From combat to campus

Driven to a breakdown and forced to sell furniture to pay bills, a former soldier is helping other veterans find peace through university study. 

Having clambered to a happy outcome to his own ordeal, former combat engineer Aaron Cornwall is driven by his troubles to help other veterans transition from the military via Australian Catholic University’s pioneering Student Veterans Support Program (SVSP). 

“I found it hard to ask for help, and at that point we didn’t have the Program, but it needn’t be like that,” he said. 

“I genuinely believed we’d be OK, but still, I was studying fulltime, had no income and was selling furniture to pay for food. That was a tough time.” 

Surprisingly, hawking the family’s furniture was not the low point for the then-Bachelor of Exercise and Sports Science undergraduate as he juggled family responsibilities. 

That came earlier, around the birth of the couple’s son Oskar. The weight of work, study and care for a newborn child fuelled previously unsighted depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder stemming from his deployment in Afghanistan.  

As a High-Risk Searcher whose role it was to conduct route clearances looking for Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s) and weapons in the Uruzgan province, Mr Cornwall felt, mistakenly, he could cope with civilian life. 

Driven to drinking and bursts of ill temper, the young veteran recognised the red flags and sought medical intervention which led to emergency admission and treatment in a psychiatric hospital. 

“It was a rapid descent after our son was born,” he said. “I realised I just couldn’t do this. 

“That was a stressful time for my family and I can remember being stuck in hospital trying to explain to lecturers why I couldn’t make it to class.” 

The launch of the Student Veteran Support Program (SVSP) in 2019 and subsequent development of ACU’s comprehensive network of support programs marked a new era of peer connection and career possibilities. 

While Mr Cornwall at the time of his breakdown had a limited peer network, there are now 141 student veterans - up from 21 in 2019 - enrolled across ACU’s nine campuses.  

ACU’s Veteran’s Entry Program opens a portal for ex-servicemen and women into tertiary study and the SVSP and Veterans Transition Program (VTP) help support students along their learning pathway and equip them with key skills to succeed. 

Now a coordinator for Student Veterans Services and near the completion of a Master of Clinical Exercise Physiology at ACU, Mr Cornwall is confident there are strong, visible networks in place to guide former soldiers into civilian life. 

“I found the transition hard,” he said. “In the defence force we had a suck-it-up mentality and you always thought there’s someone worse off. 

“These programs are exactly what I needed when I was in trouble and now, I feel honoured to be in a position whereby I can help students facing similar challenges to mine.”     


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