Post-traumatic stress disorder, loneliness hinders progress
As Remembrance Day approaches on Nov. 11, millions of Canadians will don poppies, attend ceremonies and services, and otherwise honour Canada’s veterans.
Beyond this public respect, some veterans are calling for more accessible and equitable support systems, arguing that the current compensation from Veterans Affairs Canada or the Canadian Armed Forces isn’t enough.
The big issues felt by Canada’s veterans
Nearly 5,000 soldiers return to civilian life annually. Although valiant and honoured, it’s not uncommon for Canada’s returning soldiers to feel neglected, broken or undervalued.
Doug Boyd, the branch manager and previous president of the #285 Royal Canadian Legion, says the veterans who are suffering the most are the ones who are left alone.
Photo by Kyle Napier
“The veteran, in many cases, still feels that he’s the only one,” Boyd says. “They went through the same thing, and they’re all trying to treat it by themselves, which is a bad thing. They feel alone.”
Jean Guy Toussaint is a veteran to five different conflicts, including a 2006 tour in Afghanistan. He now studies social work at Mount Royal University, spending his time helping veterans who have little social assistance.
“For the first time in their life, there’s no fire team partner for them,” Toussaint says. “But even more than that, there are very few other people like them.”
Both Boyd and Toussaint say they see a demand for fairer compensation to fallen veterans and those returning with operational stress injuries.
Boyd says: “If a veteran has sacrificed and comes back with a medical issue — whether physical or mental — that veteran should be looked after, at least to the condition that he was in before. And that’s not happening.”
Regarding residual psychological issues, Boyd says he’s heard of situations such as a Canadian soldier who returned to Canada, and had dug trenches in their front yards to prepare for war.
“That means he’s not mentally prepared to be back here — he’s still over there,” Boyd says.
That incident could be attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition referred to as “war fatigue” up until the ’70s. While current assessments of soldiers involve a deeper understanding of PTSD, returning veterans often deal with a host of other issues.
Veterans helping veterans
Many programs in place for veterans are organized by veterans themselves.
In 2007, Toussaint was asked by a friend to help locate two veterans — both were regimental sergeant majors from Afghanistan. Their wives left them, their families were broken up and their lives fell apart. Toussaint presumes they are both still homeless.
“Nobody could locate them because they were on the streets,” Toussaint says.
Although he hadn’t found the two missing sergeant majors, Toussaint says he found seven other veterans who needed public assistance. Toussaint has helped over 90 homeless or vulnerable veterans find social assistance and forms of compensation to get them back on their feet.
“If the Canadian Forces ran Veteran’s Affairs, and soldiers were in charge of taking care of soldiers, I think you would see a different ethos in place.”
A retired Brigadier General, Gregory Matte, now works as the national executive director for the Helmets to Hardhats program in Ottawa. This pilot program has helped 100 veterans find employment in the construction industry.
Matte says veterans have difficulty transitioning into workforce because their skills are not recognized.
“Although we have a lot of people coming out of the military with an abundance of experience, qualities and skills, they’re not directly transferable — so that becomes a big obstacle.”
He says underemployment and a lack of a stable career upon return may cause the loneliness and loss of self worth. He adds that those who have served in the military “tend to grow dependent on one another as their kind of extended family.”
“It helps to understand what it’s like to be working in difficult conditions — whether it’s humanitarian aid in Haiti, or peacekeeping in Bosnia, or war fighting in Afghanistan,” Matte says. “It also helps to understand what it’s like in a military lifestyle with regard to the type of support and camaraderie that we have, and how important it is to find that type of fit in a civilian lifestyle.”
Another program designed to ease veteran reintegration is the Veterans Transition Network.
Tim Laidler, a graduate of the Veterans Transition Network, returned from Afghanistan in 2008. He is now the executive director of the program.
Laidler says he came back emotionally numb, and unable to empathize with everyday civilian issues.
“The biggest issue is getting on with your life to a meaningful career and making that psychological transition away from this person who you’ve had to become over there,” Laidler says.
He adds that the civilian peers, to many of these veterans, have established successful careers where the veteran may still be seeking employment because of assumptions made about those living with PTSD.
“That’s where we find that loneliness,” he adds.
Improving support programs for veterans
While support exists, Toussaint says Veterans Affairs and the New Veterans Charter aren’t doing enough and aren’t reasonably accessible.
For soldiers who die in service, Toussaint recommends Veterans Affairs and the Canadian Armed Forces pay the family 100 per cent of the soldiers’ pay, fund schooling for their children, meet families’ needs and provide counseling.
“You can’t give them back their father, but you can give them back everything the father would have provided,” Toussaint says.
Wounded Warriors is another organization assisting returning veterans’ transition into the workforce. Executive director Scott Maxwell also says some national programs meant to compensate these veterans aren’t accessible or fair to everyone.
“Is it wise to dangle a check for $125,000 in front of someone that is having mental health issues?” Maxwell asks.
Both Maxwell and Toussaint say these cheques are intended to cover operational stress injuries endured by the soldier in full. Although sometimes over $100,000, Toussaint says this compensation is difficult to access and is paid as a one-off — with some veterans not realizing the full scope of their injury before accepting this compensation.
As Maxwell primarily assists veterans living with PTSD, he says, “There is no single solution to post-traumatic stress, which is very complex. It impacts their whole life – their family, their friends, and their entire network. This is a long, long-term commitment that we’re prepared to focus on and support.
“Canada has justifiably done a great job in honouring the fallen, but we’re working to do a few things better when they’re handling the living.”