“Canadian soldiers bravely put themselves in harm’s way, prepared to sacrifice for their country. By some estimates one in five will return with the invisible wounds of PTSD” (War in The Mind).
The complexities of war and mental illness are bewildering, convoluted, and deeply saddening. Robin and myself have read so many articles from brave, outspoken veterans, battling PTSD. Talked to friends about their daily battles. And we’ve cried with heads in hands as we read about the desperation and courage of so many trying to hold on to life, for their children, their spouses, for everyone, apart from themselves. Of course, so many lose their grip on life leaving holes in the hearts of friends and family. Holes that never heal.
Many veterans try to live normal lives, go to normal jobs, seek normal relationships, but at night some are wishing and praying for the darkness to come and take them away, for the nightmares to stop, for it all to stop. They walk among us every day. We see them in the street. Stand next to them on the train. Sit close to them in the pub. See them on parade come Remembrance Day. They’re all to often asked insensitive questions like “did you kill anyone”, “you must be really messed up with the things you saw”, and my all time favourite “PTSD? Can you catch that?”. I did, however, meet one lady at work who grabbed my hand and simply said, with all sincerity, “thank you” – I cried when she left. And was taken aback at how much I was moved by her simply gesture.
PTSD has been around since the beginning of time, admittedly, called by other names. A 14th century treaties provides instructions to Spartan knights on how to talk to soldiers battling the melancholy and hardships of war. Later “Battle Shock” and “Shell Shock” were common expressions used. But, little was still understood. One shocking discovery we made was that during WWI more than 300 British soldiers, many suffering from “Shell Shock”, were executed for cowardice.
Lt.Col Rakish Jetly, a mental health advisor with the Department of National Defence, advises on misleading statistics stating that “these reports – people saying 15/20/30% – nothing that we have is suggestive of anything close to that. Our figures are very consistent with the UK, consistent with the Netherlands and Australia where the numbers are probably in the 5-6% range”. Yet, Romeo Dallaire argues that these therapists “will come and say “well it’s still a manageable number within the context of Canadian society or other groups” too often forgetting that these people are specialized, they’ve been selected, they’ve been trained to handle a high level of stress”. (War in The Mind)
The debate rages on and on, but what is clear is that more and more soldiers are dying outside of war than in. The Canadian government does not measure the suicide rates of its veterans. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs does and a report released early this year states that from 1999 to 2010 18 Veterans committed suicide a day! 39% of these suicides were by Veterans 49 and younger (U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Report). It’s seriously shocking and echoes similar reports emerging around the world. One would hazard a guess that if Veteran Affairs Canada did a similar study the results would be just as staggering as those of our southern neighbours.
What’s certainly clear is that we’re not doing enough. The real cost of sending someone into battle is understated, undervalued, and bad for business. I know from personal experience that this real cost was nowhere to be seen when I entered the British Army recruiting office in Boston, England. I admit that I was a little sauced (I needed the courage) and desperate to escape the small dysfunctional town I found myself in. It didn’t seem like it mattered what I got on the aptitude test. Openings for Systems and Radio technicians in the Royal Signals were abundant and they needed filling and filling quickly. I signed the dotted line, took the Queen’s shilling, and that was that. I gave no thought nor was encouraged to think about the consequences of being in a war zone or whether I’d lose a leg or two or get PTSD, which I hadn’t even heard of back then. I just wanted to escape and they knew that.
My point is that there are so many inspiring people starting societies and programs to help soldiers and newly born veterans with Operational Stress Injuries and PTSD – to help them from becoming another statistic. But why isn’t there more warning in the recruiting offices or in the military contract they sign without reading? Maybe because the real cost of being a soldier is, well, too damn costly. Pay should be higher, but benefits should be higher and last the lifetime of the veteran. It’s no ordinary job after all. I understand that the world is filled with inequalities, that some sports players get paid more in one year than the entire Canadian Forces, but inequalities are there because we put them there – an aggregation of little things, little gestures, habits, and actions. There are many, many, phenomenal individuals, articles, societies, and projects, drawing attention to this. I am, as I know so many are, forever humbled by their generosity, time, and conviction to spreading awareness of PTSD, the stigma surrounding it, and the determination to stop our veterans from dying unnecessarily.
We continue to be moved and inspired by you all!
Photo above: Robin and Stewart. Photo credit Dominique Kwiek and Stephen Davis.
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