Ben Vahland knows all too well about the mental health challenges that can have devastating effects on a person’s life after service.

Ben has lost service mates to suicide and faced his own difficulties with mental health, and a conversation with a friend on the way to a mate’s funeral was a turning point.

“I just said, ‘You know what? There’s not enough being done for both our first responders and our ADF veterans. I just can’t sit on my hands anymore; I’ve got to work out how I can do something’.”

Never one to stand idly by, Ben got to work – and this marked the beginning of his connection to the RSL and its important, often life-changing work for veterans and their families.

It was 10 years after leaving the Royal Australian Navy that Ben decided the time was right to reconnect with other ex-service personnel.

He initiated informal wellbeing meetings for veterans and first responders in his local area and, following growing interest, the initiative received financial backing from the Warragul RSL Sub-Branch.

Ben’s motivation, innovation and passion have seen him become an intrinsic part of the Sub-Branch, having now served as its President for the past four years.

In that role, he’s witnessed the impact of funds raised for the annual ANZAC Appeal, which supports veterans and their families in times of need.

"The money from the Appeals is essential to keeping the RSL’s important work alive and supporting our veterans. Having that funding gives us the ability to be able to provide that support they really need – it might be something as simple as helping them to afford to get from A to B, or food vouchers, accommodation needs, or helping to pay bills."

Ben Vahland

With his own six years of naval service, and now a Senior Sergeant with Victoria Police based in Gippsland, Ben continues to dedicate his life to helping others and feels he's really found his place.

Ben feels that, as a first responder, he still has a connection to service.

"You join the police to help people, to help the community and it’s really no different to what you do when you join the military."

Ben Vahland

With his sights set on a career filled with opportunity, he left the bubble of his hometown in Wodonga on the Victoria/New South Wales border and joined the Royal Australian Navy fresh out of school.

Ben had limited knowledge about the navy, other than stories from his uncle who’d served as a Submariner.

He started at recruit school in 1997, followed by trade training where he became what was known as a Marine Technician, specialising in electrical. His first post was to HMAS Kuttabul at Garden Island, Sydney, all the while longing to get out to sea.

“It was one of the drawcards for me, it’s not all work and you join the navy to see the world.”

And he certainly did, with his naval career taking him to Singapore, Malaysia, East Timor, Fiji, Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, China, Japan and many Australian ports.

Ben’s first sea posting was to Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment ship HMAS Success in June 1999.

“I remember the first time going out of Sydney heads. I got crook, very, very seasick…I was concerned that my career might be really short,” he said, laughing.

He eventually gained his ‘sea legs’ and is full of fascinating stories from his time at sea.

One of his first missions was a stop-off at a small island in the South China Sea to assist with the recovery of a crashed F-111.

While Ben took this in his stride, a more harrowing experience awaited.

As tensions grew in East Timor, a 20-year-old Ben was deployed, arriving in September 1999.

Now, 25 years on, he still lives with vivid memories of his time there.

"The sheer destruction of the town just blew me away. I didn’t expect it would be on that scale; there were almost no buildings left."

Ben Vahland

Sights and smells haven’t left him.

“When we first arrived there, it was like everything was on fire. What many of the locals couldn’t destroy, they would set on fire. So, there was that very distinct smell of fire in the air.”

From implementing his technical experience and expertise on shore for various jobs, including demolition work and securing buildings from collapse, to staying on the ship, there were plenty of “hairy moments”, as Ben describes it.

“The Indonesians would sail a ship pretty much at us and then just turn away. Or another example was about three or four days in, we had to pick up anchor and move because they found that the militia had rocket-propelled grenades that could reach our ship.”

Some experiences were life-changing, although Ben didn’t realise it at the time.

“One of my key traumas was from East Timor, which I won’t go into, but that was probably the starting point of my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). You just think it’s normal to have nightmares about things that you’ve seen and done. It’s not until later and you know, mental health wasn’t a ‘thing’ back then.”

After returning from East Timor, Ben served for another four years, with most of it spent on HMAS Success.

A combination of personal family circumstances and a skin condition he developed from exposure to petrochemicals on the ship led Ben to think about discharging.

He started reintegrating back into civilian life by proactively pursuing outside interests, including a return to his beloved sports.

With an ongoing yearning to become a policeman, Ben transitioned out and pursued his next career move.

As fate would have it, three weeks into a road trip with a mate, Ben received welcome news he’d been accepted into the Police Force, finally fulfilling a lifelong ambition.

Now, the 46-year-old father of four deeply appreciates the significance of his work with Victoria Police and with the RSL.

“I’m proud to say that me and my team have changed lives and saved lives. That’s an amazing feeling; that’s an amazing reward for the work that we put into that veteran space.”

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