The RSA is running its annual Poppy Appeal and its theme “Not All Wounds Bleed” focuses on the non-physical injuries, including mental health issues, that veterans and their families face. NZME is a media partner.

As the attack helicopters buzzed over densely-packed city streets, and rotor-blades and machinegun bullets kicked up dust and fear, people ran for their lives.

The South Sudan civil war raged on the streets of the world's newest country's capital, Juba. Mortars exploded and RPGs rounds fizzed. Caught in the middle, were 30,000 internally-displaced civilians living in a ramshackle, rambling camp.

They began running to the nearby United Nations headquarters where 1800 international troops were stationed, with a clear mandate to protect civilians.

However, as the battle intensified, with hundreds dying, UN soldiers started turning away the refugees, carrying their lives with them – 20L containers of water, mattresses, babies - seeking safety and protection.

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Inside the compound, New Zealand Defence Force Lieutenant Colonel Melanie Childs, who was attached to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UMISS) as a deputy plans officer, was getting increasingly frustrated.

"It was a very challenging situation," said the Christchurch-born East Timor and Afghanistan veteran.

"We had a number of troop contributing countries who didn't react the way they needed to. There was widespread confusion over whether these civilians should be allowed in or pushed back.

"What resulted was a bunch of staff officers getting out on the ground, trying to explain to these different nations that, 'This is our job, to protect them, this is why we are here'."

While orders from the Joint Operations Centre were failing to be carried out, either through translation issues or the fog of war, Childs decided to take her own action.

Alongside a Dutch lawyer, she hit the chaotic streets and started corralling hundreds of refugees and convincing them to follow her inside the UN compound, which was a relatively safe zone. She was in radio contact with a British Royal Marine who was doing the same. Elsewhere, US police officers and Norwegian staff officers also rounded up refugees caught in the crossfire.

"A handful of willing people went out to herd these hundreds and hundreds of people – up to 2000 at one point - to get them refuge in the UN compound, and try to calm them down and say, 'We are here, we are right alongside you, so listen to us, stay with us'," said Childs, who was named the 2017 NZDF Person of the Year for her "courageous" leadership during the July 2016 Battle of Juba.

"It wasn't necessarily our role, but this was our job, this was what we were trained to do, and in the absence of those who should, we were the ones who could, and did."

Lieutenant Colonel Melanie Childs, Commanding Officer of the NZ Army's 2nd Combat Service Support Battalion at Linton Army Camp was named the 2017 New Zealand Defence Force Person of the Year.
Lieutenant Colonel Melanie Childs, Commanding Officer of the NZ Army's 2nd Combat Service Support Battalion at Linton Army Camp was named the 2017 New Zealand Defence Force Person of the Year.

While mortars continued to land inside the UN compound, the displaced population managed to avoid the worst of the fighting until the ceasefire finally came.

Childs is quick to play down her bravery that day. It wasn't frightening, she said, attributing her calm under fire to her years of training and battle simulation.

"I firmly believe that any other New Zealand Army soldier would've reacted exactly the same," she said.

"There is so much need in South Sudan that you can't possibly help everyone, so knowing you managed to help some people means you know you've done something good."

She's also coped well since returning to New Zealand and camp life at Linton.

Prior to deploying to South Sudan, she and her two Kiwi colleagues sat down with Defence Force psychologists, and a clinical psychologist, to mentally prepare themselves for what was well-known as a gruelling assignment. While abroad, they also had monthly check-ins with psychologists.

Childs said those proactive measures really helped.

"All of us experienced critical incidents, by definition, but we were really well prepared and able to talk about what happened. We're all doing really good," she said.

She welcomed the 2018 Poppy Appeal's theme of 'Not all wounds bleed' and said it reflected improving attitudes towards mental health in New Zealand.

"It's always been there and more needs to be done still, but we're getting better at acknowledging it and talking about it. That has to be a good thing," Childs said.

• NZME is an official media partner of this year's Pin A Poppy campaign. Visit www.pinapoppy.co.nz to donate – including the option to get a $3 virtual poppy via text

Where to get help

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.

Or if you need to talk to someone else:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
Samaritans 0800 726 666
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.