Saturday, December 29, 2012
By By KRISTEN GELINEAU
December 29, 2012 (AP)
In the exploding hell of battle, a single hand poked through the earth.
John Cantwell could see the ridges and calluses of the skin, and the pile of desert sand that had swallowed the rest of the Iraqi soldier. The troops Cantwell was fighting alongside in the Gulf War had used bulldozing tanks to bury the man alive.
This hand — so jarringly human amid the cold mechanics of bombs and anonymous enemies — was about to wedge itself, the Australian man would write decades later, "like a splinter under the skin of my soul." It would lead, along with other battlefield horrors, to the splintering of his mind and to a locked psychiatric ward. And it would lead to the abrupt end of a 38-year military career that saw him ascend to remarkable heights as the commander of Australia's 1,500 troops in Afghanistan.
In the process, Maj. Gen. Cantwell would become two people: a competent warrior on the outside. A cowering wreck on the inside.
He hid his agony to survive, to protect his loved ones and — he admits it — to pursue professional glory. But in the end, the man with two selves found he had lost himself completely.
A disheartening number of veterans suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. What made Cantwell so extraordinary was his ability to hide his escalating pain for so long, while simultaneously soaring through the military's ranks — eventually taking charge of an entire nation's troops in a war zone.
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Major General John Cantwell