Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/November 2013/Op-ed

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Editing Wikipedia as a serving or former serving soldier

By AustralianRupert

I first started editing Wikipedia when I was on convalescent leave from the Australian Army, having undergone surgery following a service-related leg injury. Removed from the hectic environment that I was used to, I was at a loose end and needed a creative outlet to take my mind off some of the things I had seen. For a couple of weeks after my surgery, I did little except attend rehabilitation appointments and roll call, and undertake light administrative duties as a staff officer within regimental headquarters. Then I was diagnosed with PTSD from a blast injury I had suffered in a separate incident a few years earlier. After that, I was permitted to do even less. When the regiment went bush, I had to stay behind and command the rear details; as they prepared to deploy overseas again, I had to stay behind and watch my soldiers, and my closest friends, prepare for war—three of them I would only see again at their funerals. As someone who had thrived on the Army's ability to motivate through overload, I struggled with being idle and I found other parts of my life suffering, including my marriage.

Eventually a friend I'd known at Duntroon came to stay during a brief period of leave and, over a beer and a steak, we got to chatting about what he did during his spare time. He told me he had started writing articles on Wikipedia and suggested that I might like to do the same, what with all the spare time I had. Initially I didn't give it much thought, but after another unfulfilling week I decided that I'd take a look. I sent my mate an email and he talked me through setting up an account and finding an area of interest. As my first project, I decided to work on improving an article, rather than writing one from scratch. After looking through my bookshelf, I set my mind on a topic near and dear to me, the 2/6th Independent Company. Many years earlier, before I had "crossed to the dark side" and begun my military career, I had gone to Kapooka as a recruit sapper, where I had been assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion. Then, as now, my platoon had been known as "the Purple Devils" and were affiliated with the 2/6th Commando Squadron, who had served in the South West Pacific during the Second World War.

During the three-month recruit course, I had met a number of veterans from this unit and, upon marching-out, I received a signed copy of Syd Trigellis-Smith's history of the unit, Purple Devils: History of 2/6 Australian Commando Squadron. Armed with this source and finding out that the Australian War Memorial had several unit histories on their web site and had also digitised the Official History of Australia in the War of 1939–1945, I set out to expand the article and take it to "B-class" (having been told by my mate that this was the measure of a "reasonable article"). During this process, I came into contact with some of the Military History project's regulars and through them gained a better understanding of the project's scope, the standards required and the many other areas in which I could get involved.

Following my work on this, I got involved in many different projects. Getting hooked into the business of writing and researching, I began to feel a renewed sense of purpose. As I began to tackle subjects for which I had no sources, I hobbled off to the local library on my crutches and discovered a wealth of information on many topics related to military history. Although I felt that I possessed a good level of knowledge on Australian military history, I found myself learning more and more. I began to broaden my contributions as I read about more diverse topics. For me, this was an essential part of my recovery process. Without my work on Wikipedia my boredom would have gotten the best of me and I have no idea what I would have done to myself. By taking my mind off things in my downtime, I was able to overcome the worse moments of my PTSD, reduce my stress (yes, Wiki helped reduce my stress!) and focus on getting my life back together again. This occurred on a level even deeper than I would have thought. Through the research process, I was able to reconnect with the Anzac spirit; reading the stories of ordinary young men and women who risked and, in many instances, lost all because they were serving something "higher" than themselves; this motivated me to keep on fighting to recover to get back to work and to my mates.

That was many years ago now. I still have a job and every day I wear a "green skin" is a good day, so long as everyone comes home intact, even if it is wet and cold, I'm eating a CRP, I'm in the middle of 15 km pack march, or I'm being torn in many different directions at once. My injuries continue to trouble me, but slowly I am recovering. I still wake up in the middle of the night sometimes in a cold sweat reliving past experiences, or in tears (yes, I am a soldier and I am prepared to admit this!) thinking of friends who I will never see again, worried that they think I let them down for not being there for them when they passed. At first, I tried to drown these thoughts with alcohol, like my grandfather Ted (subject of a book review I wrote here here) when he returned from war, but now when I wake in the middle of the night I try to do something a little more constructive instead: I flick on the kettle and turn on my computer. Hence why you might see me logged on at 2:00 am sometimes copyediting an article, or typing out an A-class review.

But I have also found there are pitfalls to writing on Wikipedia. These days, for me, it is struggle to balance involvement with Wiki with "real life" (whatever that is). Leaving aside issues of balancing time online with spending time with my wonderfully supportive wife and our children (this is obviously very important, though!), as a serving, or former serving soldier, there a number of things that one must consider about working on Wiki. Firstly, you never know who you will run into online. Through my Wikitravels, I've worked with editors who I've eventually discovered are published authors, generals, commanding officers, "old matey potatey" from 'A' Company, members of the RSL, or even politicians. Therefore, a certain level of anonymity is advised; additionally, be careful how you interact with people, watch what you say and strive to uphold the five pillars of Wikipedia (if I am honest, I can't say I've always managed this successfully, but I hope I have at least conveyed that I have always tried to achieve this—please feel free to let me know if I haven't!). Secondly, organisational policy, both on Wikipedia and in real life, requires a certain level of circumspection in editing. To avoid conflicts of interest I try to stay away from "current" topics, such as current Army operations, or units that I have served in. Finally, because of the knowledge one has of the organisation, I frequently find information on Wikipedia that I know is "incorrect", but instead of "fixing" it, I need to exercise restraint. In these situations, I try to determine what is available in reliable sources that are "open" (i.e. exist in the public domain where all users can access them). If these RS provide the "correct" information, I might make the change, but if not, even though I know it is wrong, I will leave it and walk away. But it is not easy, and it is, in my opinion, the dilemma that perhaps causes the most frustration in some of our newer editors. I frequently see edits on my "watchlist" from new users, who are clearly "vets" struggling with the same issue, who want to correct that minor mistake that exists on the article about the battle in which they fought, or the unit in which they served.

In closing, I therefore think that the best thing a soldier (or officer for that matter, because the RSMs among you probably wouldn't agree with my terminology here!) can do when working on Wikipedia is to remember why you are here and what you want to achieve. If you are here to do something creative to de-stress, there are many areas that you can help out in, but remember that this isn't real life and if you are here to "right great wrongs", you may find your time here more stressful than you'd wish. It doesn't have to be that way, though. Wikipedia produces its best work when editors collaborate in the fullest extent of the word and appreciate that everyone has something to bring to the table. I am constantly amazed by the power of collaboration and appreciate the opportunity Wikipedia has given me to meet people from completely different walks of life. If you can release the "send" button for a moment and listen to them, they can really broaden your horizons. In that regard, if you want to have a chat, please feel free to message me on my talk page. I'm always happy to help an old Digger where I can, or a young one (because they are young again now), or anyone else for that matter! Happy editing and take care.

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Great Op-ed piece AR. All the best. Zawed (talk) 07:05, 19 November 2013 (UTC)

Thank you very much for this excellent op-ed. Nick-D (talk) 07:24, 26 November 2013 (UTC)

  • A really gutsy Op-ed. Well appreciated mate. Cheers! Irondome (talk) 23:59, 3 December 2013 (UTC)
  • I find this article rather ironic. I too am a military veteran–one who is retired on 100% disability because of PTSD. I just quit contributing to Wikipedia because I found the endless frustrations of dealing with an unwritten and arbitrary assessment procedure as too stressful. It is only chance that brings me hence.Georgejdorner (talk) 02:07, 30 December 2013 (UTC)