What is wrong with us? What are we becoming?
Four of our soldiers, all veterans of the war in Afghanistan, committed suicide over the past several weeks. All that the Harper government, through Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, can say is that it’s “very troubling” (Brandon Sun, Nov. 29, 2013, “3 Soldier Suicides ‘Troubling,’ Nicholson Says”).
In an associated article, “Suicide And The Troops,” reference is made to a Canadian Forces report dated March 2013, which states there were 35 soldier suicides during the period 2011-12. Veterans advocates suggest this is a grossly understated description of the problems that soldiers returning from service in Afghanistan are experiencing.
According to the Dec. 4, 2013 Brandon Sun article, “Soldier Attempts Suicide Over PTSD-Linked Discharge,” veterans advocates estimate that for every death (by suicide) there may be as many as 12 others (that is 420 human beings we classify as soldiers) who have tried to commit suicide.
We glorify war. We celebrate and decorate our soldiers. We honour (or at least pretend to) our soldiers on Remembrance Day then just as quickly forget them. However, those soldiers (whether enlisted, retired, discharged, or resigned) continue to exist on the other 364 days of the year. And too many of them are suffering.
We blithely, but deliberately, train soldiers (these are husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters) to be part of a ‘killing machine” — to kill or maim and to be killed or maimed. Then we send them out to arenas of war to put their skills into practice.
It is impossible for us (at home) to imagine the environment of war as fought in Afghanistan: constantly wondering from where, from whom, where, when, how and for whom injury or death will arrive; constantly surrounded by death and injury, at worst, and the fear of death and injury, at best.
Then we bring them back home, dead or injured (physically, emotionally and psychologically) expecting them and their families to take up a normal life, with seeming little (certainly inadequate) regard for how they can successfully integrate themselves into normal society, economically, socially, physically, psychologically and culturally.
It is impossible for us to imagine living with the physical, psychological and emotional scars that our soldiers live with every day — scars that do not disappear when they return home. The closest that we may come to understanding is when we experience a bad curling game, a bad baseball game, a bad bowling game.
We relive the bad games in our thoughts and in our dreams, continually replaying them in our minds, for an hour or two, maybe for a day or two. But the memories are finally put into the “trash bin.” Not so for our soldiers. The bad “games” lasted for the three to six months (or more) of deployment, sometimes repeated, the experiences etched into the mind to be replayed endlessly and forever. For some, the only conceivable way out is death.
And more. Our soldiers return home to “see” shadows in everyday experiences. A loved one approaching without warning, an innocent yell by a son or daughter, a remark — danger seen in any and every moment of living. Danger that must be dealt with immediately, by reflex. To think and analyze means death or injury.
The results? We know what they are. Suicide, assaults, drugs, alienation — the result of coping skills gone awry. A response that should be expected regardless of our advice to “suck it up, bucko,” “be a man.”
The stories about returned soldiers that seem to appear in the media on a daily basis should alert us and our government to the seriousness and the extent of the problem. The stories should also alert us to the seeming fact that the support offered to our returning soldiers is inadequate at best, and non-existent at worst. These stories express the lie behind the inane platitudes and listings of all the government programs and monies dedicated to our soldiers.
In his June 2013 report “Improving The New Veteran Charter: The Report,” Guy Parent, Veteran Ombudsman, offers the following statement made by our Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the launch of the New Veterans Charter on April 6, 2006.
“In future, when our servicemen and women leave our military family, they can rest assured the government will help them and their families’ transition to civilian life. Our troops’ commitment and service to Canada entitles them to the very best treatment possible. This Charter is but a first step towards according Canadian veterans the respect and support they deserve.”
However, the above-noted report, internal studies done by Veterans Affairs Canada, analyses done by veterans support groups and the media, supported by the stories in the media, suggest the government of Canada is falling very short in “according Canadian veterans the respect and support they deserve.”
We want to try hard not to believe that there may be some truth in comments made by veterans which in essence, and in some cases, explicitly, suggest that the government prefers a “dead vet.” Problem solved?
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 12, 2013