Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

War is over, battles rage on

Support group is working to bring soldiers home -- in every way

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The former soldier is pacing in circles in a small office in the bowels of a nondescript, tan brick building at 17 Wing.

He can't stand still. His mind is racing, too.

Bad memories. Baggage. And the little things that remind him of both.

"You drive by the Maple Leaf plant (the smell of burning flesh and dead meat) and you have to pull over and start crying," the former Canadian Forces warrant officer begins. "Sitting at a campfire with your kids, it smells like burning buildings. You see a little kid walking around with one arm..."

The man -- we'll call him Mike -- is trim and fit at age 44. He could still drop and give you 50. He's wearing a suit jacket with his medals of service on the left side of his chest. Some are for tours in Bosnia, Haiti, Nairobi and Oka.

Two decades later, he's in the offices of the Operational Stress Injury Support Services (OSISS), a peer and family support system jointly run by the Department of National Defence and Veteran's Affairs that currently deals with well over 5,500 active and non-active military and RCMP personnel across the country.

The actual number of service members suffering from operational stress injuries, or post-traumatic stress, is estimated to be much higher -- especially after 10 years of Canada's forces serving in Afghanistan.

You could walk by Mike on the street or meet him at a social function and never have a clue that he suffers from OSI. But if you're going to pry into the heart and mind of a Canadian soldier still dealing with the emotional scars of more than two decades of combat, you must be prepared for what comes flooding out.

When he came home from Croatia (the first time), he didn't talk to his wife (his first wife) for a week. He was drinking every day. Isolated, withdrawn, depressed.

"Totally self-destructive," he says. "Didn't care. It didn't matter."

After five years, and counting, of therapy and peer support, Mike believes he's changed. "It's like night and day."

How has he changed?

"Well, for starters," he says, his eyes narrowing. "I have a question. Where is your poppy?"

In a split-second, it's the warrant officer talking, not the civilian who left the service last year. The voice rises, a flash of anger.

"How disrespectful is that to come onto this base without a poppy? How disrespectful is that to the uniform? Do you see these?" he asks, pointing to his row of medals. "How disrespectful is that?"

The tiny room feels like it is getting even smaller. And then...

"Five years ago, I wouldn't have been so nice," he says. "And I wouldn't have kept my hands in my pockets, either."

The former soldier takes a seat.

"That's how I've changed."

 

2It doesn't have to equate to the picking up of blown-up body parts or pools of blood streaming from fellow soldiers or innocent victims. It could be, and often is, something as inconsequential as a dirty sock left on the floor. Or listening to a total stranger complain about an everyday inconvenience that to someone who has witnessed genocide in Rwanda or mass graves in Bosnia would seem utterly ludicrous.

Imagine a medic who sees a woman in war-torn Rwanda walk into a clinic with a dead baby's arm sticking out of her womb. Imagine seeing a young girl run down by a group of drunken foreign soldiers who show zero remorse, yet you are powerless to see any justice done.

"We just had a 10-year war," explained Jim Lowther, a Halifax-based veteran who served two tours in Bosnia and was a member of the first mission to Afghanistan.

"And we had another 10 years of so-called peacekeeping missions where we were getting shot at and thrown in between three countries that were at war. So these guys do all their tours, they come home, and when you're over there, you have to have your spidey senses going all the time. You're looking over your shoulder 24/7. If you do that for six months, it's hard to turn that off.

"That's the problem. You can't do your job. When you've seen horrible things and done things... it's hard. So you have to put it away. You have to do your job. But when things calm down, that's when it comes back to bite you. That's when it spirals."

Lowther was perfectly fine until about 10 years ago when he went to the movie Behind Enemy Lines with his son. It's about an American soldier (played by Owen Wilson) who witnesses a massacre during the Bosnian conflict. Lowther had to leave the theatre.

"(The Wilson character) was running through the same places I had patrolled and something snapped," Lowther said. "I got sick and went and threw up in the garbage can. That was it. Full-blown nightmares. Just like that."

