Healing Our Military Veterans: First Steps

There’s a dire need to directly involve Canadian society to help our Canadian Armed Forces veterans move closer to a productive life and away from the darkness of suicide.

Photograph by Jake Wright The Hill Times
Afghanistan veteran Kevin Berry, right, pictured Dec. 10 on the Hill with Conservative MP Ben Lobb, left, told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that the New Veterans’ Charter’s  lump-sum payment treats Canada’s war-wounded like ‘mercenaries.’

By SEAN BRUYEA, AND ALLAN CUTLER | Published: Tuesday, 12/17/2013 3:40 pm EST

There’s a dire need to directly involve Canadian society to help our Canadian Armed Forces veterans move closer to a productive life and away from the darkness of suicide. How can we move towards an approach that not only promotes healing measures, but increases the opportunity for a successful and more fulfilled life after the uniform comes off? What would the first steps to this military-civilian dialogue look like?

For starters, mutual understanding is key. Never in Canada’s history has there ever been such a wide gulf of understanding between civilians and military while civilian compassion and sympathy for our men and women in uniform has reached a post World War II all-time high.

Canadians for Accountability has long shared an internal dialogue between its veteran and civilian members in the hopes of modelling options for improving mutual understanding between the military and Canadian civil society.

Allan Cutler’s Take

I never served in the military. However, my father, uncle, and many others served in uniform during World War II. When they returned to Canada, they did not seem to have the same problems as those serving in Afghanistan. There were problems, but those problems were apparently less severe. Those veterans who had seen war at its worst for up to five years were less affected than our present-day veterans who serve overseas for much shorter durations.

My father was in the First Canadian Tank Corp and had his D-Day in Italy, a year before the ‘official’ D-Day. Afterwards, he remained in his unit with his comrades. They had a long time to talk about their joint experiences. They eventually returned to England where they waited to return to Canada by lengthy boat and rail journeys. By the time they arrived home, they had absorbed and digested their experiences. For them, there was a strong and closed support network—their comrades.

Talking with people who understand and have been through the same thing is strong therapy. By the time they returned to Canada, they were ready to re-enter civilian life. Perhaps that is why these veterans were known to not talk about their experiences. They had the necessary time to process what had happened and were ready to put it behind them.

Contrast that to the present day veteran and the speed of life today. They are sent overseas to places such as Afghanistan by air. Time for mental preparation is minimized and upon arrival, they are often required to be operationally ready.

And the return trip can seem even more drastic. Instead of time spent on a boat, they are flown home with all but cursory time spent in a ‘decompression’ program. Even worse, they are often not surrounded by the same comrades with whom they served in Afghanistan. Some members of the CAF are thrust immediately into civilian life.

I have heard it argued that many of them remain in the Forces and, therefore, still benefit by remaining part of the culture. This is a false argument. They take on new roles with new comrades. The critical links are broken. The necessary time necessary to heal and be able to adapt to the change is missing.

When you think of it, is it any wonder that so many suffer from PTSD and other mental disorders? Is it any wonder that there are suicides?

Sean Bruyea’s Response

Canadians often compare WW II with that of modern military service in attempting to understand the apparent greater suffering of CAF veterans. However, we need to call out some of the potential myths we may have about the World War II experience.

Virtually all World War II veterans had no interest in making the military their career. They wished to return to their civilian life as quickly as possible. Contrast that with modern military service where relatively few members wish to leave the military. Many work towards a military as a lifelong career. Others, once in the military, fear or do not understand the endless opportunities in the civilian world. By default, they wish to stay in uniform rather than risk the unknown. Even those who wish to leave, often attempt to reach milestones such as the previous 20-year pension mark (now 25 years) for an unreduced pension.

Most of those who become disabled are forced out of the military long before they ever intended on leaving.  The psychological shock of being forced to give up the military way of life and all its rewards and benefits would cause great distress for the healthiest. Imagine the thunder strike to one’s psyche when this forced change occurs while being physically or psychologically disabled.

Did the WW II veterans “absorb and digest” their experiences? Currently, one of the largest categories of new claims for disabilities by World War II veterans are psychological injuries resulting from World War II service. This indicates that many World War II veterans did not process their war experience fully.

There is little doubt that World War II veterans, on the surface, appeared to suffer less after the war. Why? The answers are closely linked to what Allan Cutler observes, but often for different reasons. Yes, camaraderie was extremely important, but not necessarily to allow for psychological processing. We must remember, open discussion of emotional and psychological troubles has long been a taboo in our society, even after World War II. What camaraderie promoted was a sense of continued belonging for the veteran which helped mitigate the otherwise potential distress of the world having lost its meaning which is the frequent greeting card of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression.

In fact, the number one predictor of PTSD becoming chronically debilitating is lack of social support. The close brother and sisterhood of WW II provided a tight protective blanket of meaning to WW II soldiers.

And camaraderie was just a small part of this blanket. Every single veteran who left the military after WW II received some type of Veterans Affairs monetary, entrepreneurial, and/or vocational assistance to begin life anew in the civilian world. Contrast that with the reality that only 11 per cent of our nearly 700,000 serving and retired CAF members have received any assistance from Veterans Affairs.

It seems absurd that current soldiers who don’t want to leave the military are given stingy and begrudging access to programs but those who were eager to leave after WW II were given every assistance necessary.

Ironically, the key concept missing from Cutler’s take is perhaps the most valuable contributor to the apparent stability of the returning WW II veterans. Cutler clearly shared and contributed to a deep and continued support to his veteran family members even though Allan never served. Almost every Canadian family had someone who served in WW II. This allowed a community and therefore a nationwide acceptance of the veterans as integral to society, disabled or not. Yes, there were many instances of intolerance but by and large, Canadian society provided a sense of meaning, belonging and a second chance to most WW II veterans. This understanding translated into votes and therefore political will.

Today, we have isolated our military away from Canadian society. This is perpetuated by deep indoctrination which often encourages the military member to be strongly ambivalent towards civilians: repeatedly told to distrust civilians because the military is better but then inculcated with a commitment to die at a moment’s notice for those whom they distrust.

We must end this separation whether through indoctrination on the military side or distance and apathy on the civilian side. We must actively involve ourselves in the lives of each and every veteran in our community, normalizing the abnormal effects of war and military service. Just as Allan like so many other Canadians lovingly accepted their veteran fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters after WW II, we must reach out and involve, open a dialogue and learn to actively accept each and every returning Canadian Armed Forces Veteran.

And government has to stop meeting every veteran plea for help with “we are right and you are wrong.” This is not dialogue; it is stomping out the faint last cry of the vulnerable and desperate.

Allan Cutler is president of Canadians for Accountability. Sean Bruyea is vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, a retired Air Force intelligence officer and frequent commentator on government, military and veterans’ issues.


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