Prince Edward Island feels the pain of military system failing its own
© Guardian photo by Jim Day
George Dalton of Summerside, who served 29 years in the Canadian Forces and spent another 10 years working on an intervention program for the military, says efforts are needed to improve suicide prevention.
Their boy went to Afghanistan full of pride and determination.
Their boy returned home a broken man.
A Summerside couple shared with The Guardian this week the tragic and agonizing mental collapse of their son after he first endured the horrors of war only to then encounter the insensitivity of a military system that has been highly criticized following the suicides of eight Canadian soldiers in just the past two months.
The couple does not want their son to be identified. So for the purpose of this story we will call mom Sharon, dad Frank and the pair’s son Steve.
When Steve joined the military in 2000 at age 21, the hearts of his parents were swollen with pride.
Sharon says her son was an outgoing, fun loving young man with a great outlook on the future as he entered this new chapter in his life. Eight years in, Steve set off to serve in war-torn Afghanistan.
Naturally, mom and dad were worried about the safety of their boy. He could be harmed over there. He could be killed.
They did not, however, give any thought to the potential for Steve’s mental health to take a major hit.
“I guess you are sort of naïve about it,’’ says Sharon. “I had never heard about the term post traumatic stress.’’
They would. But not for some time.
During his nine months in Afghanistan, Steve never told his parents about any of his horrific experiences. Nor did the couple notice any changes in their son while watching him speak to them through Facebook video calling on a number of occasions during Steve’s life-changing tour of duty.
“He would hide it,’’ says dad.
Steve would say only that he wasn’t in Afghanistan for a vacation.
Sharon and Frank now know their son saw combat. They don’t know how much. They don’t know any details. They do know, however, that one of Steve’s bad dreams is of being shot in the back.
When they welcomed Steve home from Afghanistan, Sharon and Frank didn’t see any obvious change in their son.
There would, though, soon be what Sharon calls rumblings.
Steve was becoming quick tempered. He was spending money foolishly. He was partying much more than in the past.
With the benefit of hindsight, Sharon believes these dramatic changes in behavior were telltale signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
A couple years later came an explosive sign that Steve was suffering from PTSD. He suddenly disappeared from a crowd watching fireworks on Canada Day. He was discovered in a cottage, curled up in a fetal position on the floor, crying.
After that dramatic episode, Steve started having problems at work. He was suddenly not getting along with his supervisors. His drinking escalated. He was caught driving drunk. He became isolated. He had crying spells. He was argumentative and withdrawn.
Steve had, says mom, undergone a complete change in personality. A visit to their son in November proved jolting for Frank and Sharon.
“He was just very disheveled looking and his eyes were just blank,’’ says mom. “I just can’t get over those eyes.’’
Sharon has since seen improvement in her son — signs of hope. She believes Steve is now getting the help he needs to get better.
Still, Frank believes his son’s immediate supervisors failed his son.
Hiow could they not see signs of concern when Steve returned from Afghanistan? How could they not notice all the negative changes in Steve’s behavior? Why was he not helped?
“They have no problem sending them over there but they don’t want to fix the damage that is done (to the soldiers),’’ says mom.
Steve is doing better and his parents are cautiously optimistic about his future. But it will be a future outside the military.
“He has had enough,’’ says mom.
Frank and Sharon have been paying close attention to the recent rash of suicides rocking the Canada’s Armed Forces. Naturally, they are relieved Steve is not among those sad casualties. Word of each subsequent suicide of a soldier, though, hits the couple hard.
Says Sharon: “I just feel like I want to cry.’’
Adds Frank: “Frustration.’’
National Defence says it’s now in the process of hiring up to 54 people to fill a need that was first identified a decade ago when Canada’s war in Afghanistan began to heat up.
Both opposition parties say the fact soldiers have had to take their own lives to prompt the government to start moving on hiring more psychiatrists and other mental health personnel is “deeply shocking’’.
George Dalton of Summerside served 29 years in the Canadian Forces as a medical assistant. He knows all about the severe stress saddled by soldiers. He saw more than his share of dead soldiers and mangled bodies during a host of tours centred near Air Force bases.
“At one point it hit me like a ton of bricks,’’ he said. “I spent too many years trying to cope.’’
Dalton also devoted a solid decade to helping other soldiers face their demons. He was heavily involved in an intervention education program in the military from 1995 to 2005.
“We had a team approach to it and very few would fall through the cracks,’’ he said. “The upper most issue is trust.’’
However, Dalton says despite being effective and well received by soldiers and military brass, the plug was pulled on the program.
Today, the void is clear. He hears from people that are disgruntled with a military system that is not getting soldiers the help they need. The military, he says, has to stop letting soldiers slip through the cracks.
“We have to, I believe, open the door...be open to any technique or type of training to address suicide prevention,’’ he says.
“It is a major cancer and there is no easy cure...we’re in a miserable hole.’’