Saturday, July 16, 2011

When Coming Home From War Means New Battles - and Risks

Canada's two national newspapers – The Globe and Mail, and The National Post – have given readers a vivid picture of the battles which continue for many Canadian soldiers after they return home. 

The Globe's story, in today's paper, notes how the demographics of the typical Canadian veteran have changed dramatically – a fact so obvious, given the recent campaigns in Afghanistan and, before that, Bosnia, that it seems common sense. Yet it needed to be said, because common sense is often anything but common.

Headed “The Canadian war vet is no longer an old guy,” The Globes story notes:

For decades, the Canadian war vet was the aging father, the elderly grandpa, the old uncle. Today’s war vet is a psychology student living in a university dorm, (a) firefighter, and a mother of five wrapping up maternity leave, the Ontario Provincial Police officer just coming off the night shift.

The identity of the Canadian veteran is undergoing a massive update while most Canadians have barely noticed.”
Soldiers returning home, says The Globe, face a challenging bureaucracy as they try to access services sometimes more suited to the stereotype of the older veteran. But “even revamped government services and benefits are too complex and often a bad fit for young men and women starting all over again.”

Bureaucracy and lack of appropriate services can frustrate anyone, but imagine how they impact a soldier who has been acculturated through basic training and subsequent combat experiences to the culture of a war ready and hardened soldier. Returning to civilian life has always posed challenges to military personnel, but to do so after experiencing what so many Canadian women and men have in Afghanistan makes it much harder. The least we can do is have easily accessible and appropriate services in place.

Problems confronting Canadian Afghan veterans are compounded for those whose battle experiences have resulted in post traumatic stress disorder. The Post article, published one week ago today, and headed “A different personcame back,” offers a sobering punch to the gut.

The story begins by quoting Darrell McMullin, father of Jamie, a veteran who hung himself after returning from Afghanistan. No one should think less of Jamie for taking his life. As a therapist who has worked with people suffering from PTSD – including from combat – I consider suicide a result of trauma, rather than an issue reflecting any sort of weakness in character. I know that from certain kinds of trauma suicide may result – especially if easily accessible, culturally appropriate services are not in place.

I suspect Jamie's father has that kind of an understanding also, and that Jamie's death has driven him to find new purpose in his life. Writer Joe O'Connor gives a clear sense of that:

Darrell McMullin starts talking and keeps talking for 35 minutes, relating his son’s story in a steady voice. Telling it because it is what he needs to do, because it is the only thing he knows how to do.

"My wife and I decided we weren’t going to be quiet about Jamie’s death,” says the grieving father. “I spoke to three other soldiers at his memorial that had been caught in their garages with a rope up over the rafters.

“And you know, you never hear about that, and if telling Jamie’s story helps one person — if it stops one soldier from going to their basement or wherever they go — and convinces them to pick up a phone and talk to someone instead, then it is going to mean that maybe our son didn’t die in vain.”

On June 17, Corporal Jamie McMullin hanged himself in the basement of his home in Oromocto, N.B. His wife, Megan, discovered the body.

Roadside bombs and Taliban bullets did not kill Cpl. McMullin. But, says his father, the war in Afghanistan still did.

“Jamie never came home,” Mr. McMullin says. “A different person came back from Afghanistan. The best way I can put it is he tried, he tried to get back, and tried to make everybody else happy when he came home but he couldn’t make himself happy.”
If Jamie was the only one who died as a result of post traumatic stress, he would be one too many. But he is not alone.

Last year alone, 12 Canadian forces members died from suicide, says The Post, adding that "the military does not keep statistics on those who may have tried and failed, or others who might have thought about it, or of the heartbroken families," such as Jamie's. 

Such statistics are important, indeed, essential if returning soldiers are to be well served. It's also important that we know how many families are stressed to the limit and beyond, resulting in domestic discord, tension, abuse, and separation/divorce.

Again, I hope everyone reading this will make it a point to read both The Globe and The Post stories from beginning to end. If we ever allowed ourselves to feel any compassion and respect for the brave men and women who fought in Afghanistan, then surely we must realize more is asked of us now in terms of loyalty and support for the 55,173 Canadians who served there.

It's easy when the war is on the front pages and there are reports of wounded and dying soldiers to feel what so many of us have felt during Canada's decade in Afghanistan. But now that the combat mission has ended, it's imperative we hold the government and the Canadian Forces to account, that they provide services which are of at least the same high quality as the training which places our soldiers among the world's best.

Here's the reality: For some men and women, returning to civilian life can in itself be traumatic. Soldiers who have lived day-in, day-out in the midst of war may find it difficult to communicate with civilians beyond the most superficial “hey, how are you doing” encounters. As they try to re-enter civilian life soldiers are again faced with changing their culture, yet training and experience have made them forever different from who they were when they enlisted. As a result, relationships with friends and family may become strained or snap, and a sense of social isolation and alienation can grow, sometimes to an intolerable degree.

Those who return with post traumatic stress challenges have an even more difficult time. 
As O'Connor writes in The Post: "The Canadian combat mission in Afghanistan might be over, but for an untold number of military personnel suffering from post traumatic stress disorder the battles will be ongoing — lonely firefights involving emotional ghosts and mental goblins that can haunt and drag a wounded mind into a desperate corner where suicide often seems the only way out."

Not the least of Jamie's issues returning home from Afghanistan was the grief he felt for friends killed in combat. His dad says Jamie had 12 poppies tattooed on his arm – one for each friend killed (a total of 157 Canadian soldiers died in Afghanistan).

Poppies – Remembrance Day, a commemoration which has come to mean much more for Canadians during the last decade. November 11, and the motto, “Lest we forget.”

If we forget, and through this lapse of memory and caring, our soldiers receive anything less than the very best of support and therapy, we will have failed them.

Both The Globe and Mail and The National Post have served us well with their war reporting. The Post, especially, needs to be commended for its two week series The Long Road.

Let your MP know you want the federal government and the Canadian Forces to provide the best possible services for Canada's combat veterans.

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