Broken soldiers

Jim Day
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Prince Edward Island feels the pain of military system failing its own

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.’’

Organizations: National Defence, Canadian Forces

Geographic location: Afghanistan, Summerside, Prince Edward Island Afghanistan.Naturally Canada

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Recent comments

  • MacIntyre Jones
    February 02, 2014 - 16:36

    Hey Don, why don't you tell the families of the Canadians killed in Afghanstan how the wars today are a piece of cake. I am sure the wounded would also like to hear about it when you tell them about your vast combat experience. I say you were in the B Brigade - I will be there when you leave and I will be there when you get home.

  • David
    February 02, 2014 - 16:35

    Maybe the Forces need to do better mental screening of potential members. Maybe some up front work when young people sign up would save them much problem down the road. NOT everyone can handle intense are extreme situations and maybe if these people were weeded out up front and told to go do something else it would save the Forces and the taxpayers the costs at the other end.

  • Marcel Smith
    February 02, 2014 - 15:12

    Don, the problem with you is that you do not understand what PTSD is. They had it back in “the day.” In the First and Second World War and Korea it was called shell shock. They even had an episode of MASH back in the ‘70’s devoted to it. What it was called in previous wars I don’t know I have seen early movies on the Civil War in the U.S. and it was mentioned then. I think it was with the Viet Nam vets that it was recognized as a mental disability. Just because a veteran does not tell people he is suffering from PTSD does not mean he does not have it. Not all vets suffer from it but many do. And what does the number of war deaths have to do with PTSD and for that matter what is this nonsense about what war is more important?

  • Bill Brunzie
    February 02, 2014 - 15:10

    Don, I have read really stupid and uneducated comments on this page in the past, but your comment saying that today’s wars “are a piece of cake” has got to be the most moronic and unintelligent I have ever read on any subject. To make that statement diminishes all veterans and especially the Afghan veterans who fought, died and were wounded both physically and mentally. I have read you stuff here before and for the life of me I cannot figure out if you are extremely unintelligent, a web troll or both.

  • Summerside Resident
    February 02, 2014 - 09:06

    Great informative article George and Sharon. I truely hope you son receives the continued treatment he needs to stay healthy and be a productive member of society. All the best to his family. People should read up on this PDST before making some of the comments I am reading. This unfortunate condition can strike anyone who has seen death and serious injuries over an extended period of time. Service personnel, Police Officers, Fire Fighters, Paramedics, Doctors just to mention a few. The Government of Canada has to make this a priority and stop window dressing. This Harper guy is pathatic to say the least. After all the recent suicides in the forces he turns around and makes lide miserable the living Veterans and their families. I see no good coming from this recent demonstration by Minister Julian Fantino as he reacted to the Veterans. He and HArper BOTH have to be tossed out.

  • Garth Staples
    February 01, 2014 - 18:44

    My cousin Joe with NNSH in charge of Bren Gun Carriers during D-Day invasion laid for three days in a ditch . He was found and sent to England where both legs were amputated. He returned to NS and lived a very good life with a job helping other amputees and dancing with his wife. He never exhibited PDSS . Was he lucky or determined not to let it happen to him? A great Canadian hero.

    • Sad
      February 02, 2014 - 12:39

      I am glad that your cousin Joe survived. I am sure it was not easy for him, and I am sure that it was not easy for the other world war veterans. The thing is that it is not easy for any veteran, and what it appears that you are saying is that any veteran that suffers from PTSD is weak. I do not think that is the case, and I assume that if you talked to any veteran you would feel the same. Sometimes the most difficult thing that someone can do is ask for help.

  • don
    February 01, 2014 - 18:01

    nothing against todays men and women in war. but they live like kings in comparison to the vets of WW2, WW1, koriea,etc. these guys live in mud holes,talked to the family by mail, did NOT have good medical. and where were you all now when they need help? all you talk about is todays military. help the real vets that has lived with he hell for 50 years plus.

    • LA
      February 02, 2014 - 10:34

      You are another person who doesn't have the faintest clue what they're talking about, but that's normal for you. Moving along.

    • don
      February 02, 2014 - 13:10

      la. you have no idea what i know i have had many family members in WW2 and friends years back from WW1 and Korea. tell me about the hell they went thru. today's wars is a piece of cake. how about the kids today have to go thru what the guys did on d-day at the shore how many died in the water and on the shore? a lot more then todays war. are you saying today's war is more important then the vets that is here from WW2 and before? Canadian Military Personnel Killed Second World War: 46,998 Afghanistan: 157 Now tell me the guys that came back did not have PDST? Check this site and then tell me i am wrong. http://www.canadaatwar.ca/

  • Andrea
    February 01, 2014 - 16:29

    Qualified doctors to treat these Veterans is the very least the government can do. Doctors who actually specialize with PTSD. As a civilian I could not even begin to think what members of the military have seen in duty areas. Our soldiers deserve proper resources and superiors should be trained to recognize early signs.

  • Retired Counselor
    February 01, 2014 - 15:44

    Let's hope this young man gets the help he needs ... and don't forget frontline workers at home..The RCMP have been getting very pro-active in this field due to the nature of their duties and after 20-25-30-35 yrs of exposure they now realize that constant exposure to unpleasant situations,threats and violence can take a toll.They take the same oath as the Cdn Forces.

  • fed up
    February 01, 2014 - 12:59

    For too many years everyone thought joining the Canadian forces was a big adventure with lots of trips paid for . When the Sh@$y hit the fan a lot of guys can't cope. The liebrils sent them over there so I guess they will get to take care of them after the next election

    • LA
      February 01, 2014 - 18:22

      It has zero to do with "not being able to cope" in the manner you imply. People should educate themselves on the subject. There is plenty of literature available straight from the horse's mouth.

    • cromwell
      February 02, 2014 - 19:05

      I find it amazing that those who don't have the courage and/or moral fibre to put themselves in harm's way always find a need to comment about those who do. Until such time as you have been placed in a situation such as that experienced by 'Steve' and many others of his ilk, I suggest you STFU!

  • fed up
    February 01, 2014 - 12:53

    For too many years everyone thought joining the Canadian forces was a big adventure with lots of trips paid for . When the Sh@$y hit the fan a lot of guys can't cope. The liebrils sent them over there so I guess they will get to take care of them after the next election