Saltwater veteran healing on the seas after grenade blast

Darren Harvey bore the brunt of a live grenade explosion that injured 16 Australian soldiers during a training exercise 33 years ago. He and fellow veterans now find solace in sailing.

Sep 20, 2022, updated Sep 20, 2022
Saltwater veterans Darren Harvey (left) and Nick Grant at Outer Harbor. Pic: Belinda Willis/InDaily

Saltwater veterans Darren Harvey (left) and Nick Grant at Outer Harbor. Pic: Belinda Willis/InDaily

Last month, the Adelaide veteran was among 45 to receive a group commendation from the Chief of Army.

Recruits in the 15/88 Amiens Platoon were awarded the Level Three group Commendation for putting themselves in harm’s way to assist fellow soldiers injured by the detonation of an unexploded grenade at the Singleton Military Area in New South Wales in February, 1989.

It was a moving ceremony for Harvey, who spent two years in rehabilitation after the blast. He suffered spinal, nerve and lung damage and shrapnel is still embedded in his body.

“That changed all of our lives in that split second,” Harvey says from the waterside at the Royal Squadron Yacht Club.

“One of the soldiers kicked a live grenade and we were blown up. It was a long and hard recovery, a lot of people were affected.”

Harvey is at Outer Harbor, talking about how sailing has helped with his recovery, and about the Saltwater Veterans group he joined to support other service men and women dealing with the long-term effects of their Defence service.

He talks about the trauma of the grenade blast, the ongoing pain, the arthritis, the fact that he cannot be medically scanned because of the shrapnel in his body, and of the baggage many other veterans carry.

“The veterans are quite complex, they may have physical or psychological trauma or they may have difficulty re-integrating after leaving the defence forces,” Harvey says.

Sailing helped with his healing and now he is determined to help others access the same opportunity.

“When you are on a boat with a team, especially on a smaller boat, conversations come up and it’s quite private, they might need help or some advice: whatever is discussed stays on the boat.”

It was two years ago that South Australian Senator David Fawcett joined forces with Invictus and the Cruising Yacht Club of SA to start a veterans’ sailing program, with funding support from defence company Northrop Grumman Australia.

The former experimental test pilot and commanding officer at the RAAF Aircraft Research and Development Unit in Edinburgh had learned about significant Israeli research showing sailing could help veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Five veterans undertook the first five-day program.

Numerous groups have since been through the course and then been united with the Saltwater Veterans group that now meets regularly at Outer Harbor.

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Nick Grant is among them. He served in the Navy for 10 years and after later moving to Adelaide from Western Australia, looked to reconnect with other veterans.

Darren Harvey and Nick Grant. Pic: Belinda Willis/InDaily

He helped establish the Saltwater Veterans, giving those who completed the initial sailing course a way to continue regularly sailing and to meet with other veteran families.

Recently, soldiers from 7RAR from Edinburgh joined the Saltwater crew to sail. The 7RAR captain wanted to find a way support their mental health after they returned from supporting flooded communities in Queensland and New South Wales.

“Some of our participants carry with them a lot of baggage from the service, some have PTSD, anxiety disorders, depression, you can see it in their eyes, some are thankful to get out of the funk of staying in their rooms,” Grant says.

“On the personal side of things, when I’m actually sailing on the water, I am drawn to the peace of sailing, I always get a thrill when that engine first clicks off and we are still sailing across the water, there’s a certain kind of magic there.”

Harvey and his wife Christine have developed a deep connection with sailing after initially learning the ropes to fulfil their dream of exploring the  Whitsundays and New Caledonia “with sunsets and pina coladas”.

They now have their own yacht that they share with the Saltwater veterans. Harvey is a qualified instructor, and the two have travelled around the Whitsundays three times.

“In the process I realised it provided peace,” he says.

“Being on the ocean, sailing, had a depth to it I didn’t realise I would discover – the teamwork, your own responsibility of being in the moment was very special to me,” he says.

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