He was savaged within an inch of his life by the big black dog – severe depression, substance abuse, anxiety and flashbacks as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.
It killed Blair Benefield’s military career and it just about killed him. “I was in the deepest, darkest place I had ever been,” he explains.
“I was having suicidal thoughts and it got to the point where I was planning my end.”
It’s hard to reconcile that image with who he is today. “That is one beautiful man,” exclaimed one Weekend Sunner when Blair and his aura strolled into town this week. It’s also hard to reconcile it with the devil-may-care character free-wheeling through the business traffic of Mount Mainstreet on his skateboard this week.
Tall, lean, tanned, shoulder length tresses flying in the wind and a smile as wide as Maunganui Road itself, dodging cars and cameras. The former machine gunner on an infantry patrol beyond the wire in hostile Afghanistan is used to living on the edge.
But running the midday traffic on mainstreet on a skateboard is still “pretty cool”. This is a young man who is back from the brink. “I feel good now, my life has some purpose.”
That purpose is about raising awareness about mental health, spreading the message, raising money and offering support and understanding. And he is going to do that on the road, and on his skateboard.
“I am going to skateboard the length of the country – 3000 kilometres in a couple of months – and I aim to raise $150,000 for charity.“ From the base of Stewart Island to Cape Reinga on a skateboard. And by helping others who find themselves in the not so nice place he once was, he hopes to help himself.
“There was a breakthrough moment when I had to find a purpose again – find myself a goal, a challenge, something that would assist the understanding of mental illness and help others struggling with it.” More than 5000 New Zealanders took their own lives last year - nearly twice the road toll.
Blair Benefield has been trying to tame the black dog for 20 years. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left school,” he explains. “I was quiet and reserved and I didn’t want to disappoint the people I loved.” He found a niche in the army. Things were looking up and the military was going to be his career. “I was well respected in my battalion and I was doing well and got promoted.”
But to deal with his depression he started taking synthetic drugs. He was swallowing spiders to catch the flies. “It was legal, and wouldn’t come up in army drug tests,” he says. “It became a big issue for a lot of soldiers, and a lot of guys got hooked.”
Then came the tipping point. A friend and fellow soldier drowned in a lake near Waiouru military camp.
“We were doing some serious training, quiet dangerous, and upping our skills as a high-readiness unit to respond to any immediate military threat and support the SAS if needed.” The man fell from an inflatable boat and drowned. “I was his commander, I felt I didn’t do enough to save him and I felt I had failed him, his family and the battalion.”
Despite all of the reassurances and support of his peers who insisted he did everything possible, Blair was overcome by all of the emotions. “Should have, could have, would have to make things different, to save a life.”
In Afghanistan the New Zealand infantry was doing humanitarian work, assisting Afghani people any way possible. “But it was still a warzone and we were operating outside the wire,” he says. “The threat of attack was constant, there were incidents, men died, it was stressful.”
That was five years ago and he has rationalised it all now. But he was railroaded out of the army. “I was medically discharged for severe depression and PTSD – that pretty much finished my career.”
He turned from patrolling the landscape to shaping it – he became a landscaper. And probably more importantly during his rebuild, he also became a skateboarder. “Every night I am out skateboarding,” he says. It’s his exercise and his therapy.
“Thirty kilometres from the Mount to Pap East and back? No trouble.” Throw in two or three runs up the Mount each week and Blair Benefield is nursing himself back to normality through exercise. “And a lot of love and support from friends and family. It’s given me so much strength and confidence again. I am up for it.”
And up for a 3000 kilometre skateboarding adventure. “We were trained to live out of a pack in the army. And that’s what I will be doing. The motto of the infantry was ‘onward’ - it was inscribed on the badge on our berets. So onward!”
He will also take another military tenet with him regardless of weather, season or terrain. “No, nothing will stop me from achieving my goal.”
If everything goes to plan, next week 32-year-old Blair Benefield will slip on his hi-vis helmet, the bike lights and the pads, climb aboard his home-built skateboard and set off up State Highway 1 from Stewart Island to share his story with anyone who wants to listen.
And it’s a compelling story – a man who’s packed some very highs with very lows into his relatively short 32 years.
“It’s up to all of us to be respectful of each other on the road. And I will be riding as safely as I can,” he says.
If you see a tanned beanpole with a mane of flowing hair hoofing it up the South Island on a skateboard – a sou’wester beating at his butt and a smile that will have the world smiling with him, it’ll be Blair Benefield, back from the brink and setting out on an life changing adventure.
“I spent a long time thinking I am not worthy, not fulfilling the expectations of me. But we have to live life on our own terms I guess, and I think I have finally found my path.”
He’s raising money for three charities; Youthline, a crisis help line for troubled youth, Good Neighbours, which helps families with life’s necessities when struggling, and No Duff, a military expression indicating something’s not a drill or an exercise.
It’s a for real charity proving immediate first response to veterans in need. “Like me, they feel they have lost their direction in life.”
To assist Blair and his charities go to his Facebook page, RAD - Ride Against Depression. There’s a donate button at the top of the page that takes you directly to a Givealittle page. Or go directly to GiveaLittle - Ride against Depression - RAD
“Imagine the amazing things they could do with $150,000. I just want to do what I can to help.”
Blair Benefield is about 3000 kilometres from having his black dog put out of its misery.
To get assistance:
Lifeline: 0800 543 354.
Youthline: 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email email@example.com
1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737.
Samaritans: 0800 726 666
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
What's Up: 0800 942 8787 for 5–18 year olds. Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm.
Kidsline: 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age. Open 24/7.
Anxiety New Zealand: 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)
In an emergency, or for someone you know is at risk, call 111.