BOOKS: Peter Stefanovic opens up about life after war zones

I COULDN'T escape a single thought. Bodies pulled from debris, lifeless children zipped up in bags, bloated faces and missing limbs. A mother's cry, a child's scream.

A charred corpse lying on the ground, alone, away from the family he or she may have had. Dark and disturbing images flashed across my mind like a short traumatic film on repeat. All the death and chaos that I had seen on the road rushed back over me like a tidal wave.

I was on holiday in Spain towards the end of 2011, a year that had ranked as one of the most brutal in recent history.

Wars, conflicts, massacres, bloody revolutions, riots and upheaval, and I had been at the centre of many of them.

It was a clear sunny day. A real five-star sparkler where the sky is the bluest of blues and the trees are the greenest of greens. I walked around Madrid, photographing the beautiful royal palaces and the centuries-old sandstone monuments. Then out of nowhere, panic set in.

I have a small spot on my leg that's been there for 20 years, but all of a sudden I thought it was skin cancer and I was going to die. Rather dramatic, I know, but it was the trigger that led to more drastic thoughts.

I started worrying about my own mortality and that film in my head began to play again. Any rational thought fled my brain as if it had no place there any more. With quick steps and quick breaths, I walked several kilometres back to my hotel room, locked myself in and didn't leave for 24hours.

The film in my head played on and on. I tried reading - didn't work. I played music, loudly - no change. I stood in the shower for about an hour but still the thoughts consumed me. There was no one to talk to, no one to ask what the hell was happening to me.

I ended up phoning my mum, who is a trained counsellor, and she told me that the brain is like a filing cabinet and, without me even knowing it, my brain was constantly storing pages and pages of information - sights, sounds, and smells. But there can come a point where the cabinet can't store any more information and the pages burst out.

My mental pages were filled with images of horror and misery. The garbage trucks filled with Haiti's dead, the warplanes and missiles from Libya and Egypt, the mayhem of a burning London, the insanity of a lone gunman terrorising Oslo - it was all there. Was it post-traumatic stress? Or a panic attack? Or was I just burnt out?

I couldn't understand it. I was only 29 and I was enjoying my work. I felt physically and mentally ripe, but I was consumed with thoughts of my own mortality.

I managed to feel a little better the next day and so finished my holiday in Spain, but flying in a plane became a major mental hurdle. It had never been a problem before.

I thought that the more I flew the greater my chances were of getting on a plane that was going to crash into a mountain or an ocean. I flew a lot - more than 100 times every year. My air mile programs were in great shape. Pity my head wasn't.

But I kept my new fears secret. I couldn't let them control me because my job was too important and I loved it more than I hated flying. So I just had to cop it.

I was a nervous wreck for most of every flight for the rest of that year, which provided ample entertainment to my cameraman James Gillings. He would often chuckle at my expense, but there were no hard feelings; I probably would have done the same to him.

The slightest hint of turbulence and I would grip the armrests tightly. I would constantly scan the cabin to see if any other passengers looked bothered. They never did. I felt every bump and every sway of the plane. Sweat would pour from my forehead and palms.

It was a tremendous relief whenever the plane I was on landed.

But in 2011 the fear wouldn't subside. Dark thoughts still lingered from my Spanish sojourn. When I returned to London, my friend and fellow Channel Nine correspondent Rob Penfold advised me to see a psychologist. I wasn't sure.

It's not something anyone in the industry really talks about.

It's sometimes incorrectly assumed that struggling with a story's aftermath makes you a weaker journalist. Not tough enough to deal with the hard stuff. At least that's what I thought.

The doctor I saw told me that the two most common stories discussed in her room by the journalists she saw at that time were the Libyan war and the Haitian earthquake.

Most of her journalist patients had been to one or the other. I had been to both.

What did you see? How did you feel?

It was strange for me not to be the one asking questions. I spoke of the things I saw and the people I spoke to, including all the violent sounds and the sickly smells. She kept probing until I couldn't remember any more.

She told me she regularly saw war reporters and it was nothing to be ashamed of, that it was perfectly natural to have constant flashbacks, which I did. If I heard a loud sound like a car backfiring, I would jump and my mind would race back to North Africa.

That still happens, even today. She told me I needed rest, and probably to talk to someone at home if I could. But there was the rub.

As a correspondent, I lived mostly on my own, so I never had anyone to discuss the life-threatening situations I had been in or the long arduous stories I had reported on once I returned home.

It stayed on my chest and in my head. Sights. Sounds. Smells. Images stewed in my mind until that filing cabinet had burst open in Spain.

There is a scene in the brilliant film The Hurt Locker where the lead character, played by Jeremy Renner, returns home to America from the war in Iraq and finds himself at a supermarket trying to select what cereal to buy. It was a scene that I could relate to.

I'm not suggesting my experiences were even close to those of serving soldiers on the frontline, but after being in conflicts where decisions are made that could potentially mean life or death, returning home to choose what to eat seems utterly insignificant.

Returning to 'normal society' after a violent news story can be a tricky adjustment. Not many people understand what you might have just seen.

As proud as I was of my job and the stories I aired, it was easier to stay hidden for a few days when I returned home. I preferred to lie on the couch and watch films until I was called to my next assignment, which usually wasn't that long.

Maybe that was the issue in 2011, because the big ugly stories happened back to back to back. There was no rest. No time to decompress. It all built up.

Decompression is a term many journalists use when they return home after covering a story that involves deep mental and emotional pressure. Perhaps it's similar to a diver plunging to new depths. Often we come home as a different person to the one who left because of what we've seen or heard or felt.

I only had one session with the psychologist. I was comforted by the fact that I wasn't the only journalist who needed to talk to someone. Mental cabinet restored.

I actually felt that the session made me a better reporter because afterwards I knew how to mentally compartmentalise and to decompress when the cameras stopped rolling.

Sometimes I would burst into spontaneous fits of laughter at the absurdity of some of the situations my cameramen and I found ourselves in.

One week James Gillings and I were in the Middle East being threatened with machetes or grenades, the next we were at a royal wedding discussing the intricacies of royal protocol and tradition. Humour often pulled us through.

Being a foreign correspondent is truly the greatest profession and I always regarded my time travelling the world as a great privilege. I was lucky to be covering the biggest world events in recent history. I put my heart into every single story I told and worked hard to air as much as I could.

That, to me, was important. The stories needed to be told and I believe Australians are intelligent people who want to know what is going on in the rest of the world because we live so far away. My time as a correspondent was not just a privilege, but also a real-life thrill ride.


This is an edited extract from Hack in a Flak Jacket by Peter Stefanovic, published by Hachette Australia RRP $29.99 and available now.


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