Combat veteran’s advice to farmers

Australian army special operations doctor Dan Pronk found settling into civilian life a battle...
Australian army special operations doctor Dan Pronk found settling into civilian life a battle after getting through 100 combat missions. The resilience specialist advises Kiwi farmers to do something about their mental health. PHOTO: TIM CRONSHAW
A combat veteran sent to four tours of front-line battle in Afghanistan has told dairy farmers to shrug off their tough guy image and take up meditation.

Australian author Dr Dan Pronk served on more than 100 combat missions as an army special operations doctor after passing SAS selection and hit the wall when he retired from service.

He talked to 400 farmers about stress and ways to build resilience — including meditation and "combat breathing" — as a top speaker at the South Island Dairy Event conference at Lincoln University.

"The eyes that are on this industry and the pictures they create are abnormal. You don’t get the average accountant going to work have some muppet in a cow suit yelling at them. This all adds to the stress because there is a social lens your industry gets viewed through and you’re out there just trying to do your best to maintain profitability and feed your family."

As a frontline doctor, some of the casualties he treated included fellow SAS soldiers, commandos, local civilians, and the enemy.

Dr Pronk ended up with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after leaving the armed forces in 2014 when losing close mates and being exposed to violence and the realities of front-line battle came to rest.

Being unable to save his friends in their final moments haunted him.

Reintegrating into civilian life was its own battle as he took to the bottle and leaned on sleeping pills. His anger was at a "hair trigger", he was in a state of high anxiety and struggling to cope with bad dreams, flashbacks and just be able to feel again.

He was feeling worse than ever even though on paper he was safer and earning more money than before he clocked out.

Dr Pronk said he had to work out the resilient factors he lost after discharging from the army and rebalance the scales for his mental health to keep functioning.

He said dairy farmers also had to develop resilience as they were in a "uniquely" high stress environment.

"It was completely normal as a doctor with those units to be responding to friends of mine who had been shot or blown up on the battlefield. What this talks to is the human ability to adapt to high stress environments. You spend long periods of time in high-stress environments and your body adjusts and adapts to that. It normalises and becomes your new normal and when we look at everyone in this room the dairy farming industry is a super high-stress environment. If you spend long periods of time immersed in that environment you normalise that stress and it was no different for us in the military.

"But this comes at a cost."

The cost was the body had to up-regulate its chronic response stress system and higher levels of hormones such as cortisol ramped people up, but activated too long and it burned them out, he said.

There were both mental and physical health consequences of being too long in this environment.

Dr Pronk said there were key ways to down regulate the body’s stress response system and build resistance.

He developed mechanisms such as practising meditation and mindfulness to control his thought patterns and others to wind down his body's stress response.

Meditation had been presented to him many times throughout his military career but he rejected it as being irrelevant for combat.

Now it’s known as being hugely relevant for people operating in high stress environments and the Australian SAS has a mindfulness and meditation programme.

"I get the impression from my interaction with the farming industry is that it’s similar culturally to the military in its response — a very stoic mindset, keep your chin up and often these cultures are very dismissive, but this is highly relevant. And if there is one thing you should take away from today’s presentation is that all of you should be practising some sort of mindfulness and meditation to be able to wind down your chronic stress response."

As little as 10 to 12 minutes started to have positive effect from two weeks. Apps guiding box-breathing techniques in four second intervals — called combat breathing in the miliary — helped people to wind down stress.

Dr Pronk said alcohol was often wrongly used as a coping strategy as it slowed the brain down, but only helped people sleep for three to five hours and was no substitute for good sleep, diet and exercise.

The simple act of being grateful and focusing on positives had benefits. Studies show people practising gratitude had lower levels of cortisol and higher levels of a neuro-chemical called serotonin which regulates the mood.

Social interaction to build resilience is also important.

For him, tapping into his uniform-wearing tribe who understood the stress he was under for support was a great way of maintaining resilience, but the down side was he could never be truly vulnerable with them.

He said family and friends provided good support for dairy farmers, but would not understand the stress as they did not have the shared experience.

His wife of 20 years, who encouraged him to hang up his army boots just before his third son was born, was the one person he could open up to and be authentic, he said.

"So I could go away on these tours to Afghanistan and I’d lost countless mates over the years and hold it together for that trip and come home, drop the bags, give her a hug and burst into tears. That was the sense of vulnerability that I could have and having as few as just one deep vulnerable relationship moves the needle."

Mental health professionals might also not understand the pressure, but had the professional tools to thrive in a high-stress environment. He sees a psychologist regularly and recommends it to farmers.

Dr Pronk wanted to be a professional triathlete, and when this failed, he studied medicine on an army scholarship.

He’s gone on to publish best-selling books, relaxes by skateboarding and restoring cars and created Delta Automotive, which builds limited edition classic sports cars, as well as being a medic on the TV show, SAS Australia.


Rural Conversations - ‘What steps are you taking to stay competitive and resilient in the face of domestic and global challenges’