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Healing hidden scars

Former soldiers may have been spared by the rockets and bullets of battle, but as author and First World War soldier Erich Maria Remarque once noted,…

Former soldiers may have been spared by the rockets and bullets of battle, but as author and First World War soldier Erich Maria Remarque once noted, “even though they may have escaped the shells, they were destroyed by the war.”

After centuries of Canadian warfare, it has only been in the last 10 years that the mental effects of wartime have been brought forward into the public consciousness.

In days gone by, “shellshock” and “battle fatigue” were private matters — points of personal weakness to be kept inside and discussed with nobody. Otherwise one would be considered a coward.

 That all changed in 2000, when former Rwandan peacekeeping commander Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire was found under a park bench outside Ottawa in a near-coma — the result of a mix of alcohol and anti-depressants.

For Dallaire, it was the rock bottom after years of depression following his service in Rwanda during a horrible period of genocide — when his poorly equipped UN force was almost completely ineffectual in stopping the killing.

The shocking downturn of one of Canada’s most renowned military men forced the public to think seriously about the effects of war on military personnel overseas — and what was truly going on in the minds of husbands, wives, sons, daughters, and friends returning from overseas service.

When Yukoner David Laxton returned from a tour in Bosnia in 1995 outspoken members of a grateful nation were nowhere to be found.

“We got off the plane or off the boat and we were told to go home — you know: ‘Thanks for coming out, off you go now, we don’t need you,’” he said.

Unlike those veterans who returned to banners and crowds after the world wars, Laxton came home to find himself “totally ignored, shunned and even degraded.”

“I had a situation in Ottawa where four kids passed me when I was in my uniform and one of them spit on me,” said Laxton.

“I was so shocked, I never believed that that kind of thing would ever happen,” he said.

At about that time, Marvin Westwood, who holds a PhD in counselling psychology at the University of British Columbia, attended a family gathering.

Present, as usual, was Westwood’s uncle Jack, a hard drinker who had been largely shunned and misunderstood by his family for years.

Breaking convention, Westwood struck up a conversation with his uncle — the conversation eventually leading to some of Jack’s traumatic experiences in the Second World War.

“Marv realized that here was this story that had been suppressed for so many years, he had never told anyone — and the effect of him carrying that led to his drinking, led to his isolation, led to his family feeling like they didn’t know him,” said Brian Walker, a counselling psychologist and one of Westwood’s colleagues.

“After that moment, Marv realized that his uncle Jack wasn’t just an individual thing, this was happening to most of the people coming back (from war) — they had stuff that they had to hold onto and deal with and they had no way to get rid of it” he added.

Westwood initially tried to bring counselling and group therapy to older veterans of the Second World War. However, he was told, “You’re 50 years too late for us, you’ve got to get to the younger soldiers.”

Westwood took their advice, and crafted a group-counselling program to help the dozens of Canadian peacekeepers returning from overseas service in some of the world’s worst trouble spots.

The need was certainly there. Of soldiers turning out for the program — a few at first, and then in increasing numbers – many had considered suicide, and almost all experienced violent nightmares.

Often their wives had to sleep in separate beds because their partners would unwittingly strangle or punch them in the night.

Writing, talking and group support were some of the ways that Westwood and a team of other psychologists would get veterans to work through their pain.

Often re-enactments proved useful. Traumatic experiences would be acted out by group members.

Walker described a man who had, for years, felt his inaction as a soldier had led to the death of an old man in Bosnia.

“He had carried the face of that old man with him for years because he had gotten there too late,” said Walker.

A group member took the role of the old man, allowing him to speak his feelings and receive assurances that there was nothing he could have done differently to save him.

Laxton’s feelings of trauma deepened as the years progressed following his switch from military to civilian life.

“Overwhelming thoughts of suicide, murder, anger, a crushing weight — you just want to run away,” he said.

“There’s time when your body won’t let you get out of a chair but your mind just can’t stay there — you just sit there and be a zombie,” he said.

“And other times, the mind just takes a break. You’re in the middle of something and all of the sudden you’re somewhat aware of what’s going on but your hand doesn’t move — you just stop.”

In 2007, at a Royal Canadian Legion convention in Victoria, Laxton met Walker, a counsellor for Westwood’s program.

During a video presentation prepared by former members of the counselling group, Walker noticed a physical change taking place in Laxton.

“I was looking extremely drained, and I was upset, agitated and somewhat confused — it was an emotional experience,” said Laxton.

“He thought, for the first time, that there was some hope, that something could be done for him,” said Walker.

The two soon forged a relationship and began laying plans to bring the program to the former soldiers of the Yukon.

Wednesday night, a small group of former peacekeepers gathered at the Edgewater Hotel to hear Walker’s presentation on the proposed program for former Yukon peacekeepers.

Casually dressed, and with a soothing voice, Walker carefully laid out the program for the old soldiers that surrounded him.

Earlier, Walker said that he enjoys being in the company of old soldiers.

“It’s the straightforwardness — the no-nonsense bullshit. They’re very direct, there’s a lot of passion, there’s a lot of commitment, and in most cases they have committed to their country and committed in a way that civilians can’t understand,” said Walker.

The close brotherhood and connection of soldiers is something to which Walker says he is “quite envious.”

“There’s a lot of good that comes from being part of that strong brotherhood, and I will never know what that’s like. I get a vicarious ‘hit’ off being around that,” said Walker.

Walker ran a video of accounts of peacekeepers who had gone through the program.

“It got to the point in my household where I was no longer a value to my family. My children didn’t want to come near me — my little one would actually become physically sick in my presence,” said Paul, a former peacekeeper in the video.

Paul said that after completing the program his bond with his children grew much stronger, and his youngest not only approached him, but regularly said, “I love you.”

“I’ve had more joy in the last 10 months than the last 10 years,” said George, another former peacekeeper in the film.

Following the video, with his feet propped up on a chair, Walker laid out the details of the program — three consecutive weekends at a retreat centre, meals and billeting provided, as well as follow-up support.

As questions came at Walker in succinct bursts, it seemed more and more like briefing a room full of soldiers for an upcoming mission.

The hardest part of the program is getting people to sign up.

“Depending on how long it’s been since they’ve served … a lot of them just, they withdraw, they don’t really want to revisit it,” said Walker.

“It’s not that they’re resistant, they’re just unsure,” he said.

A man at the end of the table described how he hadn’t really thought much about his experiences in Bosnia — such as times when entire buildings collapsed around him after being struck by missile fire.

It was only after returning that the sleepwalking began.

And all of the former soldiers had horror stories about the impossible bureaucracy surrounding military pensions and medical benefits.

Soon, one by one, the veterans assured Walker that he could “sign them up.”

“Once we get it going, a synergy is created. And the veterans who have come out and who have benefited — they become the ambassadors,” said Walker.

Contact Tristin Hopper at