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Growing new life from the pain of war

Graham Edwards, the Perth Vietnam veteran who became a leading Labor Member of Parliament

Photo Credit AP, montage by David Guttenfelder

It's a single word - disability - but the spectrum it encompasses is huge.

Today, ANZAC day, provides an opportunity to focus on just one part of Australia's massive range of People with Disability (PwD).

Traumatic experiences can cause us to push our bodies to, and sometimes beyond, their limits. The cost can be huge.

Graham Edwards had joined the army in 1968. Two years later, in Vietnam, he lost both legs when a land-mine suddenly exploded while he was on patrol. Returned to Australia, Edwards was given a job with the defence department - one of the few organisations at that time that made some allowances for 'disabled people'.

Well, veterans anyway.

Edwards joined the Labor party and became a politician, first as a Minister in Carmen Laurence's state government in Perth and then making the move to Canberra and serving on the backbench in the early years of this century. That's where I first met him.

Although it's almost incredible to conceive, now, Parliament House had been built and designed (in the 1980's) without considering the needs of People with Disability (PwD) to access the building. At the time some 'special accommodations' needed to be made for Edwards, simply to allow him to work as a representative. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this was that the building's officers - the Department of Parliamentary Services - expected to be congratulated for simply ensuring that an MP could operate effectively.

Edwards worked to shape not just the building, but also its occupants. His efforts in the West and with defence issues greatly assisted in the election of Kevin Rudd in 2007, although Edwards also retired that same year.

Today, veterans' service is more appropriately remembered and supported.

Mark Topacio on patrol (Image supplied)

Although he grew up in the Philippines, Mark Topacio served as an Australian soldier before having multiple complex physical and psychological struggles of his own. When he left the army he began working in IT but couldn't find his place or purpose. Today the support needs of former soldiers are far better recognised than in Edwards' time, and Topacio was able to access specialist rehabilitation counselling.

Topacio insists he had a tough journey.

"At times, it felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel," he says. His answer was working with a dedicated rehabilitation consultant from a company specially devoted to getting people back into work and society.

Together with support from his partner Rachel and rehabilitation specialist Rehab Management, Topacio launched a Canberra business, Jungle Joes. "I found my purpose", he says.

His business promotes soil health, sustainable plant cultivation, and a sense of community around healthy plants and people.

Topacio is particularly keen to stress the vital role of broader support in helping him on his journey. "Rehab Management helped me identify my strengths, reflect on my goals, and provided me with the right support to create the purpose of Jungle Joes."

Rehab Management tailors its services to meet the unique needs of every individual they deal, providing physical and psychological rehabilitation, social engagement support, and vocational rehabilitation.

Which is why it seems right, on ANZAC day, to give the company a special plug for the work it does with veterans. The company says its consultants work collaboratively developing personalised plans to address their individual needs and goals.

This is vital task for everyone, not just those reintegrating into society after military service.

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