BRUCE BUMSTEAD/BRANDON SUN
Dave Penasse, Capt. Drew Richardson and Fred Connor are gearing up for the big Battle Field Ride in support of the Wounded Warriors foundation.
You might not know it by looking at them, but Fred Connor, Drew Richardson and Dave Penasse were injured in combat; and while their scars aren’t something you can see or touch, they are very real.
Each man a soldier, each man suffering from the effects of battle in the form of post traumatic stress disorder.
Connor, who has been out of the military for five years now and is the elder statesman of the group, found his world crashing in around him while driving to work at CFB Shilo.
"I was driving to work one day and all of a sudden I was balling," Connor said. "My start and response was totally off, if someone would touch me, I’d go into instant reaction mode."
For a while, prior to breaking down, Connor turned to martial arts to compensate. And if at the core of every martial art is teaching respect, Connor had vastly different motives for stepping on the mat.
"It was about getting out as much aggression and anger as possible and there were times I was called for excessive contact."
For 13 years, Connor pushed his wife and children away, unwilling to acknowledge he needed help. Until of course, he couldn’t take it any longer and broke down on the way to work.
"I learned it’s okay to talk about how we feel," Connor said.
Today, Connor still talks about how he feels at least once a month because "there is still stuff I want to work on."
He said he’ll never be the person he was before going to war, but he doesn’t have to be the man that broke down trying to keep everything inside.
"I am the person who I am now, and I am better able to recognize when I’m not doing well or a situation that I can’t handle well and need to step away from," Connor said.
Richardson, who is still an active member of the military, said it was his wife who noticed the change in his personality.
"After my tour in Afghanistan, when I first came back my wife noticed that my personality had changed, that I was acting a lot different than what she had come to expect from me pre-tour."
When he first got back from Afghanistan in November of 2011, Richardson said he immersed himself in his work. He felt if he could focus on his job and compartmentalize his life, that soon everything would be back to normal — the way it was before.
"The more I tried to do that the deeper of a hole I found myself in."
In September a request to move out of 1RCHA was granted and Richardson, who is a captain, moved from the front lines to the RCA Museum.
"I needed a change so that I could reprioritize my life," Richardson said. "I didn’t feel comfortable in the unit. And not because of the way the unit was treating me, which was extremely well, but because I didn’t feel comfortable commanding troops or doing the job I was asked to."
The change, coupled with the treatment he’s received, is helping, but it’s something he knows he’ll have to continue to work at for the rest of his life.
Recently he completed a 12-week program in Winnipeg and continues to see progress.
"I realize I have a long way to go, but I also look back and see how far I’ve come in those three months," Richardson said.
This past summer he took part in his first Wounded Warriors event in Nipawin, Sask. and the experience of being around other soldiers who have been injured, some also suffering from PTSD, has been cathartic for Richardson.
"It’s been a hard road trying to deal with these issues on my own and I though it was time to get out my shell and connecting with people with similar issues and experiences and build that mutual support and mutual trust to not just help myself overcome the situation, but help others in a similar situation," Richardson said.
He recently returned to 1RCHA, where he is responsible for planning and implementing the training of about 180 soldiers. As a leader, Richardson said it was important to talk about his experiences and ensure other troops — his troops — come forward when they are suffering from mental health issues.
He’s also impressed with the amount of cultural change within the military there has been surrounding the issue of PTSD since joining the force in 2003.
"The treatment has been outstanding," Richardson said. "Not just on the medical side, but the support that I’ve received from my chain of commands."
While he used to follow the credo, "Service, Soldiers, Self," Richardson said he’s had to re-evaluate his priorities and he know understands that if he doesn’t take care of himself that he can’t properly serve his country and take care of his soldiers.
And taking care of the soldiers is something that all three men believe is a priority as the three have banded together to try to raise money for soldiers who return from battle only to face personal struggles with mental illness.
As part of the Wounded Warriors organization, the three men will bike from Paris to London covering a distance of 595 kilometres.
"I want to raise funds for the soldiers that come after me so that they can get the care and the help that they need," Penasse said.
To donate visit woundedwarriors.ca.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 14, 2013