Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO)
Australia’s military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq is often referred to as the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO). Thousands of personnel have deployed to the MEAO since 2001, with many completing multiple tours of duty.
Operation Slipper (Australia’s contribution to the war in Afghanistan) commenced in late 2001, shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks, and officially ended on 31st December 2014. Naval, air and land forces participated as part of a multi-national coalition. Operation Slipper is notable for the first Australian combat deaths since the Vietnam War, with 42 Australian soldiers killed and 256 wounded.
Australia was also part of the ‘coalition of the willing’ that invaded Iraq in 2003. The Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, was deposed and later executed, leaving a power vacuum fuelled by corruption and the Sunni-Shiite divide. Australian troops remained in the country under various combat and training operations until mid-2009. Three Australian military personnel died in accidents or during service with British forces in Iraq and many were wounded.
These have often been difficult and dangerous deployments. The desert landscape is harsh and barren, with temperatures ranging from below freezing to above 50°C, and living conditions are often extremely basic. Potential danger is always present – searching for Taliban fighters while half-blinded by a dust storm, creeping round blind corners with the constant possibility of confronting an enemy soldier or a child with a grenade, or finding and defusing improvised explosive devices.
Psychiatric casualties have always been, and always will be, a part of war and the MEAO is no exception. There are no ‘front lines’ in the MEAO – the potential threat is all around and the ‘enemy’ is not clearly identifiable, resulting in the need to be constantly hypervigilant and alert. It can be hard to adjust back to normal life after spending many months in a state of constant high arousal. On the other hand, there is much greater awareness of these issues than ever before. More support and better services are available, both in the MEAO and on return to Australia. Although most military personnel are adjusting well following their return from the MEAO, many are not. It is our duty to provide those who develop mental health problems with rapid access to the best possible care and treatment.