Said Mike, who served three tours in Bosnia: "A lot of stuff you shrug off or keep it internally. I could sit here and list example after example (of trauma), but I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to beat myself up."

The OSISS groups are not just peer support, they're conduits to professional therapy and medical counselling. Groups include active and non-active members. Ranks are thrown out the window. So are service records.

"The important thing is that everybody has a common denominator -- we all served in some sort of way," he said. "It doesn't matter if you're an officer or a junior rank. It doesn't matter if you're male or female. What matters is you went through a trauma, and we're here to help bring you back."

The OSISS, which has 20 sites across Canada, also offers spousal support.

"The person who lives with you is going to see some things even if you don't realize you're not well," said regional family peer support co-ordinator Angela Duda. "So what we try to do is say you're not the only person out there. There is help for you, so you don't feel like you're alone.

"And we go out into the units," Duda added. "We tell them that you need to watch each other and these are the signs."

All Canadian Forces personnel who come off tour in Afghanistan now have a mandatory decompression that includes education on identifying signs of OSI, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

"You don't just come home to your family," Duda said. "You may come off a six-month tour and say, 'I'm good.' But three months after you come home, you might be saying, 'God, I don't want to go out. I don't want to see anybody. I've got to call someone.' "

Education for OSI includes both entrance and exit sessions, a fundamental shift from the prevailing pre-1990s military attitudes, where any mental health issues would be seen by both soldiers and officers as career-ending.

In fact, the stigma still exists.

"A lot of people are very, very reluctant to come forward to get help," said Louise Groulx, OSISS regional co-ordinator for the Prairie region. "There's a stigma, a shame about having mental illness -- certainly in the military. We've all been trained to be tough. 'Suck it up, carry on.' You don't want to let your team down.

"(But) it's really come a long way as far as I'm concerned," Groulx added. "I think it's happening on the civilian side a lot more. The more it goes into the public sector, once it becomes more of the norm, it will help the military take some of the stigma off of it."

Added Follette: "At one time, if you got an OSI, goodbye. But now it's gotten to the point where they're trying to keep people, trying to help them get stronger and stay in the military, if that's the best thing for them. We're just trying to take it to the level where it's OK to say if things aren't going well."

Still, in life-and-death military training, where room for error or indecision is unacceptable, a decision to seek help can itself be traumatic. One day in 2005, Mike got in his car and drove around the Winnipeg base "four or five times," trying to bring himself to walk into a building where a sign said "Mental Health Ward."

"I was sick and tired of being sick and tired," he said. "I knew I needed help. When your soul is that lost, you know."

Mike walked unannounced into the office of a medic of a similar rank. He fumbled to explain the impromptu visit.

Finally, the medic asked, "Feeling a little unglued?"

The floodgates opened.

"That's when I got help," Mike said. "That one person made all the difference."

But like so many aspects of mental trauma, there are no absolutes.

"I'm grateful every day I wake up," Mike said. "It's a journey. I'm not ashamed to say I'm a veteran. I'm not ashamed to have served. And I'm not ashamed to say I have an OSI. I really like who I am now.

"But all of us that have an OSI, we'll have a monkey on our back for the rest of our lives. We just have to deal with it. It's extremely difficult sometimes. It's a daily battle."

And it's a battle that doesn't end in far-off places like Somalia or Bosnia or Afghanistan.

"The one thing about (these disorders) is you can't make promises," Follette said. "There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but it's going to be a lot of work. We can help keep you on track."

Does the current OSISS infrastructure meet the demand? Or the future demand?

For Lowther, it's at least a start. For Mike, it's a lifeline. For Groulx, it's a place where soldiers can reach out and get help to deal with the hidden casualties of war that weren't acknowledged in previous generations.

"For so long, people have needed a program and it wasn't there," she said. "Too many people who left the military ashamed or numb, and they didn't have to."

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 12, 2011 A4

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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