EXCLUSIVE: "War has changed me"
THEY are among the toughest men on earth, soldiers facing endless days and nights in Afghanistan - hungry, thirsty, homesick and with the ever-present threat of the Taliban.
Among them was Gladstone martial arts instructor, Jason Hoad.
A father of three children, Tahlia 9, Kaiden 8 and Charlotte 5 and husband to Joanne, Mr Hoad lives with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and has learned to use martial arts as therapy, an outlet and coping mechanism.
He says there is a way out and light at the end of a dark tunnel for returning soldiers.
As a corporal in the Australian Army, Mr Hoad was the head commander of nine soldiers in his group.
"My job was to be attached to them as their infantry section, to go out and clear the area and do constant presence patrols," he said.
The Australian soldiers who trained the Afghan national army all lived in the same base. Their job was to train the Afghans and mentor them on patrol.
"Our job was to do the traditional Australian war fighting role," Mr Hoad said.
"If the Taliban were looking for a fight, then we would be the guys who would get involved with it all first."
The troops were based in Mirwais, which was the furthest base north.
"Tarinkot was the central hub of all the operations in Uruzgan and we were the furtherest base up north, by ourselves," he said.
He described that experience as unique with goods supplied by helicopter, some of which were flown by a 'couple of crazy Russian pilots'.
He said it was vital they didn't establish any predictability that the Afghan rebels could detect.
"One thing you can't do is set patterns...the Afghans hated to operate by night," he said.
"Literally if you had 10 Australian soldiers attached to them and it started getting dark, the Taliban were scared and they wanted to go home in the comfort of their bed."
"Our first patrol, we went up the hill and we were hit with the biggest improvised explosive device (IOD) that we know of, ever used in Afghanistan," Mr Hoad said
"The lucky thing for the engineers was that we were going up the hill when it hit us and so it literally picked the Bushmaster (vehicle) up and threw it 15-metres downhill, whereas if it had been a flatbed surface, it would have absorbed the whole impact.
There were broken ribs and legs and a spinal injury with three men flown to hospital in Germany, but Mr Hoad and his crew came through unscathed.
"We were the guys that got out and pulled them out of their vehicles," he said.
He admitted he was fortunate in the field with the advanced technology holding them in good stead.
He recalled patrolling a region called Gurjazai when the vibe, or atmospherics, of the locals told them something was up.
"I had 14 boys with me that day," he said.
"We noticed all the farms, all the tractors were running, the mills were running and the kids were out playing in the fields.
"We stopped and we did our Hearts and Minds missions which involved giving out soccer balls, drawing utensils and books to the children.
The men were nicknamed 'Bearded Devils' and the children were raised to think the soldiers were demons and not humans.
"It took years and years to break that culture down and so in each successive rotation we kept building on that trust, so that the kids would come and get used to approaching us," he said.
Giving the local children Nike signs on their shoes and spray-painting their bikes was also part of the goodwill.
"Just things to make the kids happy and when the parents see the kids happy, it builds that level of trust."
The built trust was in effect a strategy to encourage locals to give the Australians intelligence about where and when the Taliban would strike.
Part of the strategy to deter the Taliban was to 'pretend' that when the soldiers were doing their patrols, they would make out they were beating the locals, which would ensure the Taliban the right thing was being done.
"It was just an act so the Taliban would think 'ah great, they wont tell the Aussies anything'," he said.
Mr Hoad also did tours of duty in Timor and Iraq and he recognised there were problems when he returned home from Afghanisatan.
"It took two-and-a-half years before I actually started seeking professional help," Mr Hoad said.
"I was diagnosed with chronic PTSD and major depression disorder... because I was being induced in stressful environments all the time, my brain literally stopped producing serotonin."
He was put through suicide clinics and was fortunate to meet some Vietnam veterans who told him he was on his way to ending his life.
It turned him around and inspired him to help soldiers who were going through the same thing.
"It changed me. I can guarantee you I appreciate each day more after going through Afghanistan."
Mr Hoad takes daily medication and will do for the rest of his life, but he has found peace iside himself.
"There's three things that got me through; my wife and kids, listening to heavy metal music and Jiu-Jitsu."