Honouring our soldiers from the bush

Honouring our soldiers from the bush

At 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month, people across Australia and New Zealand will pause to reflect on the service and sacrifice of service personnel.

Remembrance Day carries special significance for Dr Michael Clements, a rural doctor and veteran who specialises in supporting ex-service personnel and families of serving members. For Dr Clements and many of his patients, remembrance is part of life.

This Remembrance Day, Rural Doctors Foundation shares insights from Dr Clements about his service and his work as a rural doctor supporting others.

Tell us about your military service

My military service started when I got accepted into medicine at Sydney University. I took my letter of acceptance into the medical program to Defence Force recruiting. I was looking to mix adventure with my medical studies.

I had always been interested in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), perhaps as a pilot first. But, later in life as I chose medicine, I realised I wanted to serve the country. I wanted to use my medical skills here and abroad in support of the humanitarian work we Australians were well known for at the time.

I had a fantastic career, and I stayed well beyond my minimum term. I got to experience living and working in Sydney during training, officer training in Melbourne and a three-year posting to Katherine in the Northern Territory.

From there I went on several overseas missions and was deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Slipper. I completed several aeromedical retrievals. I got to fly in the back of most of the aircraft, including the F 18 Hornet, which was a career highlight.

I was honoured to be selected as an exchange officer to the UK for a year. This was a fantastic year of experience, learning advanced aviation medicine side-by-side with UK doctors and other international doctors. I was able to take my family with me and we had a wonderful adventure.

On my return to Australia, I settled in Townsville. I enjoyed leadership and management roles within RAAF that developed my management professional skills.

A highlight was leading my team through the preparations for Cyclone Yasi and planning for tasks once the cyclone passed.

From Townsville I was still able to participate in overseas missions in retrieval. I had a stimulating and satisfying career, however the toll on the family continued to escalate with my absences.

How did your military service shape your interest in supporting ex-service personnel and families of serving members?

I reached the point where it was the right time for me to transition to the Reserves. I settled as a GP manager in Townsville. I decided to open a general practice, which today is a total of three practices.

I always planned to focus on providing support to veterans and serving Australian Defence Force (ADF) families. There is something special about being an ADF member with like-minded men and women who wish to use their skills to serve their community.

ADF members display a willingness to respond to a community in need here and abroad at short notice, and at times in risky scenarios. This comradery, friendship, vision and purpose is hard to describe.  It’s a feeling shared by all of those who have put the uniform on.

It didn’t take long after I opened my practice to realise we were meeting important needs of the veteran community. The needs of veterans are unique. There are often immense amounts of paperwork, complexities about the discharge process and compensation.

There is also the need to understand the journeys some of these people have been on. These journeys may include deployments, exercises, absences from families, injuries and mental health stress.

There is a lot of stereotyping that goes on with veterans, most of which is unfair. Each veteran has their own unique story and journey. In the case of medical discharges, which form a large part of my work, there is an emotional burden that comes with being discharged from a job you love and gave everything you could to.

What does Remembrance Day mean to you?

To me, Remembrance Day is an important point in our calendar to pause and reflect. I can reflect on my positive experiences of being in the military. I felt valued. I felt I contributed to the community good and the health and welfare of troops in my care.

I also reflect on the positive relationships I formed. What will always stick with me is the many stories, nights, events and exercises I shared with my colleagues.

Remembrance Day means different things to different veterans. It is also a time for us to reflect on the sacrifice many of our colleagues made. The sacrifice of others might have been the ultimate sacrifice, their life. It might have been their mental or physical health, absence from family and missing many birthdays, sporting events and school recitals while they were serving their country.

Every single Defence Force member who puts the uniform on signs a contract saying they will do what is asked of them, when it is asked of them. We each had our own journey while doing that.

Describe what it means to you to be able to provide good health care to serving members and ex-service personnel.

Each veteran comes to you with their own military experience. To be a good general practitioner for my patients, I can bring my own ADF experience into the consult room.  I can help them navigate their new civilian life and to hopefully reflect on their time in the ADF in a positive manner.

I have some understanding of the joys and hardships of military service. Sometimes I look after people now that I deployed with many years ago.

For me, the most important part of looking after veterans is to give them a safe place to be themselves. I provide a place to not be stereotyped or judged based on their injuries, mental health, career or deployment experience.

Photo supplied: James Cook University   Photo credit: Chris Bretz