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Remembering our Veterans: Is There More That We Can Do?

Canadian soldiers have a higher rate of addiction compared to the general population.War veterans inevitably have to cope with issues that far surpass the comprehension of ordinary citizens. As we approach Remembrance Day many of us don the “poppy” as a means of expressing our gratitude and pride regarding what these brave young men and women do in the service of their country. The psychological problems that many veterans experience, however, are increasingly making the news.  Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become a recognizable term to the general population. The days of “John Wayne” style portrayals of combat veterans are long gone. The war on terror, including the thousands of Canadian soldiers deployed, has spawned a reassessment of the “experience” of combat. This reassessment dates back to the American war in Vietnam, but the international coalition involved with the “war on terror” has brought the issue into the global stage. John Wayne is nowhere to be found in this scenario. Instead, such films as “The Hurt Locker” have made attempts at expressing a more realistic account of the “terrors” of war. That being said, it is impossible to convey what the combat experience truly is. Only those who have experienced it can understand the “truth” of what is involved. We civilians can sympathize but in no way can we empathize. This marginalizes the veterans – they can only find that empathy among themselves and this sense of isolation adds to the already problematic psychological trauma of the experience itself.

Almost three thousand Canadian soldiers have been diagnosed with PTSD between 2001 and 2008. And these are only the ones who seek help. The American based National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (NCPTSD) has determined that, among the many difficulties faced by those who suffer from this affliction, alcohol abuse is a growing concern. Suffering veterans will often turn to substance abuse as a means of coping with their disorder. Remember, this is a military culture – a culture that prides itself on strength and fortitude which makes it more difficult for the veterans to seek civilian psychiatric or psychological counselling. The “image” of the soldier does not lend itself to an acceptance of “civilian” weaknesses. There is an ingrained “attitude” of “toughing it out” and burying strong emotions inside – at least when in the company of the uninitiated (civilians). A soldier returning from a combat mission in Afghanistan often finds him/herself in the company of people whose priority is ensuring that they don’t miss the next episode of “Dancing with the Stars”. There is a breach between the “mindset” of the combat veteran and the civilian – even when that civilian is a family member or close friend. There is no intent to be indifferent or uncaring regarding the experience of the veteran – there is just too large a gulf between that experience the experiences of those of us who remain at home. Again, an inevitable sense of isolation on the part of the veteran is unavoidable. And it is in that isolated state that the veteran suffers and often looks to anesthetize the pain through alcohol and drugs.

More and more PTSD research being conducted on and much effort are being made to encourage the veterans to come forward and seek help. The Canadian Defence Department is attempting to bring in more heath care workers specifically to deal with PTSD, but it is having difficulty recruiting trained professionals in this field. Again, veterans are less likely to seek assistance outside of the military community so the lack of trained health care workers within the military is contributing to the problem. The bureaucratic and logistical realities of military procedures suggest that the moves necessary to install the needed number of psychiatrists, psychologists, mental-health nurses, social workers and addiction counsellors will not be achieved. Last September Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced that an additional 11.4 million dollars would be provided specifically for the addition of mental health care workers in the military. But the military ombudsman report suggests that there is still much debate regarding the “structure” of the military health care system and whether the additional funding will, in fact, create a better situation for the returning veterans.

So where does that leave those of us who are not part of the military establishment? What can we do to help? The poppies are a good place to start. Wearing them shows all veterans that we care and appreciate the sacrifices they have made in serving our country. Perhaps we can also take a little more time to attempt to understand the situation in Afghanistan that has led to over 2,000 Canadian casualties. Perhaps we could visit a veteran’s hospital as a means to express our gratitude in person. Organizations such as Veterans Affairs Canada offer a number of volunteer options that would take up little time but could make a world of difference to our veterans. A quick search on the Internet will reveal numerous other options available to us civilians if we want to show that we care about these brave men and women. We can never know what it was like to serve and fight for our country if we have not spent time in the military. But, maybe the next time we are rushing to get home to watch another episode of “Dancing with the Stars” we could take a few minutes to put things in perspective – to appreciate how fortunate we are to be able to enjoy the amenities that come with our democracy and freedom. Once a year we put on a poppy to commemorate our veterans and on November 11th we honour them– what are we doing the other 364 days of the year to show our appreciation?

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