Strength of character

Commander Grant Edwards pulling a plane

The Australian community is with the world's strongest man as he faces his toughest struggle.

By Graham McBean

It takes the heart of an ox and a backbone to match to pull a Boeing C-17 Globemaster - but fortunately Commander Grant Edwards has both in spades.

The current Commander Americas took some time off as the AFP's top liaison police officer in the United States to return to strongman competitions after 20 years in retirement.

Grant was officially Australia's strongest man from 1996-2000 and has pulled everything from steam trains and aircraft to mining trucks.

Just this year he has won a 'warm-up' tug-of-war with a 14-tonne ACT Policing vehicle on May 5.

Commander Grant Edwards pulling an ACT Policing truck
Commander Grant Edwards has a "warm up" in Canberra with a police truck.

Grant then stopped New York City traffic on August 8 with a 31-tonne double-truck pull with two police special operations vehicles.

And so at the US Dover Airforce Base in Delaware, Grant replicated an earlier monumental feat of pulling a 190-tonne Globemaster on August 27.

Ironically, it is Grant's struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and his decision to talk publicly in support of physical and mental health that has captured the hearts of police colleagues and the Australian community.

A screenshot of positive comments on Facebook supporting Commander Grant Edwards
Commander Grant Edward's struggle with PTSD has captured the hearts of the Australian community.

When ABC's Australian Story aired Grant's story on August 21 it was met with a surge of support and well wishes from the community and welcomed by those who have struggled with the illness themselves.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Grant says the real test of strength was coming forward and seeking help when he began to struggle.

"We don't talk about it, we brush it under the carpet, but a lot of police out there are suffering - me being one," Grant said.

"You can be strong, look strong and represent as everything, but mentally you can be weak, and that can happen to anyone."

Grant had struggled since his return from Afghanistan in 2013 and experienced a series of health issues.

"I have always prided myself on staying physically fit," Grant said. "Yet, I found myself deteriorating physically and mentally.

"I fought against it thinking it's just a symptom of aging and normal to go through at this time of my life.

"I could camouflage most of my situation at work, but I couldn't once I got home. You see I would use all my energy and personal fortitude to stay in control at work - yet collapse when at home."

Grant became increasingly disconnected and "almost introverted" as he struggled to find the energy "to do the basics" throughout 2013.

He spent weekends on the lounge completely silent and oblivious to normal family commitments.

"I mentioned to the medical specialists that were treating me, across a number of differing physical issues, that I thought my symptoms were all interconnected and that things didn't feel right," Grant said.

"Most ignored my comments which made me feel like I was a hypochondriac, and worsened my state of mind acutely frustrating me."

Grant mentioned the frustration and his symptoms to his local GP - but wasn't prepared for the response.

"His response shocked me," Grant said. "He said he thought for some time I was suffering from PTSD. I immediately became defensive and as we continued to chat he recommended I should try antidepressants.

"He wrote me a script and told me to give them a try. I reluctantly took the script. I didn't sleep much that night, taking solace in alcohol and eventually some non-prescription sedatives to sleep, something that had become a regular occurrence for me.

Commander Grant Edwards poses with a family
Commander Grant Edwards thought a diagnosis of PTSD would end his career.

"After many hours I came to the realisation that if I indeed have PTSD my career was over. The stigma I couldn't face and that it would be better I not take the antidepressants let alone acknowledge I had a mental-health issue."

Grant's response was swift.

"The next morning I went back to my GP returned the script and asked that he expunge from my record any discussion about a potential mental health diagnosis."

Turning point

Grant continued to struggle with PTSD as the "malaise and rollercoaster of emotions" continued. But in June 2015, Grant said "I was broken and for the first time in my life and I acknowledged it. I needed to change, but most importantly I needed help."

"I was at the World Police and Fire games in the USA getting ready to compete. Sport was always my default in dealing with mental health issues I've since learned.

"I had only recently been advised I was heading to the US as the Manager Americas - you would think that would be awesome.

"But I found myself sitting under a tree, alone in an athletics track in Virginia having a crisis of confidence and sobbing for reasons I couldn't really understand."

Grant first confided in a couple of close mates, who helped him through support and encouragement. They reinforced to Grant that by acknowledging his problem and, more importantly dealing with it, was the most important aspect.

He also declared his diagnosis of PTSD with AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin. "I wanted him to have the right to veto my deployment to Washington D.C," Grant said.

Commander Grant Edwards with the AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin
AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin supported Commander Grant Edwards' struggle with PTSD.

"Commissioner Colvin was 100 per cent supportive and the AFP's collective engagement with me made such a difference to my approach to getting better, something that I will be ever grateful for."

Fighting back

Grant is now a passionate advocate for mental health issues in the AFP. He has thrown his considerable bulk behind promoting the need to seek help when it is necessary and needed.

In March, he wrote an impassioned email to the whole AFP about his personal struggle in the hope that it would help others to seek help.

The Australian Story episode brought Grant's story to Australia, and the community has responded with overwhelming support.

One AFP Facebook comment said "Amazing story. You weren't weak, Grant, the fact you are spreading awareness and asked for help shows your strength."

Another stated "Good on you Grant for speaking out, you will help many people, letting them know that it is okay and just plain human... to be able to say they are not feeling okay and to reach out for support and help."

And so Grant has hit the strongman circuit to promote physical and mental health - and as usual is punching above his considerable weight. After all, how many people do you know that have managed to stop New York traffic?

Commander Grant Edwards pulling a truck in New York City
Traffic stopper (above and below): Commander Grant Edwards in New York City promoting mental health.

Commander Grant Edwards smiling

"We have a highly stressful job and coupled with our personal lives, things aggregate and it's not good when the two collide," Grant said. "But most importantly, as individuals we need to look after ourselves first and foremost.

"Mental health in our organisation and our profession isn't a stigma. It's a result of the highly demanding, stressful and confronting job we have chosen to do and the burden of wearing the badge."

Commander Grant Edwards pulling a 190 tonne Globemaster plane
Taking flight - Commander Grant Edwards pulls the 190-tonne Globemaster at the US Dover Airforce Base.

"Commissioner Colvin was 100 per cent supportive and the AFP's collective engagement with me made such a difference to my approach to getting better, something that I will be ever grateful for."