James Sorensen breaks his silence

EXCLUSIVE: When James Sorensen quit Neighbours in 2010 there were shocks all round. He was walking away from a successful soap career, a celebrity life in a goldfish bowl, to join the Australian Army. It was a dream he had long harboured.

But within twelve months he was out of the Army, igniting serious questions about what went wrong.

In the past year he has declined all media requests. Now, back at work filming Family Movie Channel’s miniseries Conspiracy 365, James Sorensen, 25, speaks exclusively to TV Tonight about a tumultuous two years, and demonstrates an inspiring spirit.

Sorensen had three years playing Declan Napier when he decided to walk away from a television career. With earlier roles in Hating Alison Ashley, and Blue Water High, a world of red carpets and fan adulation, his was a career on the rise. But Sorensen also had other ambitions.

“I have a lot of passions and one was the Army. Since I was really little I wanted to join it. My three year contract with Neighbours was up and I thought ‘This is a really good time to do it,” he says.

“I made the decision and obviously Neighbours weren’t too happy. They wanted to keep me there. Erin Mullaly came on and fulfilled the role (of Declan) and I stayed to help the transition.”

He joined the Australian Army School of Infantry, Special Forces Training Centre in Singleton, New South Wales, where there was some scepticism from fellow soldiers about a soap star in their ranks.

“It was one of the best experiences of my life. It was fantastic,” he says.

“I was just another bloke. I wanted to do what all the other guys do. I got a bit of flak with people saying ‘It’s Declan from Neighbours, what’s he doing here?’ But within a week when we were all face down in the mud everyone was the same.

“At the end of the day I wasn’t a shit soldier. I was getting some of the best accuracy. In our platoon I was one of the fittest. Once they saw I performed it wasn’t any drama.”

But within months it would all turn horribly wrong when an accident during exercises, which he is unable to discuss, left him in hospital.

“I went in, did my training, and then broke my back. I was in extreme back pain, shooting pains down my back leg,” he says.

“I broke the locking mechanisms in the back of the spine. I cracked two vertebrae. So it wasn’t a clean broken back, I didn’t impinge my spinal cord. But it was only (missed) by about 2 millimetres. Now I have two free-floating vertebrae which is held in by ligaments.”

But the injury was so severe he could no longer participate in active training and faced months of rehabilitation. Worse was to come with military red tape.  Any discharge from the army could take 18 months, leaving him in limbo.

“I had breakfast, lunch and dinner and physio in the morning and that was it. I wasn’t allowed to leave my room pretty much,” he explains.

“The rehab part wasn’t very well managed. Psychologically it was very, very difficult.

“I’d made all these life changes, did all the training, got settled in and then that happens and I was spat out the other end. The Australian Army treated it horribly.”

Sorensen says the medical recovery was well managed but despite having access to a Psychologist, he is critical of the mental recovery.

“I want to be active, I want to be out. I’m always a go-getter, I can’t sit still. So when they say I’m going to be sitting in a room for 8 hours a day drinking coffee and every once in a while they’d get me to work, I lost it. I told them that, and told the Psychologist,” he says.

“We tried to get it so I could move back to Melbourne and get looked after by family and get them to pay for a physio but I had to stay at the base. So it didn’t make sense.

“You can only get Leave if you put in an application. I put in an application but it got denied twice. So you have to stay there. It was poorly managed.”

His Commanding Officer empathised with his plight but promises were not fulfilled.

“I told my Commanding Officer it was bullshit. Previously he’d said ‘Look mate I’ll get you a discharge and in 8 weeks it will all be fine.’ But 8 weeks passed and nothing happened so I asked ‘How long, be honest?’ And he said ‘A year, maybe,’ so I said ‘Right. I’m gone.’

“The next day I picked up my bags and they called me to say I wasn’t at Parade.

“I said, ‘I told you last night, I’m not hanging around for you guys to treat me like shit.’”

Aware he could be arrested, Sorensen headed home to undergo recovery. He says because he was pending a Medical Discharge there was no arrest.

“I’ve spoken with my Commanding Officer and they’re all fine,” he says.

By December he was back home in Melbourne paying medical expenses himself, undertaking bar work to help pay the bills.

“It took me 6-8 months to recover medically from the whole thing. It screwed me pretty hard core,” he says.

“I was struggling, talking to a Psychologist. And I was post-Army too, to help me get through it. I’m still struggling.

“In hindsight if I stayed with the Army and did it their way, I’d probably still be sitting in rehab, sitting on my arse doing nothing.”

Because of his profile and his sudden exit, Sorensen says there was interest from the media in his story.

