Phil Thompson: A Life In Motion

Author:
Kylie Hatfield
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Born in New South Wales, Phil grew up in Queensland, but there is little beyond that that he recalls.

“I don’t remember a lot of my childhood. I have little bits of memory, like, what primary school I went to, what high school I went to, but not much. My memory comes and goes…I only remember big events in my life, and childhood wasn’t one of them,” said Phil.

With only a basic memory of the limited high school and work that he did prior to enlisting, Phil remembers key people, but no details.
 
Enlisting in the Australian Army in 2006 at the age of 17, Phil underwent training at both Kapooka and Singleton before being posted to the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment in Townsville. A year later Phil deployed to East Timor, and later to Afghanistan.

“I only remember bits and pieces of service prior to Afghanistan. I remember bits and pieces of East Timor. I think as I’m getting older my memory is getting worse!” said Phil.

After a six-month deployment in East Timor, Phil returned to the Battalion and went into the recon platoon, moving to Charlie Company from there. Deploying to Afghanistan at the end of May 2009, Phil was wounded when
Phil Thompson on patrol with his Battalion in East TimorImage source: Phil Thompson
 
he was on a combined Afghan National Army and Australian dismounted patrol when an improvised explosive device detonated within one metre of him.

“(In Afghanistan) I was part of the operational mentor liaison team (OMLT) and I was based at patrol    base Qudas with the Afghan National Army. I think I was there for six or seven months before I was wounded,” said Phil.

“I remember a dust cloud and the medic running in, pulling me out and checking me over. I don’t really remember much after that. I had stuff on my sunglasses, like little pebbles, so I couldn’t see out of them.”

“I remember a ringing in my head, but that could just be – that’s always there so it could just be me thinking that.”
 
“But I don’t remember much. Just a big dust plume, and the medic running in to help me, which was pretty brave to run into where an explosion has just happened, to pull someone backwards to safety.”

Medically evacuated from Afghanistan to Dubai and then back to Australia, Phil underwent scans to assess brain injury and hearing. The incident left Phil with an array of medical conditions, both primary and sequential. The main conditions – server bilateral hearing loss, bilateral tinnitus, post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and a traumatic brain injury – have changed Phil’s life dramatically.
Phil Thompson with some local kids in AfghanistanImage source: RSL News
 

“It has pretty much impacted the whole thing: I can’t remember, (I get) anxiety, I can’t work in the job I wanted to, which was Defence. I would say it had a pretty big impact. My mental health comes and goes; it is quite fluid, it is up and down,” said Phil.

Whether his memory loss is a burden or a blessing is unclear, as Phil’s ability to find the positives and his resilience to push forward has kept him moving, both literally and figuratively.
“It is what it is. It’s about resilience and understanding that it’s ok to push forward, to get yourself up and keep going,” said Phil.

“But I’m usually in a good place because helping people puts me in a good space. And giving my knowledge and information to other people helps as well.”

Following a variety of jobs after discharging in 2011, Phil wanted to give back and was grateful to land a position as a pensions and welfare officer at RSL (Queensland Branch).

“(The role) kind of puts you in the space of helping. It opens your mind a little to what actually happens; what legislation people are under, the hoops people have to jump through, and I think it’s important that people know and understand that,” said Phil.

“Because when you’re in a fragile state, you want things done yesterday and that can become a key stressor. And then things can become bad; they’re not, but in (a veterans’) mind it is.”

Phil now works for the Mental Illness Fellowship of North Queensland, managing a veterans’ peer support program, which pairs veterans with lived experience together.

“We take someone who is tracking relatively ok, and someone who is maybe not tracking so well, and we pair them together, supported by psychologists,” said Phil.

“It is non-rank focused and non-clinical; it gives them someone to talk to, like a buddy system.”

“Usually, if you’re not travelling well, you go see your friend, or brother, sister, family…in Defence we don’t really have that, because my family’s probably not going to understand what I’m talking about. But talking to someone who understands us, like someone you’re paired with, that can help.”

