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Facing the horrors of war

by Gregory Wilson September 18, 2012
Facing the horrors of war

Mental support for war veterans who are back in Canada has always been an issue, though not always a priority.

Mental health problems in returning soldiers have been an issue since officials first discovered such a thing could occur following a traumatic event. Nowadays, the problem is better understood and taken care of, but the current measures employed are still not enough; therefore, not all World War II veterans have been as blessed as the three gentlemen who go to Branch 108 every Thursday to share a beer.

In the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 108 based in Châteauguay, three former soldiers – one from the air force, the navy, and the army – believe the medical conditions and support system surrounding Canadian soldiers have dramatically improved since their time in the Canadian Forces. They did not want to divulge their names for privacy reasons.

The three veterans were in excellent shape for their age, both physically and psychologically – a testament to their full recovery since World War II.

“I had sufficient support, [but] there may be a 100,000 other guys that didn’t get it,” reminded the former airman.

One persisting issue that stood out for the former soldiers is the lack of staff at St. Anne’s Hospital, exclusively for veterans of the two World Wars and of the Korean War – younger soldiers who’ve been on peacekeeping operations or in Afghanistan are not eligible.

“They’ve got so much room there, there are so many empty spaces, but it was always hard to get in,” said the former army soldier. “Veterans have tried to get in and they say there’s no room. They don’t have the staff for it, I guess.”

As the hospital patients thin out year after year, the provincial government is planning to take it over and use it as a civilian hospital instead.

Nevertheless, the three men praise the government for having put “more effort and more money towards the veterans” in recent years.

“There’s more being done for the veterans today than there was being done 70 years ago,” noted the former navy soldier.

Yet, despite these improvements, some veterans of Afghanistan have spoken out on poor medical and psychological support they’ve received once back in Canada.

In recent memory, two major cases have brought significant exposure to the issue: the ongoing fiasco following Cpl. Stuart Langridge’s suicide; and the statement given by Cpl. Steve Stoesz to CTV after being forbidden to do so by his superiors.

Cpl. Stuart Langridge committed suicide in army barracks in Edmonton in 2008.

It was his sixth suicide attempt. The story sparked outrage as federal authorities seemed uncooperative and even apathetic towards the soldier’s grieving parents.

Later, an inquiry was called to find out if the military indirectly played a part in his death. The investigation revealed he was not on suicide watch, but had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Cpl. Steve Stoesz, on the other hand, made headlines earlier this year for going against a direct order from the Department of National Defense and speaking up about proposed cuts to mental health services for soldiers. He said he hadn’t been given the proper physical care upon his return and he wouldn’t accept it. Stoesz has been fighting against the medical system and Veterans Affairs ever since.

Amid this recent controversy, Federal Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced on Sept. 12 the defense department will invest $11.4 million more in mental health services for returning veterans.

According to MacKay, the money will fund the employment of four psychiatrists, 13 psychologists, 10 mental health nurses, 13 social workers and 11 addictions counsellors. More than 5,000 soldiers returning from Afghanistan are suffering from mental health issues, including over 3,000 diagnosed with PTSD.

“To compare World War II to Afghanistan is almost impossible,”  said the former air force soldier of Branch 108. “There are ages of difference.”

Though that may be so in some respects, the fear, the nightmares, and the other mental traumas have branded veterans of all wars. During World War II, proper help for psychological recovery was still in its early stages and macho attitudes regarding the subject ran high.

Although the current understanding of mental illness has pushed the boundaries and changed perceptions to give way to a better support system, there are still deficiencies as demonstrated by the Langridge case.

Hopefully, the Department of Defence’s new investment will be used efficiently, and become the first step in providing adequate mental health care support for our veterans.

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