Darcy Grossinger knows what war looks like, and how it feels. He also knows first-hand the toll it takes on those who witness it.
Grossinger served four tours with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. He was with the Patricias on peacekeeping missions in Croatia, twice in Bosnia and he fought in Afghanistan.
Today, he’s still dealing with the injuries he and many of his comrades suffered. But the thing is, as real as his injuries are, you can’t see them.
Grossinger, the president of Whitehorse’s legion branch, has post-traumatic stress disorder, and his wounds cut through his mind, not his flesh.
“I tell ya, my first tour, I came back and it was a terrible homecoming,” he said, remembering the worst times.
“We were booed by refugees in the airport. They were throwing shit at us. There was very little support from the Canadian public. I lost a friend right after that first tour to suicide. That was a direct result of his tour,” he said, his eyes going dark.
Today, though, there is much more understanding of the damage that PTSD can wreak on a soldier or witness to war. There’s more help out there too.
“I know how painful it is and how it can ruin a person’s life. I’ve had first-hand experience, years ago, when I was in a bad way. You could barely get through life. If there’s help out there, people should seek it. These traumas don’t go away. If you bury it, it won’t go away, it will always come to the surface,” he said.
Getting help for PTSD in the Yukon can be a serious challenge. Grossinger said part of the problem is that there are no experts up here who understand these injuries – called occupational stress injuries – and finding people who know what it’s like to cope is hard.
Enter Mike Ryan. The best-selling British author, journalist and former soldier has a plan to help guys like Grossinger get the help they need, and he thinks Whitehorse is the perfect place to do it.
Ryan has spent the past two months in Whitehorse on exchange with a group of British cadets, but in his spare time he’s been working on setting up a new support program for soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The program is sorely needed, Ryan says, not because there is a lack of services, but because the soldiers who need it most aren’t walking through the door.
“Soldiers are, by nature, very proud people. They don’t like admitting they have a problem; that they’re not coping. It doesn’t look good on them,” Ryan explained.
“What I’m trying to do is set up a very informal environment where people come in, no one’s going to judge you. They don’t need to know your name, they don’t need to know anything about you, but you can talk about your feelings. And you might be good with that, just talking amongst fellow sufferers knowing that you’re not alone, or you might want to take it further. At every meeting there will be a professional counselor or a psychiatric nurse who can offer all of that information to you,” he said.
The plan is to create 10- to 14-day exchange retreats for U.K. and Canadian veterans. The Brits will come over from the UK to Whitehorse, where they will spend time in the outdoors and get to work with sled dogs. In reverse, the Canadians will spend the same amount of time in the UK working with horses on England’s rural farms. The program will launch this October in Whitehorse and then be rolled out across the country.
The strategy is two-fold. First, getting sufferers out of their home environments is important, Ryan said.
“If you live in a particular area, and you’re having a problem, you’re always going to associate that area with that problem. Whereas if you get taken out completely to an alien environment, especially where it’s wild country, that in its own right will calm people down.”
That may seem counterintuitive, but Ryan explained that what appeals to him most about the Yukon is its serenity.
“There’s no traffic, there are no piles of people around, it’s much more relaxed. If we use that environment as a sort of conduit to help relax them, I think that could work very well.
“It’s a proven thing that a lot of soldiers really like the outdoors. If you can get them into that environment, they tend to do very well with it,” he said.
The second strategy is the animal therapy, working with the sled dogs or horses.
Animal therapy is one area that’s showing exciting promise in the treatment of PTSD. A new Canadian study announced in May will see Veteran Affairs Canada team up with St. John’s Ambulance and Can Praxis to study using specially-trained dogs and horses to help veterans manage anxiety levels and stressful situations.
“And plus, there’s no judgment. They don’t talk back, and they won’t judge you for your feelings,” Ryan said.
And he’s got some serious backing. The deputy lieutenant of Greater London, John Purnell, has personally endorsed Ryan’s plan.
And the former war correspondent knows all too well how dangerous untreated PTSD can be.
“The final straw for me was a good friend of mine, last year, he couldn’t cope. He turned to drink. He had access to some of the best medical care in the world, and everyone begged him and begged him to go get help. Finally, six weeks before he died, he did agree to go for help, but basically it was too late.
Ryan had to watch his friend drink himself to death, and wonder why the health-care system had failed to help him.
“I thought it was so sad that we had this very proud man, just too proud to go for help, and I thought this is why I have to do something.”
While Ryan’s retreats will focus on wounded soldiers, there is another half of the equation that is equally important, he said. Half of PTSD victims get no recognition at all.
“The problem is their families are suffering, too. I’m really keen to do everything I can to get the program off the ground and make sure they’re getting help,” he said.
“Something like 75 per cent of family relationships break down during a six- or eight-month deployment. And if you look at Canada right now, they’ve cancelled all leave. The guys don’t get any time off. It’s happening now. I’ve got friends who are working seven in the morning till nine at night, with the heat and the threat of being attacked, and no relief from that, that is going to break people,” he said.
“Come the end of March 2014, Canada is done in Afghanistan. So people are saying, ‘Oh, well, we’re done. It’s over.’ But for the people who have been there, it isn’t over. And there’s a big concern they might feel that people don’t understand, don’t remember what they did and why,” Ryan said.
Whether a soldier comes to his retreat or not, Ryan hopes that he can spread enough awareness of the issue to make sure that victims of PTSD know where to turn for support.
Anyone interested in working, participating or helping out with Ryan’s Whitehorse retreat can contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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