While Phil has found a position that enables him to both work and give back to veterans, his passion for sport as both a rehabilitative and a wellbeing tool has taken him around the world. In 2014 Phil participated in the inaugural Invictus Games for wounded, injured and ill veterans, held in London.
 
The brainchild of Prince Harry, the Invictus Games uses the power of sport to motivate recovery, support rehabilitation and generate a wider understanding of the sacrifices made by the men and women who serve their country. Competing in powerlifting, Phil took more from the experience than success in the events.

“I had the opportunity to speak to the likes of Prince Harry, but more importantly, other wounded, injured and ill veterans from around the world. I got to have a good chat to them and learn best practices for what we can bring back here and create that network,” said Phil.

For the second Invictus Games, held this year in Orlando, Florida, Phil was involved as the powerlifting and wheelchair rugby coach, appreciating the different point of view.

“I think it’s very important that there’s a life cycle with wounded, injured and ill veterans; you can’t just sit in
one spot, you need to create or be involved in all different levels, otherwise you won’t develop,” said Phil.
Phil Thompson at Lavarack Barracks in TownsilleImage source: RSL News
 
“It’s also important to show others that there is existence after being wounded; you don’t have to settle for mediocre or being at the bottom of the barrel. Having people in captain’s spots, coaching spots, manager’s spots, you need people that can go into those positions to show everyone that they too can do this.”

Getting involved in sport at a number of levels has opened Phil’s mind to the impact that it can have on veterans of all eras, ages and abilities. With the belief that it’s not about recovery – as you may not ‘recover’ from mental illness – Phil focuses on sport as being about wellbeing.

“Sport is so amazing, there is no wrong door. There is no injury you can come to me with that I can’t find something for you,” explains Phil.

“There was a veteran with no legs and only one arm, and they competed in archery (at the Invictus Games). So there’s nothing you can’t do.”

Believing that veterans should be given a hand-up, not a hand-out, Phil takes a tough stance on excuses, and leads by example in that regard.
 
“It’s not enough to say you are wounded or injured, I won’t accept it. There’s got to be the people who go ‘rubbish, why not? Let’s do it!’ If I tell another wounded person that they can do it, it resonates much better than coming from someone who isn’t wounded, injured or ill. We are not defined by our injuries; we are defined by our actions,” said Phil.

“There’s a difference between being uncomfortable and unwell. If you’re uncomfortable that’s good, because that’s where you develop and grow as a person; if you are unwell that’s fine also however, what’s there in place for you to get better?”
Phil Thompson pointing out the Middle East on the map at the Townsville CenotaphPhil at Townsville cenotaph, 2016
Image source: RSL News

 
At just 27 years of age, Phil is an unofficial representative of a younger generation of veterans. His views on the RSL are strong and, many his age would agree, relevant.

“People always say ‘RSLs, they’re just about beers, pokies and parmy’s’, which, yeah, everyone likes. But for people between the ages of 17 and say 40, they want to be out playing sport, getting active,” said Phil.

“There will be a time when I won’t be able to play sport, and I will be looking for a beer and a parmy, but that time isn’t now. In the meantime, it’s sport.”

Believing that both sport can play a large part in the RSL’s engagement of his cohort, and that actions speak louder than words, Phil is doing what he can to lead the movement into incorporating sport into the RSL.

“If nothing is said, then nothing is done. You can’t point the finger at things and say you don’t like it if you aren’t willing to change it,” said Phil.

“Coming in with sport, you are going to open the doors to the younger generations being involved. At the moment, we do have things that younger people can be involved in, but sport is the key.”

Working within facilities like Mates4Mates in Townsville that has an equipped gym and a full-size court for a variety of sports, Phil believes the garrison city could become a hub for adaptive sports, providing another outlet for wounded, injured and ill current and former serving Defence personnel, and is excited about what the future in this area might bring.

“Sport resonates with the youngest person and the oldest person. The other week we had a 60-year-old playing wheelchair basketball with an 18-year-old. There’s no age gap there,” said Phil.

“We are bridging the gap; it doesn’t matter how old or how young you are, or what your injury is, there is something for you.”