Canada pours salt in its war wounds

Four months after coming back from Afghanistan, Darcy Grossinger tried to kill himself. The local veteran had been sleeping in his garage - the closest thing he could find to a bunker - hoping to keep the nightmares at bay.

Four months after coming back from Afghanistan, Darcy Grossinger tried to kill himself.

The local veteran had been sleeping in his garage – the closest thing he could find to a bunker – hoping to keep the nightmares at bay.

In his dreams, Grossinger was not reliving the atrocities he’d witnessed in Bosnia, Croatia and finally Afghanistan.

He was committing them.

“I’d wake up screaming,” he said.

Grossinger joined the Canadian Forces “for adventure and to see the world.”

But it’s not the castles of Croatia or the markets of Afghanistan he remembers.

In Croatia, Grossinger remembers a shell coming through the roof of a house where women and children were taking shelter.

“The women had been holding their children in their arms and the blast impacted babies into the wall,” he said.

“I was scraping babies off the wall with a shovel and putting them into garbage bags.

“It’s haunted me ever since.”

Grossinger was in Croatia as a UN peacekeeper – a position he hated.

“There’s nothing you can do,” he said.

Peacekeepers can protect themselves, but cannot protect civilians.

Guarding one post, Grossinger could hear the screams of women and children being tortured.

Desperate, he reported it up the chain of command, breaking the rules.

But he was told to remain at his post.

“There’s no sense of control in these situations,” said Grossinger.

“You just have to swallow your rage, but it will come back to haunt you.

“I can still hear them screaming.”

Afghanistan was better.

In an offensive role, Grossinger was “hunting down al-Qaida.”

The soldiers spent most of their time on mountain tops armed with anti-tank rocket launchers.

At one point, Grossinger fired into a cave.

“Turns out there were al-Qaida in it,” he said.

“Arms and legs came flying out of the air holes.”

This doesn’t haunt him.

“That’s what we were there to do,” he said.

“It was our job.

“And it was nice to be given more wide-open engagement versus the UN where you can’t fire to stop atrocities.”

Although Afghanistan was easier for Grossinger, at night in his bunker the nightmares started.

At first he thought it was just side-effects from the malaria pills.

But when he got home, the dreams continued.

He was getting less than two hours of sleep a night, and was haunted by screams, when he tried to take his life.

On Monday afternoon, Grossinger is sitting in the Whitehorse Legion with his father Red.

Both men have experienced horrors well beyond the imagination of most Canadians.

Both have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

And both feel slighted by their country.

Last Saturday, veterans across Canada took to the streets protesting a host of grievances, including the New Veterans Charter which cut millions from veterans’ benefits.

Darcy and Red supported the protests.

But didn’t host one in Whitehorse.

“We discussed a demonstration, but decided against it because we are in constant contact with (MP) Larry (Bagnell) already,” said Red.

“Not a week goes by that we don’t talk to him about something to do with veterans.

“But there’s not much he can do.”

In 2006, the New Veterans Charter replaced lifetime pensions for wounded and injured veterans with lump-sum payments and income support.

“It’s a money-saving program for government,” said Darcy.

“Veterans Affairs is run like an insurance company.

“They are always looking at the bottom line and if there is any reason to deny you, they will.”

It usually takes an appeals process just to get a pension or a payout, he said.

And the New Veterans Charter is all about PR for government, it’s not actually helping veterans, said Darcy.

The charter says government “will do what it can to help veterans,” he said.

“Well, that’s their job – it’s what they’re supposed to do – they don’t need a fancy piece of paper to tell them that.”

Veterans Affairs fosters a culture of denial, he said.

When Darcy ended up with a rare tumour on his head that doctors had never seen on anyone under 70, he knew it was “a result of service.”

But he couldn’t prove it.

“And (Veterans Affairs) will always deny it anyway.”

Until a month ago, Veterans Affairs even refused to compensate veterans suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, something the US and Australia have honoured as a result of service for years.

“We were the last ones to do it,” said Darcy.

At least Canada’s citizens support us, said Red.

So did the veterans’ ombudsman, Pat Strogan.

The government saw the ombudsman position as window dressing, said Darcy.

It was a position to make the government look like it cared, but it didn’t expect anything to come out of it, he said.

But Strogan was “absolutely dedicated to his job and he told it like it was,” said Darcy, who served under Strogan in Afghanistan.

When all Strogan’s damning reports were ignored, he went public.

“He was forced to go public because government was not acting on the information he gave them,” said Darcy.

“It’s a damn shame his term was not renewed.”

A few years ago, the Whitehorse Legion paid for two specialized psychologists to come to the territory and work with veterans struggling with trauma following service abroad.

Air North donated free flights and the Yukon government helped fund the three, four-day workshops, but Veterans Affairs would have nothing to do with it.

“Veterans Affairs would not sponsor it unless they got detailed reports,” said Darcy.

“But a lot of veterans are not willing to part with all that personal information.

“And as we’ve seen, it’s abused by Veterans Affairs anyway,” he said, referencing Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn, who issued an apology Monday to an outspoken veteran whose confidential psychiatric reports were used in a political smear campaign.

“We need to respect those who were willing to give up their lives for freedom,” said Red.

Five years ago, when Red turned 65, his veteran pension was clawed back under the pretence it would be offset by his old-age pension.

But MPs and senators don’t have their pensions clawed back, said Red.

“Neither do Northwestel employees.

“And they didn’t have to face what we faced.

“They didn’t have to dodge bullets.”

Darcy, who’s 40, would rather not be collecting his veteran pension.

“If I could have my life back, they could keep their damn money,” he said.

“That money has been paid for 10 times over.

“It was earned in blood.”

The Whitehorse Remembrance Day ceremony begins Thursday, November 11 at 10 a.m. at the Canada Games Centre.

Contact Genesee Keevil at