stayed," she said.

Mr Enchong lives by a simple mantra, OYOS - "Own your own s…t," - but also believes veterans need support.

He and his wife now work as a team offering struggling veterans and their families, empathy and tough love.

They are also involved with Overwatch - veterans helping veterans on the brink of suicide.

"If a veteran is known to be at risk, we will get (word of) it through the grapevine and through our network, have a veteran on the doorstep of that person within 30 minutes to an hour," Mr Enchong said.

He is sceptical of Defence Force statistics which indicate about 200 veterans have committed suicide over about 20 years and the rate is no worse than that of the rest of society.

He backs privately collated figures which put the number at more like 400, and points out that figures don't include "slow suicides" by veterans who smoke and drink themselves to death, single vehicle car crashes, and deaths that for religious reasons are not recorded as suicides.

Overwatch's strength was veterans on the ground, talking to veterans, he said.

He and Naomi find veterans and their families are willing to listen to them because of what they have been through.

"We know how hard it is to get the right help out there," Mr Enchong said.

"We know people who have come through the same thing we have who haven't had the help we have.

"Some of them have gone, at their own hands, some of them have gone, gone crazy."

The work can be draining but Mr Enchong takes time out if he needs it, determined to maintain control over his PTSD rather than become its victim.

"Once you've got it, you've got it. It's how you manage it."

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