“There was a little bit of interest when it happened, but I politely declined because it wasn’t the best way to go about it. Four or five months ago I was still reeling,” he explains.

“But I wanted to set the story straight because there were a lot of rumours about what happened.”

So what is his message to the Army?

“To handle their injuries better. It was pretty dismal. Medically they did everything they could but in terms of looking after the mental strength of soldiers it’s difficult. Everyone there is so motivated to do something but if you just put them into rehab and stick them in a room for 8 hours a day, then even the most motivated person gets depressed.”

Despite the sour experience he remains supportive of the Army, showing remarkable generosity in the face of adversity.

“Building up to it was amazing. I loved every second of it,” he insists.

“It’s not that I wanted to get discharged. I would give my right leg to be back doing what I was doing. But they basically give you a blanket ban and say you can’t do anything.

“You’re kind of in the whitewash, coming out the other end. ‘Thanks for the ride, see you later.’”

Now Sorensen is rebuilding his life, with a role in Pay TV’s big budget miniseries, Conspiracy 365, based on the books by Gabrielle Lord. The family action series sees him playing Jake, a sidekick to Julia Zemiro’s ‘Oriana De La Force.’ His espionage role entails chasing the hero, 15 year old fugitive Callum Ormond (Harrison Gilbertson).

“It’s fantastic. The budget isn’t something I thought we’d be seeing in Australian TV for a while. There’s dual aircraft stuff, I’m fangin’ about in a $200,00 car, it’s great fun!” he laughs.

The series from Circa Media premieres on Family Movie Channel in January.

He has also set up a business as a Personal Trainer while studying a Nursing Diploma. Again demonstrating he isn’t blinded by the lights of fame, Sorensen has more altruistic ambitions.

“My long term goal in the next 10-15 years is to do my Masters Degree in Surgery. That’s where I want to end up, so to get there I want to do Paramedicine, but to get to Paramedicine I have to do Nursing. And to fund everything I have to have something that’s completely flexible, so that’s where the Personal Training comes in,” he says.

“I love Medicine. I love helping people, especially the Emergency Trauma and the pressure. Hopefully going down that path would be an amazing experience.

“I think you need something to be able to fall back on. So many people are a flash in the pan and get stuck in six years thinking, ‘Now what?’”

If Neighbours called for his services once more, Sorensen doesn’t see himself in any on-going capacity.

“It was a very good time, but I’m a big fan of not taking a step back,” he insists.

“It’s not that I don’t enjoy the people there. They were fantastic but I’ve moved forward and built everything up. Maybe a guest appearance or something….”

As if to shun the medical trauma, Sorensen has also trained his body back to a physical peak. He is still hoping to have some medical bills covered by the Army, and acknowledges there are concerns for his medical future. But it’s hard not to be impressed with his optimism and his strength of character.

“I think I still haven’t distanced myself from the whole military. I really want to be back there so it’s really difficult to be able to look after myself rather than look after them. But I’ve got so much respect for them,” he says.

“I’m in good health now so that’s all I can really hold onto. I do worry about physical deterioration in the next 10 years. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

“But I’m glad I’m back. It’s been a life experience.”

24 Comments:

  1. It appears to me as though he got picked on a little bit too much.

    Sorry James I don’t totally believe your medical story. Your angry in this interview I can tell with the langague that you are using. I don’t think your telling us the whole thing.

  2. It is easy to criticise the Army but I’ve seen both the Army and the private sector look after seriously injured employees and the Army wins hands down.Who provides you with full pay, accommodation, free medical, food, transport to and from all appointments, not any company I have worked for. Also believe that the Army did not pursue AWOL so they will not have to pay any disability once he is declared an IA ( Illegal absentee). There was never anyway that he was going to be discharged in 8 weeks, he was probably told that once the discharge comes through it would take 8 weeks but interpreted it wrongly. Finally, young soldiers hate being excluded from their units activities and get frustrated by the inaction when recovering but healing takes time.

  3. Interesting range of comments and opinions here. It’s also interesting how people interpret the same interview in different ways. James said that the army handled his physical rehabilitation extremely well, but not his mental rehabilitation. He was told that he would be discharged after eight weeks, which suddenly turned into a year. He was under orders not to do anything. This would be enough to drive anyone crazy. Why was he told that he’d be able to leave after eight weeks? This has nothing to do with him being an actor – no one should be treated like that. The army is an amazing institution and anyone involved in the military deserves the utmost respect. However, in this particular instance, it would appear that the procedures put in place to deal with James’ mental rehabilitation (as opposed to his physical rehabilitation) were inadequate. As he said himself, no action was taken when he went AWOL because he was awaiting a medical discharge. If this was always going to happen, why did he have to wait 12 months?! It’s not as though he could work for the army while he was recovering.

