A decorated NZSAS trooper has spoken of his long journey to recovery after a life-threatening wound in Afghanistan - and the NZ Defence Force's own journey to understand pressures on our new generation of veterans.

Jason Pore, 45, lost a leg in a bomb blast deep in enemy territory in Afghanistan then went through a "dark space" in the years after the attack.

Pore's story - like that of many new veterans - raises questions about NZ Defence Force's ability to provide care for the physical and psychological impact of recent operational service abroad.

There are now thousands of "contemporary veterans" - the name given to the most recent generation of NZDF personnel to have served from Timor through to the ongoing Afghanistan mission.

Advertisement

Pore was serving in Afghanistan in 2004 with the NZSAS when the vehicle in which he was travelling was destroyed by a landmine. He lost his left leg, had the right fractured and shrapnel wounds through his body. "The engine in the vehicle went straight through me," he said.

The unit was on a long-range patrol, far from its nearest support, and Pore was unable to be evacuated by helicopter until eight hours after the attack.

After the flight, Pore was stabilised and sent by military jet to Germany, during which the aircraft had to drop in altitude after its height - combined with Pore's injuries - put him into cardiac arrest.

"I think I would have died four or five times," he said of the journey from the site of the attack to hospital in Germany.

And the struggles did not stop there.

"Rehabilitation wasn't easy. I was very withdrawn after my injury. It took me eight years to come to terms with what had happened to me.

"Nothing scares me now because I feel normal, but it took me a very long time to feel this way."

He said sport has been a major factor in his return, leading to competition in the Invictus Games, a multinational event which sees injured, wounded and ill service personnel compete in a paralympic-style events.

It has also led to Pore captaining a veterans' team in the Auckland's Sky Tower this week, supporting the Auckland RSA's annual poppy appeal.

"When I first got injured in Afghanistan, there was nothing in place in the defence force for recovery of your injured soldiers."

It wasn't just physical injuries, he said. "PTSD has only been acknowledged in the last two-to-three years.

"Nothing is perfect and the defence force did make a lot of mistakes and they are learning from it."

Jason Pore is a former NZSAS soldier who lost his leg in 2004 and is abseiling down the SkyTower. Photo / Stephen Parker
Jason Pore is a former NZSAS soldier who lost his leg in 2004 and is abseiling down the SkyTower. Photo / Stephen Parker

Pore's journey to Orlando to compete in the second Invictus Games saw him among veterans from 15 countries - a realisation he was among "new veterans from my era".

He also saw people shake the hands of US service personnel and offer thanks for their service - an act he would like to see in New Zealand.

"What I want to get across to the whole country is to show a bit of compassion and kindness when it comes to Anzac Day and to go up to current servicemen and women, shake their hand and say 'thank you for your service'.

"It gives pride, and an acknowledgement of what they have done."

A lack of official veteran support led to those who had served in recent conflicts setting up their own welfare services. It comes after three known suicides among former veterans, including one death from a member of the 2012 "Crib 20" deployment to Afghanistan which lost five people.

Former Army staff sergeant Aaron Wood and fellow former infantry soldiers last year set up No Duff, military slang for "This is not a drill", to provide support to contemporary veterans.

In the year since, it has gathered 300 volunteers and responded to calls for help on 94 occasions - help that wasn't available through official channels.

The stories have a familiar tone - a lack of structured support from government agencies to assist recent veterans, a growing isolation as help failed to arrive and the delay leading to an exacerbation of injury.

Wood's criticisms extend from NZDF, its subsidiary agency Veterans Affairs and the NZRSA and reflect the problems of those who have sought help.

"The provision of welfare in New Zealand is pretty dysfunctional. It beggars belief. If people understood how bad things are, I would hope they would be flabbergasted."

The support available has improved. Veterans Affairs has undergone a major overhaul in the past two years. Changes include employing case officers to find ways to forge links with contemporary veterans, including signing an agreement with No Duff.

NZDF chief medical officer Wing Commander Paul Nealis said our military had moved significantly to understand and deal with injuries sustained since the increase in frequency and scale of operations changed since the Timor deployment in 1999.

The time taken to put proper supports including delays understanding the psychological trauma emerging from the new types of non-conventional conflict zones and how it affected New Zealand's troops differently, he said.

An example, he said, was the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder was generally lower while adjustment disorder - being exposed to wildly different experiences - was more prevalent.

It also took time for commanders to understand the impact of high-tempo, repeated deployments with those in higher ranks having come from the post-Vietnam generation which saw smaller, less frequent deployments.

Having a small medical with high-turnover meant its focus was on immediate operational duties rather than rigorous study of the impact of those duties, he said.

Changes in the last few years have seen an increase in experienced medical staff available to Veterans Affairs, formal agreements with government agencies and also with the Coroner's Office. Prior to that, there was no feedback mechanism from any civilian agency to inform NZDF as to the state of veterans' mental health issues.

There was also recognition and better networks with the various health providers and funders those injured might encounter - from local health boards to ACC and national health networks.

"We've got a 'whole of life' approach," he said.

Fund-raising abseil

Ex-NZSAS trooper Jason Pore is leading the NZDF veterans' team in the SkyCity "Tower De Force" to raise funds for the Auckland RSA's annual poppy appeal.

On Thursday, six teams of six people race to retrieve their flag from the mast of the Sky Tower. The race includes a military skills course, climbing up 1229 stairs, a mock-emergency first aid scenario, climbing the 91-metre Sky Tower mast then abseiling 160 metres down the Sky Tower.

Teams are drawn from the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN), New Zealand Army, Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) Veterans, St John New Zealand and SkyCity.