One of Australia’s strongest men was afraid people would think he was weak.
On the outside, he was a hulking 193cm and 160kg. He was in the Guinness Book of World Records for feats of strength that included pulling a bus, a train and a 189-tonne Hercules aircraft.
But on the inside, he was a “quivering mess”.
“What you see is rarely what you get,” former AFP Commander Grant Edwards tells news.com.au.
The 58-year-old is fresh off a morning jog. We’re talking about a career that few Australian officers can boast.
Two years in Afghanistan. A year in East Timor. Time spent working with counter-terror teams in Los Angeles and Washington D.C.
But his sparkling 34-year career took its toll on him. Mr Edwards talks openly about the time he tried to take his own life – when post traumatic stress disorder from years of confronting the worst of humanity head-on led to graphic flashbacks and vivid nightmares.
He recalls two events that left a permanent scar on his psyche.
The first was when we was called to the Central American nation of Belize to help police track down a serial killer.
“I went down to Belize after they asked for help with a serial murder of five young girls,” he says.
“The person that did it was very adept with a scalpel, that’s all I’ll say.”
The girls, aged between eight and 14, disappeared between 1998 and 2000. They included girls from single-parent homes who were taken from the school playground.
One of the girls who went missing went unnoticed for three days because her parents thought she was with relatives and the relatives thought she was with her parents.
The victims were cut with a scalpel in a way that led officers to believe the killer knew how to use it.
“The autopsy showed the scalpel was enough to inflict pain but not cause death,” Mr Edwards says. “Four of five bled out. That sits with you. They never caught him. There’s a moral injury to that sort of stuff.”
The veteran cop returned to Australia but there was more trauma waiting to be inflicted on him there.
Specifically, it came in the form of child exploitation material that he had to view as part of a new role. It included graphic sexual abuse of children.
One video he watched impacted him more than the rest.
“That’s what we did, day in day out. Watching footage of children as young as six months old, horribly abused,” he says. “That’s where my behaviour changed. I had a young daughter at the time.
“One specific video that never left my mind had been sent to us from a Polish investigation. A British officer had seen it online and heard what he thought was a kookaburra in the background.
“He said, ‘That’s Australia’ – and he was right. In the video there was a man who had a young girl in the bush and paid her $5. Immediately she started to cry because she knew what was coming next.
“He would inject her with something and she’d go unconscious.”
The man, who turned out to be a NSW police officer, would then abuse the young girl.
After he was caught, it was revealed the victim was his own granddaughter.
“That’s one I ask, ‘Why does that resonate?’ I just have a vision that I can’t get rid of.”
Grant Edwards’ greatest supporter was his wife. She noticed changes in him before he noticed them himself.
“I’d only been home a week and started to get physical issues,” he says.
He was experiencing hyper-vigilance and once hit the ground when he heard rapid gunfire from a paintball tournament. He told psychiatrists but they dismissed it.
“My wife started picking things up. I started to withdraw from my family. Started to rely on alcohol and sleeping aids.
“My wife was the one who started to try and find answers. I always say the loved ones are the canary in the coal mine; they pick it up first.”
His GP diagnosed him with PTSD and, after initially resisting, the AFP commander soon found peace in talking about his mental health. It’s what he does every day now.
He will be supporting Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday when he launches a new mental health initiative to help first responders – ambulance workers, police, firefighters, doctors and nurses.
Based on a successful UK model, Peak Fortem is a free online program that equips first responders and their families with proactive tools to build their mental fitness and work through trauma. It helps them understand what to look for and how to deal with issues surrounding PTSD.
A 2018 study showed as many as 40 per cent of workers and 33 per cent of volunteers were diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point in their life. That is compared to one in five for the general Australian population.
“For a long time I wouldn’t acknowledge that I had it,” Mr Edwards says.
“I knew things weren’t right. I said, you get old, these things happen. I didn’t know the impact on family and loved ones. Having gone through therapy, I realise it was a cumulative effect.”
He says his diagnosis was the last thing he wanted to hear.
“I thought, ‘Shit, my career is gone.’ All those things the stigma raises in my mind. If I take this, it’s on my record. I’ll lose my security clearance.”
But his bosses were more than supportive. They spoke openly with him about his condition and worked with him on a plan that kept him in the job.
Now retired from the force, he wants to help others cope with a condition that affects so many.
He says Peak Fortem is especially helpful to family members who are often left out when a loved one gets PTSD.
“You get the people doting over you. The family and loved ones get nothing. This whole mental fitness tool is great because it builds mental health literacy. I really didn’t know what mental health was before. There’s nothing really like it.”
For more information, visit fortemaustralia.org.au