  4. Pietro,

    Re ‘I’ve never understood why anybody would join the army and this reinforces my thoughts.’

    I did … once upon a time. And you are right, it is shit.

  5. I don’t want to insult the people on Neighbours but the pay there is a lot lower than any American actors.Have you seen what Charlie Sheen used to get on Two and a Half Men and the Guys who plays Alan and Jake on there 500,000 to a million dollars an episode

  6. Mike Brailsford

    I don’t doubt the good work any country’s Army does, but speaking for the British one’s alone, it is still using a massive propaganda exercise, trying to get people to join up with promises of extensive travel and the like.

    I can’t understand how any media’s advertising authority can allow them to in many cases, lie about what it is like to be a soldier.

  7. Thank god this young boy is no longer within our defense forces. Thank god no one had to rely on him. It is clear he was not cut out to be one of the fine Australia’s within the ADF.

    What did he think was going to happen when he joined the army? I can tell you right now that thousands of the men and women who fight for our nation right now have stories about injuries that they have received while serving our country. Injuries the Australian Army goes to great lengths to completely rehabilitate.

    The ADF spends a lot of money to train a soldier. They are not in the business of just throwing all of that money and effort they invest in young men and women away because of injury.

    This young man was obviously given intense, daily treatment…..but he wanted to go home to his family because he was sick of it.

    He got injured during maneuvers, he didn’t even get injured in combat, and yet he thinks he is still owed more?

    He didn’t even make it one year! Does he thinks he should receive a medal? He’s lucky he wasn’t court marshaled and sent to a military prison. It actually sounds like, for some reason, the Army decided to go pretty easy on him considering his issues regarding his injury, by his own admission, were just as much about his mental capacity to continue defending our country.

    As I said, thank god no one is putting their live in the hands of this young man. Maybe that is why the Army let him go so easily….

  8. Secret Squirrel hit the nail right on the head. I was going to post a comment stating my views but there’s not much else I can add, it’s already been said

    Whole ordeal sounds bloody horrible – I wish James all the best of luck, definitely sounds like a challenging experience. At least he’s out of that room and back to doing what he loves.

  9. @Armchair Analyst
    “because nobody in the industry will take an actor seriously when they have been on a soapy show”
    Do you mean like Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Simon Baker et al?
    Rusty.

  10. Armchair Analyst

    I could understand wanting to leave acting especially soapy acting, because nobody in the industry will take an actor seriously when they have been on a soapy show like Neighbours, but going into the army was a bad decision, good that he got out of it without any major life altering injuries but still atleast should have asked somone who actually served in the army what it was really like, instead of placing blind faith in the authorities.

  11. Secret Squïrrel

    @Ted – you write as if you have full knowledge of all of the circumstances surrounding this, yet your statement that he refused the Army’s offer of a psych contradicts what it says in David’s interview.

    I have personal experience of the Army treating people appallingly when they’re not sure what to do with them. There is so much red tape and ar$e covering going on that the person at the centre of the mess is basically shoved in a box out of sight.

    Sorensen may have broken the law but his story sounds genuine to me and I think I would have done the same thing in his circumstances. Good on him for not lashing out in anger at the Army as soon as he got out, which would have been the easy thing to do.

    The civilian public service has changed with the times but the military bureaucracy in the Department of Defence is stuck in the ’60s and is in dire need of a good clean out.

  12. Completely agree, Ted. The army gave him his treatment and he went AWOL? As if they don’t have some of the very best medical staff around. He sounds ungrateful, spoilt, and you all feel sorry for him because he was on tv.

  13. The Army did nothing wrong, it is Sorenson’s youthful impatience at issue here. The Army looked after his injuries and rehabilitation, he was offered Psychologist which he chose not to see, the Army has to ensure they have done as much as possible to rehabilitate him before discharge. Youthful impatience led him to break the law, (AWOL) and leave the system which was providing support.

  14. Thanks David, very insightful interview as always! I’m glad James hasn’t given up acting completely, he has great natural talent and a “star quality” that could take him to the US.

  15. Australia’s defence forces are a joke. If they aren’t trying to cover up sexual abuses of their recruits, or bullying members who they don’t like, or blowing billions on equipment that either doesn’t work or we don’t need, then they’re ignoring the ongoing health of their soldiers. Australian citizens should boycott joining them until there has been a complete clean-out of the upper ranks and the culture is changed to respect human life.

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