Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, Donald Ethell, shares his own struggles

For 38 years, Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Donald Ethell, retired colonel, served in the Canadian Armed Forces. In 1993, he retired as a highly decorated peacekeeper.

During his time in the army, he served in 14 international peacekeeping missions including Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel and the Balkans. He also served as deputy force commander of multinational forces during the 1990 Persian Gulf War before going on to complete his final assignment in Yugoslavia in 1992.

He says his time in the army was a traumatic experience that left him with tormenting memories.

“The military’s reason for existence is to kill the enemy, period. That is their job and everything else is secondary,” Ethell says.

He says that as a soldier you must be prepared to do some dirty, rotten things such as firing rockets from an airplane and killing people.

“I think back to Cyprus in ’65 when you saw kids and babies on the Greeks and Turks side hanging on hooks. That sticks with your mind,” Ethell says.

He explains that post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly known as PTSD, can be brought on by a number of events. It can be accumulative, and in his case it was.

War history of PTSD

Ethell left the military in 1992, a time when the idea of PTSD was not something that people regularly talked about.His and her honour at the 2011 Alberta Order of Excellence Ceremony.
Photo courtesy of: The office of the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta

“I know as a young soldier if one of the people came up to me and said, ‘I got a real problem with that,’ he or she would be scorned.”

He says they would be told to suck it up and go have a beer. ” ‘You shouldn’t worry us, you shouldn’t worry yourself. You’re going to get over it.’”

But, the truth is that you are not going to get over it, Ethell says. “If you have PTSD, it is chronic and it’s not going away.”

Stephane Guvremont, Mount Royal University professor, specializes in military history and explains the onset of PTSD.

“In World War I, we called it shell shock, and most people were brought on to that issue because of heavy shelling and artillery fire they encountered,” Guevremont says.

It is then he says that the military hospitals were being overwhelmed with soldiers who had no physical wounds, but were incoherent and refused to return back to their duties.

“They started to realize people were being affected mentally by the heavy shelling,” he says.

But, Ethell says the mental affects aren’t always immediate.

Realizing the effects

Lieutenant Governor Donald Ethell in Ottawa. He was one of the models when the army introduced it’s new uniform.
Photo courtesy of: The office of the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta
He says many soldiers returning home from Afghanistan are going to be sufferers of PTSD, but some of them may not know it until five or 10 years from now.

“It might don on them when they look in the mirror and ask, ‘Why have I developed these habits?’ ‘Why am I having flashbacks and waking up at night sweating?’”

In Ethell’s case, he says he realized he was developing some bad habits and something had to happen.

“I was gambling, I was drinking too much, and my physical fitness program had gone by the wayside. I was not abusive to my wife, but abusive in that I was rude,” he says.

Realizing he had a problem, it was then that Ethell says he went to an Operational Stress Injury clinic run by Veterans Affairs.

Getting treatment

Seeking help was a pivotal step in his recovery and helped him get his PTSD under control, Ethell says.

He began taking medication and went to counseling with a psychologist and psychiatrist.

“I’m still on the meds because that’s what has helped me and I don’t dare go off them,” Ethell says.

Pat Kostouros, registered psychologist specializing in PTSD, explains that some people need medication because their condition is far too overwhelming.

“They need to reduce the anxiety in order to manage the treatment.”

She says that the type of treatment a client will need depends on the client and it has to match their needs.

Other methods Kostouros lists for treating PTSD include:

– Meditation

– Mindfulness

– Cognitive Therapy

With his PTSD in check, Ethell is now working towards reducing stigma and increasing public awareness. Last October, The Lieutenant Governor’s Circle on Mental Heath and Addiction was launched. The program will look at positive steps being taken in Alberta to help improve the lives of people affected by mental illness and addiction.

For more information on PTSD and war-related stress, visit Veterans Affairs Canada 

giaquinta@cjournal.ca