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Meet the veteran at the centre of the 2023 Poppy Campaign

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Ryan Gilbert joined the Army at just 17 years old to explore the world. Now a veteran of four operational deployments , he wants New Zealanders to understand the challenges our modern veterans face – and why they need support just as much as those who have gone before. 

Ryan grew up the oldest of three children in the Wellington suburb of Upper Hutt. A self-confessed “dweeb” he wasn’t much in to sport and spent most of his time reading and drawing. He left Heretaunga College to join the Army in 2006, hoping to challenge himself and leave his old life behind. 

“Operational deployments were why I joined the army. I was lucky I got to go away on four deployments during my service and got to do the job I had trained for. I really enjoyed being part of a team, being given a mission, doing dangerous things and doing my best to make a change in the world.” 

Ryan found a natural place in the Army, and joined the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment on completion of his basic training, serving in 2nd/1st Battalion based out of Burnham Military Camp. 

“The army amplifies friendships. You live together, you train together and you depend on each other. You realise your own capability and potential – and you know that there are times when everyone is scared, but together you find the courage that gets you through.” 

Ryan’s first deployment was a short two-week stint to the Kingdom of Tonga in November 2006 when New Zealand troops supported the Tongan Defence Force following riots in the nation’s capital of Nukuʻalofa.  

His first real deployment came in May 2007 when he deployed for six months to Timor Leste as part of the New Zealand contingent operating out of Dili. 

”There was no effective police force in Timor Leste at that stage so we were often the first responders when there was trouble or disturbances. There were times it was scary, I was 19 years old and we had homemade explosives thrown at us, gunshots around us, we were breaking up riots and detaining people.  

I still remember having to confront someone as we broke up a riot, I raised my weapon and came close to firing. I was 19 years old and making a decision that could have ended someone’s life.” 

Two years later Ryan deployed to Afghanistan for six months as part of Crib 14 to take part in a very different kind of mission.  

“When we arrived in Afghanistan, I could immediately feel the difference in the air, the altitude, summer, getting off the plane into a completely different world. The Bamyan Buddha's, the Silk Road, the history, language, customs - it was surreal. And on top of all that there was a gigantic war going on. Jets flying overhead, bombs going off, radios blaring with patrols being contacted all the time. This wasn't slingshots and cocktail bombs, this was an ideologically motivated enemy with extensive capabilities.  

There were real moments of being scared. It was the atmospherics - you would hear shooting, hear something explode, or you were going through areas where ambushes have happened before, driving past burnt-out tanks in an unarmoured Hilux. Being told that a white car is a potential suicide bomber, so every white car sent your heart racing. 

But there were also plenty of great times. We knew we were fortunate to be there and it felt like a reward to be there, a privilege in itself. You learned to enjoy the little things, like when the mail comes in and there was a letter from mum and dad. And the big things, like setting up security which allowed girls to go to school for the first time. It didn’t matter how much things sucked sometimes, we were achieving something amazing. And the highlight was definitely getting on the plane together at the end, we didn’t lose anyone. That was a great feeling.” 

In 2012 Ryan saw himself deployed to Afghanistan again, this time he would spend over eight months in the war-torn country. 

“This deployment was very different from my previous tour of Afghanistan. Humanitarian patrols were gone, we were now doing combat patrols and there was a very strong Taliban presence in the area we were working. 

We knew our lives were in immediate danger. We were driving around areas where IED (improvised explosive device) attacks happened more frequently, I was always alert, scanning ahead looking for digging, for sign. Driving down the roads – I remember that as the most intense fear because you had no way to control what was going to happen to you.  

Being there for such an extended time, in a world so much outside of the norm, clay houses, different smells, burning rubbish and tyres. Guns firing, hearing it all the time, everyday there's the presence of the abnormal.  

Coming home was different this time. I'd experienced the loss of one good friend and three other comrades. It had been a very intense period on combat patrols, looking for IEDs and insurgents and being ready to fight at a moment's notice. 

