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Soldiers need a helping hand, not a push out the door

by George Petrolekas

The Globe and Mail
November 4, 2015

The story of veterans’ suicides percolates periodically to the top of our national consciousness, then all too often fades away. Explanations are attempted, promises are made, hands are wrung, but when the attention shifts we are left with one incontrovertible fact: Many who served their country suffer in the shadows, and far too many die in silence.

It rings hollow that Canada wants to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees here in the space of weeks, yet couldn’t find the wherewithal to hire 76 additional mental-health professionals almost two years ago, or to institute a system to keep better track of reservists. Is there any question, then, about why trust is lacking?

Can we ever do enough? Probably not. But certainly we are not doing enough now.

Experts spend a great deal of time searching for direct links between overseas deployments and a traumatic event that might have triggered a suicide. This is the wrong approach; it clouds the issue and the discussion, which is exacerbated by military officials who remind us that most of the 40,000 soldiers who served in Afghanistan have not developed significant mental-health problems. That talking point simply isn’t true. Everyone who has served in a war zone (and that includes peacekeeping) comes back with a memory that can be a trigger to anger or worse. Some suppress it better than others.

It often isn’t a singular trauma; it can be an accumulation of stresses – some benign, some acute – and some resulting from the simple fact of deployment. Often, these problems only manifest themselves years after deployment. Unable to identify an obvious cause, alcohol often begins to play a part after returning home. With few people available to speak with, it’s no surprise that it’s easier to attempt healing with the solace of the bottle rather than risking your career.

To obtain care, soldiers must declare they have a problem, yet the stigma associated with self-identification is pervasive. Only when soldiers are free from the fear of a career setback – or release from the service – will they stop glossing over their stresses. They currently have little trust in the rules and those who enforce them.

For families who have suffered a loss to suicide, there’s often a common thread that their loved ones “always wanted to be a soldier.” For soldiers, it is not what they do, it is what they are. Release from service takes away their self-worth. When some end up in trouble with the law, judicial remedies are pursued instead of efforts in addiction recovery. Another common tale involves the transfer of soldiers from units where they served to Joint Personnel Support Units, which can foster a sense of reinforcement to the idea that a soldier is on the way out, or is damaged goods.

Canada needs to change its views on universality of service, which allows the Forces to release any member it deems to be unfit for a deployment but makes no effort to consider a soldier for transfer to another branch of the military or public service. In a country as rich as ours, no soldier should have to prove that his or her mental-health issue or chronic injury is related to a specific deployment. If soldiers have served overseas they should be given the benefit of the doubt that whatever ails them does indeed have a link to their service.

If laws need to be altered to permit Veterans Affairs to better track former soldiers within provincial health-care systems or to augment their care, then we should change the laws. If the yellow ribbons denoting support for our troops are to have any meaning, we can do these things and more.

George Petrolekas has served in Bosnia and Afghanistan and has been an adviser to senior NATO commanders.


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