Service, courage, duty, and fellowship were values that guided James McMahon’s career in the Australian Defence Force – and they are values he sees reflected in the mission of St John of God Health Care, where he now serves as a director.
James was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal for leadership and command in action in Timor-Leste, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The SAS Squadron he led was awarded the Meritorious Unit Citation for exemplary performance in Timor-Leste, and he was Commanding Officer of the SAS Regiment awarded the Meritorious Unit Citation for sustained outstanding service in Afghanistan. James is currently the Chief Operating Officer at Australian Capital Equity and was previously Commissioner for the Department of Corrective Services in Western Australia and Chief Operating Officer at Azure Capital. He was named Western Australian of the Year 2019 for his service to the community.
This year, as Anzac Day approaches, James took time to sit down with CHA’s Health Matters to reflect on what the day means, on the newly announced Royal Commission into Veteran Suicide, and on the parallels he sees between his service in the military and his work with St John of God Health Care.
ON THE ENDURING RELEVANCE OF ANZAC DAY
“Anzac Day is a reminder to remember those that really sacrificed for what we’ve got today. But it’s also a reminder of the values they lived.
It’s those values, in my view, that kept them together. It’s what allowed them to go from defeat to defeat into victory eventually.
On all the deployments I’ve done – Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq – I’ve seen men and women who have displayed incredible courage by going out of a safe area into a non-safe area. It takes courage to leave the compound. It takes courage to set foot in that operational area.
That’s the courage we remember on Anzac Day, the courage of the Anzacs to face defeat after defeat but to carry on.
Then when I think about COVID, what we saw was similar courage. Caregivers knew they were going into an uncertain threat environment. They needed the same kind of courage.
They had to step into that room with someone they know had COVID, and in those early stages you didn’t really know what that was. It was uncertain.
I take my hat off to any men and women who know they are going into a threatening environment.
When you step off the aircraft and into the theatre in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Timor, you’re not sure what’s on the next corner. And if you think about the Anzacs, they would have approached that beachhead thinking it was fine.
When I talk about the parallels between caregivers and soldiers, I’m not talking about the relative level of threat. That’s a moot point for me, because what I’m talking about is the courage to face uncertainty. All of these environments can kill you. It’s about the courage to face that.
I’m proud to be part of an environment where you see caregivers stepping up to do their duty, to take on a disease, even when they don’t understand the full extent of it yet.”
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF FAITH
“In my early deployments to Afghanistan, there was a lot of fighting. On that first deployment, I couldn’t take a padre or any pastoral care. Because of the force numbers in getting them into theatre, we only had limited capacity. These were the very early days.
About two months in, people were incredibly relieved when a pastoral worker turned up. And it reminded me how important faith is. Especially when you are reminded that ‘my life is finite.’
There was a lot of fighting and I used to say the words, when I was in those threat areas: ‘God, be with me now.’ I can still hear myself saying it.
Whether I was diving out of an aircraft or into the ocean out of a submarine it was always, ‘God, be with me now.’ Everyone has their different ways.”
ON THE NEWLY-ANNOUNCED ROYAL COMMISSION INTO VETERAN SUICIDE
“I think it’s important and I thought it was a great announcement. I think in our country sometimes you get to a point where you need to say, ‘OK, we need a wider look at this,’ and that’s where a Royal Commission comes in.
A lot of people suffer trauma, not just veterans. First responders, people who have had a life-threatening injury – there’s trauma and the management of that trauma is really important, including that aspect of pastoral care.
But with veterans, there’s an additional aspect. What you do on the battlefield is not normal and what you train for is not normal. I don’t want to be too dramatic, but the sanctity of life is the sanctity of life and you’re training to kill or capture.
But in the military, you’ve got this organisation around you that is incredibly nurturing and caring. You’re part of a very purposeful organisation; you’re serving your country.
Then when you step away you might still experience trauma, but you don’t have that network any more. You don’t have your mates tight around you any more. You don’t have someone who’s got your back regardless; someone who might literally lay their life down for you.
So therefore the importance of family, the importance of a network outside becomes paramount. You need to replace the structure with something.
I’ve got an incredible family; an incredibly supportive family. I left unit command because I wanted to be with my family. I had a duty, but at some point you have to hop off that because I also have a duty as a husband and a father.”
ON BALANCING DUTY AND FAMILY:
“The Infantry Corp badge says ‘duty first.’ And the reality is that when you’re a soldier you have a duty. And when you’re called on to do that duty, you do that duty. At that point, the reality is that everything else, even family, comes second.
It’s no different for a policeman, or a fireman, or a nurse, or a doctor – when duty calls you’ve got to go.
What you’ve got to say to yourself is that you’re doing it for the right reasons. Democracy, freedom – that is worth fighting for.
But I can tell you on the day I left, my very good friend and best man said to me, ‘James, I can see the stress draining from your wife’s body.’
Because that uncertainty was probably even worse for her. You’re in the moment and she’s back here wondering what’s going on.
I remember the phone calls with her. We’d end up talking about the lawn-mowing because we couldn’t talk about anything else. Little did she know that twenty minutes later I’d be jumping out of a Blackhawk.”
ON HIS WORK ON THE BOARD OF ST JOHN OF GOD HEALTH CARE
“What I see at St John of God Health Care is the same service ethos I experienced in my military life. The ethos I see in the front-line caregivers is the same as those I served with: committed, courageous, competent, compassionate, humble.
What the pandemic did for me was highlight the incredible culture of caregivers and their ability to work in tough environments. That’s why I draw a parallel with what I’ve seen in the military.
But when I think about our mission, to continue the healing mission of Jesus, from where I started to where I am now, I’ve just been more immersed in it now.
It brings me personal joy – which is not what it’s about – but it does.
When I see that extra engagement in a room to give someone hope when they’re being treated in one of our facilities, right through to the social outreach – that mission: giving people hope, dignity, respect particularly when they’re vulnerable – that mission says it all for me.
Even having the right conversation with the right attitude, that’s still the healing mission of Jesus.
To listen to the sisters and hear them explaining the logic they apply: ‘what’s the most loving thing I can do right now?’ That’s really powerful. You’ll have lots going on around you, but what’s the most loving thing I can do? I use that every day of my life now. I use it at work.
My mum has always said to me, ‘that’s the Holy Spirit working.’ And now I think about the glimpses I’ve been given – I feel privileged to actually be there. I feel privileged to be on the board.
It’s very easy to contribute to St John of God Health Care, because I feel I get so much more. I don’t do it for those reasons, but I think it’s a great organisation. It’s got great heritage. It’s not perfect, but it continually strives to learn and go forward. I think its culture is great.
That faith aspect adds, in a wholesome way, to the fullness of being a caregiver and healing, I believe.”