When you get home, it's hard to switch off that level of alertness. In Afghanistan you hear a bang and you know you have something to do, and you've got the gear you need to take action. Back home, you hear the bang and you get that surge of adrenaline because you're meant to take action, you want to do something, have to do something, but you don't have your rifle and you don't have your first aid kit. You're conditioned to react but have nothing to react to, you just can't switch off the looking for danger, these powerful reactions that you've been conditioned for.” 

Three intensive deployments took both a physical and mental toll on Ryan. While support was available from the NZDF for those who found themselves struggling, there was a general perception that there was a stigma attached to admitting you weren’t able to cope. 

“I didn’t understand the effects on my mental health until later on after Afghanistan. My ability to resolve emotions became more complicated. I got overweight, I was in a bad relationship, taking codeine for injuries, drinking heavily.   

Then one day I looked at myself and saw that I wasn't okay, and to be honest it was the first time I was worried about dying. I felt used up, full of self-loathing and knew I had to make some changes.  After Afghanistan things felt meaningless, peaks weren't as high, the incentive to stay in the army was gone, there were no deployments and without them the army seemed dull. 

I saw how my friends were handling things, a lot of issues came out while we were drinking – the walls came down and we could talk and share more easily. Then in 2015 one of my best friends took his own life, and it really hit me like a tonne of bricks. Something had to change.” 

In 2016 Ryan decided to leave the army. Transition out of the military can be difficult, especially for those who have never known any other kind of working life.  

“The thing I struggled most with was not being in a family anymore. The army was a family – now I just had a job. I had to buy all my own equipment and I was taken advantage of because I was naïve and I didn't understand my own value.  

When I left the Army I lost all my stories, people didn't understand me or what I had been through. I even lost my identity - I'd been known as Gilly in the army and now I was just Ryan, I was building an entirely new person. I didn’t even know who Ryan was.” 

Eventually Ryan settled in the Canterbury town of Fairlie, started to rebuild his life and became involved with the RSA.  

“I got involved with the MacKenzie RSA on my first Anzac Day living in Fairlie. I’d gone to a Dawn Service in Timaru and when I came home I just followed the crowd into the Mackenzie RSA, I joined the same day.” 

Many veterans find that it can take years for the full effects of their military service to surface, and when they are no longer connected to the military it can be difficult to know where to get support.  

“Around the time I was asked to stand for President of the MacKenzie RSA was when I started to have a lot of issues. It had been four years since I left the Army and I found myself struggling because of the injuries I had sustained during military training and found it hard to work. With a mortgage over my head I went looking for help.  

I called Veteran’s Affairs and they told me I didn't qualify for any assistance. Eventually I called the RSA and had a good chat with one of their support advisors. They helped me be really honest for the first time about how much I was struggling, I told them how much financial trouble I was in and got some great advice. 

It was the first time someone had taken the time to talk me through all the paperwork, they got me signed up for the veteran's pension and I got a lump sum payment as a result. I got connected to the RSA’s District Support Manager who just had such a wealth of knowledge – and I finally learnt there was a whole system here to support me. Just finding out how it works has been such a huge part of why I've stayed connected with the RSA. There are no other services that support veterans like the RSA does.  

In the RSA there are always people that will help if you completely fall of the wagon – that will keep you safe. I know that I’ve had dark times when I’ve cut everyone off and had an RSA support advisor turn up on my doorstep to make sure I was ok. I can’t think of another organisation that would do that.” 

Today Ryan is the President of the MacKenzie RSA, and is self-employed having developed his property in to a retreat dedicated to helping rehabilitate military veterans.  

“I hope people will see this part of my story, and realise there are hundreds of thousands of New Zealand who have signed up to serve. We have our own stories, we have our reasons for signing up but we’ve all given a lot. I am a symbol of change, I am part of the new generation who put their hand up and volunteered to take on the responsibilities for veteran wellbeing and health.” 


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