Sandra Sully: The Incredible Story Of Ben Farinazzo Is Proof You Should Always Soldier On

At 6’2" and 120 kilograms, Ben Farinazzo is quite clearly an imposing figure.

What you need to know
  • The Invictus Games will be held in Sydney from 20 - 27 October 2018
  • Australia will field its largest ever team -- 72
  • A record 500 athletes from a record 18 allied nations will participate
  • Invictus Games is an international, adaptive multi-sports competition for current and former military personnel who have been wounded, injured or become ill during their military service

Not quite a man mountain but his broad, engaging smile, energetic spirit and towering figure provide the perfect cover for the tormented soul that lies within.

Ben is a friend and just one of the 72 former Australian soldiers who will compete at this October's Invictus Games in Sydney, and like so many of his teammates, this year’s games represent the culmination of one of his toughest battles yet.  

“Never stop fighting and do everything you can to lift up everyone around you” -- Prince Harry

He will compete in both the indoor rowing and power-lifting events and is certainly fit and strong, but his looks can be deceiving.  Such is the insidious nature of post traumatic stress disorder and, more broadly, mental illness.

In Ben’s case it’s the result of his experience being among the first troops deployed on the ground in East Timor, 19 years ago this week.

As Ben tells me: “I was an enthusiastic 25-year-old Army Officer... and next minute I was the official interpreter and community liaison officer for BRIG Mark Evans, Australian and Land Component Commander negotiating the handover of East Timor to the United Nations.”

Ben at military college in Duntroon. Image: Supplied.

In 1999 Australia was on the brink of a major confrontation with Indonesia. Ben had graduated from the Australian Defence Force Academy and Royal Military College, Duntroon.

He initially served as a Parachute Infantry Officer and then trained to become a Bahasa Indonesia interpreter and translator. 

Before he knew it, he was selected to be a part of INTERFET -- a United Nations Peace Enforcement mission to the then-Indonesian province of East Timor, which had erupted into violence following the vote for independence.

"Thursday, September 20 is the date that we deployed into Komoro airport in Dili, 19 years ago," said Ben.

Ben on the ground in East Timor. Image: Supplied.

The security situation on the ground was threatening to spiral out of control and Australia was given a mandate by the United Nations Security Council to organise and lead a multinational peacekeeping mission to East Timor, to which Indonesia reluctantly agreed.

Violence wracked the region and was sparked by militias opposed to East Timor’s overwhelming YES vote for independence, led by key Timorese political leader Xanana Gusmao, who had been calling for a UN peacekeeping force.

Ben meeting Xanana Gusmao. Image: Supplied.

As history shows, the East Timor intervention would be the critical turning point to the birth of the nation, but the lead-up was a brutal, bloody and violent chapter.

Massacres and the threat of slaughter were ever-present for this impoverished territory of around 900,000 people.

Children in East Timor. Image: Supplied.

As part of the first deployment into East Timor, Ben was confronted by horrific scenes, particularly surrounding the Suai church massacre.  Tortured bodies, children’s corpses, the bloodied human remains as Indonesia attempted to wipe-out all who opposed its control.

“INTERFET was the highlight of my military career," said Ben. "It provided an opportunity to put into practice all that I had trained for. The ability to communicate directly with the people and share their stories first hand was a blessing.   

"However, it also left deep mental scars that were left untreated and festered over a period of 15 years. It can be hard to comprehend the horrors that humanity can inflict on itself.”

And it's those horrors that have tormented Ben ever since.

After leaving Defence, Ben looked for opportunities in Indonesia, only to be confronted with the Bali massacres.  Again his help was sought in negotiating the evacuation of several Australians caught up in the drama.

He came home and took a role with Outward Bound Australia before the demons took hold and the black dog -- depression -- took over.

He was hospitalised for almost a year and diagnosed with a mental illness.  His wife Jodie and three children could only watch on in fear  that their beloved husband and father might never recover.

Ben was acutely aware of the challenges facing contemporary veterans and their families so he became a founding director and ambassador for Soldier On Australia.

But while out mountain biking he encountered another setback -- a fall that would see him break his neck and back in five places.

Ben on his long road to recovery. Image: Supplied.

For more than a year,  Ben never gave up on regaining his strength and never lost sight of the need to be there for his family.  He worked through the torture and unbearable pain of rehab to rebuild himself, physically and mentally.

Invictus Ambassador Ben giving a talk on the healing power of sport to the Department of Defence. Image: Supplied.

Fast track to 2018 and our dear friend Ben Farinazzo has been selected as a competitor for the Invictus Games here in Sydney, and couldn't be more excited to represent his country and make his family proud.

"My family is my life. My wife’s love, tenacity and strength has kept me alive and got me to these games. Like many others out in our community caring for those with mental and physical wounds, she is the unsung hero. The Invictus Games are to celebrate and recognise their courage, as much as those of the men and women competing,” said Ben.

Ben’s beautiful 15-year-old daughter Keely made the video at the top of this story -- for a school project -- as a tribute to her Dad, and I think it says it all.

Like so many other competitors at this year's Invictus Games, Ben's story is one of mental toughness, extraordinary courage and resilience.

All 500 competitors are wounded, injured or ill veterans finding their way back through sport and competition.

I implore all Australians to turn out in droves, or watch-on via broadcast.

Cheer them all loudly.

Let them know how proud we are of ALL of them.  And thankful.

Ben Farinazzo, I salute you, and I know Australia does too.