Thanks to his brave, unconquerable soul, Australian Army veteran and mental health ambassador, Ben Farinazzo, has stared down adversity and recovered to become a beacon of hope for all of us. Over Father’s Day breakfast, Ben shared his story.
Ben Farinazzo knows the words to William Ernest Henley’s poem, Invictus (see bottom of article), by heart, because he has lived it. Few Australians have experienced the “fell clutch of circumstances” quite like this Australian Army veteran and ambassador for mental health and Invictus Australia. Leaving school aged 16 to join the army, Ben was deployed as a translator in East Timor as part of INTERFET. Here he saw “the best and worst of humanity” and on his return to home soil suffered from debilitating PTSD. After spending a year in hospital, he was discharged, only to suffer a broken neck and back almost immediately in a mountain bike accident. With his unconquerable soul, Ben dug deep, recovered, and taking it step-by-step – from feeding himself and holding a broom handle, to lifting weights – went on to win two indoor rowing gold medals for Australia in the Invictus Games, as well as compete in powerlifting.
Over our recent Father’s Day breakfast, Ben, flanked by his three children, Max, Keely and Tom, shared his incredible journey, as well as what fatherhood has meant to him. Here is his story…
“I saw the best and worst of humanity on my deployment to East Timor in 1999. I got out of the military and had a number of jobs over the next decade or so, but in the background my mental health kept deteriorating. It got to a point where I was no longer able to look after myself and I found myself in hospital trying to put the pieces of my life back together. I thought I’d be there for a weekend, or a week, or a month… I ended up being in hospital for about a year. And every time I tried to step out of hospital, it was like starting at the sun and I just had to shut my eyes and come back to seek refuge.
“I managed to reach my goals of getting out by Christmas to spend with my family. I got a mountain bike for Christmas; I had wanted it for years. I got my mountain bike and I took it for a ride up around the hills around the back of our house in Queanbeyan and on the way home I just came out of a small footbridge and went over the edge. I woke up on Australia Day 2015 to find myself… the doctor said, ‘Do not move, big fella, you’ve broken your neck and back in five places; if you move, you’ll probably die.’ So I lay pretty still!
Over the course over the next three years, with the tremendous support of these kids and my beautiful wife, Jodie, I found myself back on my feet and back into life. And I found myself standing in the bright lights of Sydney Olympic Park in green and gold representing Australia in indoor rowing and powerlifting. My goal of getting there absolutely blew me away, just to be there with so many of my mates who had been through so many physical and psychological challenges as a result of their service. The best was yet to come. I walked away with two gold medals for Australia. I thought I’d come back to my wheat field at home, you know, pictures of Gladiator (laughs), but life is only beginning again. Today, I support a number of charities and organisations like Lifeline, Beyond Blue, Soldier On, Invictus Australia and Kookaburra Kids in the areas of mental health and veterans. I use the healing power of sport to connect people with those organisations and shine a light of hope on those people that are still experiencing times of darkness.
“How did I make it through? For me, I think I wanted to experience life to the best of my human abilities. And if that was limited in any way by things to do with my mental health or the physical side, then I wanted to look through it to still see the beauty that was out there and to experience the love and connection I have with my family and the world around me. I tried to be funny about it and make all these jokes, but I had to dig really deep at the time and now I’m able to enjoy the spoils of this breakfast with some lovely people and my kids.
“With my three kids, Max, Keely and Tom, I just remember that feeling when the kids were born… it was something that my mum had said to me, that ‘the world will never be the same again.’ And that it changes. Each and every time my kids were born the world seemed to change and become a better place. And as a father, I’ve just felt it important to help them stand in an ever-changing world with confidence, compassion and be ready to withstand life’s storms. And in doing that, also knowing to be open and vulnerable and to form human connections, but then to have that inner strength to be able to stand back up and keep going with life again. It’s been wonderful sharing that journey with them. There’s been wonderful times as a father where I’ve been able to help them. But on the flip side, there have been tremendous opportunities for them to help me as well.”
“I think one of the things I like most about dad is his ability to be strong and a leader and firm, but also to be kind and compassionate and to be able to have a balance of both of those things. There are times he has really helped myself and my siblings get through tough times, but approach life, I guess, in a way that is balanced.”
INVICTUS – By William Ernest Henley
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.