John Naidu joined the Australian Army straight out of high school with the dream of seeing the world, and during a 15-year career he experienced all it had to offer.
Across seven international deployments, Mr Naidu served at East Timor’s early elections, civil war in the Solomon Islands, helped earthquake recovery in Pakistan, as well as time in Iraq and the conflict in Afghanistan.
“It was beautiful,” Mr Naidu said.
“From the moment I joined to the day I discharged, I loved every moment.
“I saw the positive side of the world, the negative side of the world, I saw suffering in Iraq, Afghanistan, especially East Timor, I saw how little people survive on and how much people have.
“I experienced a lot of variety of life in the 15 years I was in the army.”
Mr Naidu started as a private in the infantry and moved up to lance corporal, specialising in reconnaissance. In mid-2009, while leading an operation in Afghanistan, Mr Naidu’s life took a turn.
“I was a section commander at the time, and I lost one of my soldiers,” he said.
“I had eight blokes under my command, and there was an incident with an IED [improvised explosive device]. One guy lost his life and another lost his leg.
“That experience haunts me to the day. When I saw death that close, I had nightmares for a while, and that incident is the one that changed me as a person, as a soldier, and everything else.”
Mr Naidu returned to Australia soon afterwards, and was deployed just three months later to Pakistan. But the close call in Afghanistan had changed him.
“That sort of experience has given me a bit of survivors guilt,” he said.
“As a section commander it was my duty to bring my men back, and I didn’t. It was still fresh in my head, but I thought I was ready to be deployed again.
“When I went to Pakistan I struggled a bit, because this time it wasn’t a war, it was more human, a humanitarian task, so I’d just come back from war and now I’m doing something totally different which is helping out people.
“After that tour I didn’t feel good inside, mentally and everything. I started drinking a bit, having dramas at home, and a lot of other things, but luckily at that time I spoke up, and I was diagnosed with PTSD.”
Mr Naidu discharged from the army in 2016, and settled with his family in Woodlea estate, near Rockbank. He became involved with the Caroline Springs RSL not long after.
At 38, he is one of the younger veterans at the RSL, but he said the shared experiences has helped him adjust to his new life.
“It was rough in the early days,” he said.
“One minute I’m in charge of 60 soldiers, to now looking after the kids at home, it took a while to adjust but I really enjoy it now.
“I was looking for belonging, and I realised there were more soldiers going through the same things that I was going through. Even though most of them are Vietnam veterans, they’ve fought the same mental war that I was going through, so they had that experience of dealing with it to talk to me about.
“A lot of veterans struggle with anxiety and shut themselves away, so we’re really conscious about meeting up regularly and helping each other out. I’m a real people person so that is something I really enjoy doing, and it’s really important.”
Mr Naidu helped with the design and construction of the Aintree war memorial, and now hopes to begin work in the customs or immigration sectors.