Pioneering Project Warhorse: helping veterans transition into civilian life

A unique partnership between Flinders University and the Defence Force Welfare Association has seen veterans join in on an archaeological dig at Glenthorne National Park in O’Halloran Hill, south of Adelaide.

A first of its kind in Australia, Project Warhorse aims to provide veterans with an opportunity to engage in archaeological research and fieldwork, while assisting them in their transition from service to civilian life, including education and employment.

The initiative is led by Flinders University academics and veterans, Professor Ben Wadham, Director of the Open Door Veteran Research and Wellbeing Centre and Dr Daryl Wesley, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, alongside veterans’ mental health expert Professor Sharon Lawn from Flinders’ College of Medicine and Public Health.

Dr Wesley says Glenthorne National Park offered a unique opportunity where defence and archaeology combined, as the site was previously home to the No.9 Remount Depot where over 18,000 horses were trained before being sent overseas during World War I.

Members of the 13th Field Artillery at O’Halloran Hill set out from camp in 1938. Image: State Library of SA (B 10168)

“As a former veteran myself, Project Warhorse is something I’m very passionate about. I’m interested in bringing veterans to archaeology, helping them to explore it as a therapeutic way of connecting them to their transition into civilian life,” said Dr Wesley.

“I think archaeology has so many benefits for veterans; you’re often outdoors, keeping busy, and it’s very procedural based – so whether you’re Navy, Air Force or Army, we do have a lot of similarities.

“Ultimately we want to encourage veterans to explore that process of discovery – of both the war horses at Glenthorne but also exploring the meaning of their own service to Australia.”

The veterans gained hands-on archaeological experience including surveying, excavation, artefact processing, and mapping. Alongside the work, they are encouraged to develop peer support networks and improve their mental health.

The project also seeks to create veteran pathways to tertiary education and employment, recognizing the valuable skills developed within military service.

Veteran Bradley Mazzaferri, who left the army in 2018, attended the dig at Glenthorne and said his transition to civilian life was difficult as he had lost his sense of identity, however activities such as Project Warhorse can help to show there is life after service.

“I think it’s just gives you a sense of purpose. This week, I’ve gotten up at the same time and gotten out of the house and immersed myself. You can talk to people, you can have banter, you can have a joke. And it’s a good setting to learn as there’s no pressure,” said Mr Mazzaferri.

“I learned a lot during my time in the army and today, I was utilising those skills. This project has given me more confidence and now I’d like to study.”

Phillip Montiadis, an army veteran who left the service in the 90s and now a Masters student at Flinders University, echoed Bradley’s enthusiasm and encouraged other veterans to take part.

“It will be a godsend for you. It will help you. It will make you feel better, just do it,” said Mr Montiadis.

“If I had to describe this in one word, I would use the word therapeutic. Up until two days ago, I was the only person in the world with PTSD. I had no communication, no association with anybody else with illness. And after meeting these guys, it’s been so great to meet other people in the world who are very similar to me.”

With a focus on veteran transition, Project Warhorse represents a groundbreaking approach to supporting veterans’ health and well-being through the exploration of Australia’s wartime history.

The interdisciplinary team sees the project bring together experts from archaeology, anthropology, history, mental health, sociology, education, and military studies, and is inspired by successful international models, with the aim to establish a new framework for veteran support in Australia.

“We really want to grow this project and we want to bring people in with us on the journey,” said Dr Wesley.

“I’d love to invite any veterans to come and spend some time with us out in the field, explore what archaeology is about, and really get to see a sense of camaraderie, of doing things together with a group of people who’ve also shared time in the service,” said Dr Wesley.

/Public Release. View in full here.