Gail MacDonell, Families of Veterans

Running time
3 min 12 sec
Department of Veterans' Affairs

Gail married a recently returned Vietnam Veteran who many years later was hospitalised by post-traumatic stress disorder. Frustrated by a lack of recognition of what she had found to be a common experience of veteran's families, Gail returned to university research the problem, attaining a PhD in Psychology.


In 1970, when Gail met Robert MacDonell, she was immediately taken with this newly-returned soldier from the Vietnam War.

"I was very naïve, so when I met someone like Robert who was wild and been away to war and all that, it was kind of, "Wow!" Yeah. Rode a bike, had a tattoo, that kind of thing, yeah."

But after they married and had children, it became clear that Robert's experiences of war had left him with extreme PTSD.

"He just kind of cracked one day and thought he was back in Vietnam. He was out in the backyard with a rifle, shooting, then he came inside. And I got, I actually got one gun off him. Actually, it whizzed straight past my son's head like that. I thought... actually when I opened my eyes after the sound I thought my son's head was blown off. That's what I seen, because that's what I expected to see. But I got that gun off him, forgetting that he had a high-powered .303 or something. So that turned into a siege and they had the Sydney Riot Squad and everybody else up and the Salvos.

He just went to sleep, woke up and thought, 'Oh, something's wrong.' So we tried to get him help then and the department or the powers-that-be said, 'No, he just had a little too much to drink.' And they gave him something for his knee that he'd hurt in Vietnam. So we just went along with that until the mid-nineties when he really cracked.

He never remembers numbers and full names or things like that, and he was coming back from Newcastle for something and he actually said to me, 'This is the number I need to ring, I think I need help really badly.' And it wasn't long after that that he really cracked and he ended up in St John of God and he was there, basically off and on, for nearly two years."

Gail gathered together other veterans' wives to share experiences and quickly discovered how much they had in common. But it was hard to convince others.

"And when I was asked to go on a National Mental Health Forum for Veterans, I started to say this, you know, look this is what's happening and they just said, 'Well, we don't have any data to support what you're saying.' And I said, 'But there are things from overseas.' and they said, 'Oh, that's from overseas, that's why. It's not Australian.'

So that's why I went back to uni and started my undergrad and then my honours. And then I thought 'Right, OK, stuff it; I'm going to do some research.' So I started my PHD, and now I've got publications and they can't say that they haven't got the data.

I often talk about; I put two globes, and put a foot in each world. You're in two different worlds, and trying to adapt from one world to the other. I think it's really very hard. So I think that we can try and understand what they went through, but I think the important thing is to support whatever it is that happened to them and just be kind and gentle and loving, and try and do the best thing that you can. Because I know with the people that I work with on a regular basis. I think I'd be madder than I already am if I tried to understand everything that they went through."

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