The enduring legacy of post-traumatic stress
IT was never going to end well for Dick Devers.
"You're not game," the 33-year-old told his assailant.
Moments later, a shotgun blast tore through his neck, killing him instantly.
The gunman was his father-in-law.
It was a terrible death for a man who'd survived the horrors of Gallipoli and Pozieres and the debacle of Bullecourt - where he was captured, spending more than a year in a German prison camp.
He'd been shot in the foot and the knee, suffered persistent illness … and then there was the shell shock. An unusual note in his records shows that on August 17, 1916, he was signed off sick, with the medic citing "shell shock".
Despite the common perception that it was a standard term for what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, historian Michael McKernan said this is a rare and early official use of the term, said - one not often seen in a wartime dossier.
"Shell shock' is a term which the authorities tried to suppress, in case it produced escalating numbers of young men seeking to flee the front line," McKernan said.
The diagnosis may well explain how Devers' life unfolded post-war.
On his return, he worked itinerant jobs for Queensland's Redcliffe council, but was dogged by tragedy, losing two children between 1928 and 1929 - including four-year-old David, who he called "Digger".
The troubled veteran looked for solace at the bottom of the bottle, getting "madder and madder" each time; and routinely terrorising his family, court records show.
On January 12, 1929, Devers went drinking at the Moreton Bay Hotel. He found wife Lillian sheltering from him at her parents' house in Caroline St, Woody Point.
Screaming for Lillian to come home, he threatened to "burn the house down".
"It won't be stretcher-bearers this time, it will be coffins," he told the family gathered inside.
"I am not scared to die and go to Digger, but someone will go before me."
As Lillian tried to run for help, Devers grabbed her around the neck; an act that would be the final straw for her father Thomas Chrystal. He seized a double-barrelled gun and after a struggle, a blast knocked Devers to the ground, killing him instantly.
In court, evidence of years of violence and alcohol abuse convinced the jury after just 10 minutes of deliberation that the old man should walk free.
The story of Dick Devers' life and death is one of thousands of accounts of stress disorder suffered by WW1 veterans, but it is impossible to know the numbers with any certainty, said McKernan.
"We'll never know the true figures (for) victims of shell shock but it is likely that almost every man who served in frontline trenches for a reasonable period of time, say a month or two, suffered from shell shock in varying forms of severity," he said.
"(Devers') doctor was just more honest and perhaps more searchingly a thinker than most."
With almost 332,000 Australians serving in WW1 - the vast majority in the army, although not all were in combat units - that is an enormous number.
The Australian Defence Force today estimates that about 8.3 per cent of its members will have experienced PTSD in the last 12 months. Studies say that rate is "significantly higher" than the general community, which is estimated at 5.2 per cent.
A spokesman from the Department of Veterans' Affairs said understanding and treatment of the condition "has advanced immeasurably in the past century, since it was known colloquially as 'shell shock'."
Free and confidential support services are now available for veterans and their families for life.
"Mental health support for serving and ex-serving personnel is now readily available and early intervention is encouraged."
Support is available at Open Arms on 1800 011 046 and www.OpenArms.gov.au