It was Britain’s darkest hour — in 1941, the country stood alone against the might of Hitler’s forces.
The Luftwaffe bombed London mercilessly.
The embattled British had just a handful of planes and pilots to resist the Nazi onslaught.
Gordon James had a vital role in it all — the then-15-year-old apprentice mechanic worked to keep those planes in the air.
With all that expectation on his shoulders, it wasn’t fear and uncertainty Mr James felt — he thought it was all a bit of fun, at first.
“You know, that’s what puzzles me still, maybe it was my age and all the excitement,” Mr James, 94, recalled with a chuckle.
“I tried to be cocky when the night bombing started and my father said, ‘we’ll all go down to the shelter’ and I said, ‘no I’ll stay here in bed’ … That was until the first bomb dropped, then I was off down the stairs and into the shelter.”
Later in the war, when he reached enlistment age, Mr James joined the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy.
In the 1950s, Mr James migrated to Australia, built a house near the beach in Adelaide, and had a family.
Veterans fly under the radar
Naturally his son, Ian, knows the family story well, but he fears authorities in the UK and Australia may have no idea his dad is still alive.
“Dad doesn’t have a veterans’ healthcare card, and he didn’t join the RSL,” Ian James said.
“I think in some way it’s a bit sad because there must be a number of veterans that are like dad — who through no fault of their own just fell through the cracks.”
While Gordon James’s circumstances are unusual — he’s British living in Australia — veterans advocate Bill Denny believes there are many local veterans who are effectively invisible to authorities.
The key is whether or not they hold a health card from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“All they will know about is the people who’ve actually made a claim against the Department of Veterans Affairs, and we just don’t know how many haven’t done so,” Mr Denny said.
“There is no master list sitting somewhere of all the veterans who are still with us today.
“I worry that there may be people sitting in nursing homes, with no-one to visit them, and no-one who knows their story … it’s not just a physical care responsibility we owe them, it’s a commemorative one.”
Younger veterans also missing
It is also not just World War II veterans who have gone missing in peacetime.
University of Adelaide Professor Sandy McFarlane is a world authority in managing and treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans.
He has found a significant number of younger veterans may have slipped off the radar.
“There’s this assumption that veterans will naturally seek the benefits they can from the Government … that’s not always the case,” Professor McFarlane said.
“We’ve recently completed a study of all the people who transitioned from the defence forces between 2010 and 2015.
“Approximately as many as 45 per cent of those with post-traumatic stress disorder are not getting those services through the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
Professor McFarlane said there was a spectrum of outcomes — some do remarkably well, others become social hermits as a way of dealing with their mental health struggles.
“It’s one of the intriguing things that when you try to do health studies of veterans, the numbers that tend to live in relatively remote regions,” Professor McFarlane said.
Service dog ‘saved my life’
But there is another way besides social isolation — the way of dog.
A tour of duty in Afghanistan left 32-year-old veteran Luke Adamson with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mr Adamson’s path back from PTSD came with four paws, a wet nose and a black coat — a labrador called Prince.
“He saved my life, absolutely,” Mr Adamson said.
“I went down the road of depression, drug and alcohol abuse … I was in and out of hospital, and yeah, for a time there I was suicidal.”
But Prince has done a lot more than settle Mr Adamson back into civilian life — the dog helped the digger find his voice.
“It’s become natural for me to talk about it, to talk about what happened to me,” he said.
“It’s become empowering for me to talk about. It actually helps me deal with it a lot better.”
Call to talk about problems
Mr Adamson’s level of openness about his private battles is still not the norm, but it is something fellow veteran Chad McLaren wants to encourage in other people.
Both men believe some servicemen and women have unwittingly exacerbated their mental health struggles by either bottling problems up, or by associating purely with other veterans.
“I can appreciate that idea that only another veteran can understand you, but there’s another side to it,” Mr McLaren said.
“If the only people you know are other military people you’ll keep finding people in the same situation and you’ll keep reliving that over and over again … that way is just not working.”
Luke Adamson backs his mate.
“Chad is 100 per cent right on this. You get those little cliques and little pockets of people that are so stuck in their military service and their depression and anxiety that they can’t come out of that bubble,” he said.
But the pair have a plan to both burst that bubble and get veterans mixing with the wider community.
Exercising for mental health
A few weeks ago, Mr McLaren and Mr Adamson sat down over a beer and a barbecue with professional fitness instructor Andrew Hank.
They mapped out a veteran-friendly exercise program.
“We are looking at running a 12-week course initially,” Mr Hank said.
“It’ll be circuit training, a lot of functional movement, some higher intensity work, but we’ll also have some lower intensity work as well for those who are less able.”
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Crucially, civilians will be enlisted alongside the veterans.
“The whole idea is to get people together to share their stories and their experiences,” Mr McLaren said.
“It’s about people being a resource for one another and getting a bit healthier along the way.
“I’m saying to veterans, still have your military friends, they are going to be your friends forever.
“But have someone else with a different perspective, who can offer you something different … I think that’s really important for all of us.”