Operational Stress Injuries, Part 1: The War Within

November 21, 2012 by Sharon Adams

[ILLUSTRATION: RORY KURTZ]

ILLUSTRATION: RORY KURTZ

Thirty per cent of those who served in combat zones will suffer an operational stress injury.

In Afghanistan, Bosnia, Cyprus, Korea, Europe and dozens of other locations around the globe, Canadian Forces members have proven time and again they are prepared to march into hell to protect and promote Canadian values, chief of which, arguably, is peace. It is a cruel irony that when some return home, their military experiences have robbed them of that very thing.

It takes hardening of the soul to do their job in places where human life is valued cheaply, where equality before the law, due process—even peace—are lofty concepts that have little to do with the lives of people struggling to survive.

Those who have served in violent places do not slip easily back into Canadian society; they often experience a ‘disconnect’ when they return. For some it is a fleeting experience dispelled by the embrace of family and community. For others, that disconnection from normalcy is a torment that can last forever. “These after-effects are more difficult to anticipate than physical injuries because they are less visible, reluctantly reported by those who suffer from them, and because the symptoms may only appear years after the traumatic event,” says a 2011 Library of Parliament background paper on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the mental health of military personnel and veterans. “[T]here are no certainties, except for the distress of those affected.”

Over the next five years the Canadian Forces expects to release about 30,000 personnel. At least 2,750 are expected to suffer severe PTSD, the report notes, and at least 6,500 more will have other mental health issues. The report states that 30 per cent of those who served in combat zones will suffer an operational stress injury (OSI), 10 per cent of them with PTSD, and the risk rises with the number of tours.

Although the Department of National Defence, Veterans Affairs Canada, the CF, provincial health systems and communities across the country have programs to help, some veterans do not get the help they need. Some served before OSIs were even recognized; some developed an OSI after leaving the military; some are mistrustful of programs offered by the military and veteran establishments; some minimize or dismiss their problems.

Over the past 15 years more than 200 of these men and women have been helped by the Veterans Transition Program, developed by psychologists at the University of British Columbia and funded by nearly $2 million in donations over the years by The Royal Canadian Legion’s British Columbia/Yukon Command. The VTP, run in B.C. by UBC co-directors psychologist Marvin Westwood and Dr. David Kuhl and psychologist Tim Black from the University of Victoria, is a group-based program designed to assist veterans in their transition to civilian life. With the help of professional therapists and support from the group, participants identify the issues holding them back, re-enact traumatic experiences, and learn coping and communication skills. They leave with a ready-formed support network in other members of the group and their closest family members, who attend some sessions and learn some of the same communication skills. The VTP is free to participants, confidential and outside the military and veteran establishments.

It is now poised to spread across the country, thanks in large measure to The Royal Canadian Legion. Over the next year the Legion will provide up to half a million dollars from the Dominion Command Poppy Trust Fund to the newly created Veterans Transition Network to help fund start-up costs so the VTP can be offered as a national program. Individual provincial commands are providing ongoing funding for program delivery. To date this funding amounts to more than a million dollars.

“A lot of guys won’t go through the military for help because they’re worried it will affect their career,” says Chris, a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan who doesn’t want to be identified. “Everyone says it won’t but there’s just a general distrust.” Another disincentive is that “at the end of the day the guy helping them is the guy yelling at them, the guy marching them around.  It’s hard to go to the disciplinarian for help.”

“I loved being a soldier and it’s a noble profession,” says Tony Spiess, who was in the first VTP session 15 years ago. “To this day I still wish I was in the military. But when someone leaves on bitter terms, if you put the letters DND anywhere, you lose those guys; (it’s) too much red tape, too much politics and a record that might cause problems later. The DND does a good job with the programs they have in place and have come a long way since the early 1990s but with VTP, serving and non-serving soldiers have a program that is effective and 100 per cent confidential.”

[ILLUSTRATION: RORY KURTZ]

ILLUSTRATION: RORY KURTZ

“They fear terribly that having a mental health diagnosis will affect their careers,” says Westwood. “They call it career suicide.” In the VTP “there are no records; it’s anonymous.” That was one bonus for Chris. “The military likes things to be their puppy, so they can track it and put in control measures. But this needs to not be their puppy. As soon as they start tracking it they’d ruin it. With VTP, no paper trail remains to threaten a career.  No loose lips inadvertently give your unit the idea you’re weak.”

The CF recognizes a wide range of causes for OSIs: trauma, accumulation of stress over time, grief, loss, moral injuries. Symptoms include emotional numbness, hyper-vigilance, explosive tempers, emotional overreaction, depression, nightmares, inability to sleep, relationship problems, alcohol and drug abuse, suicidal thoughts. But there are others who would not be diagnosed with an OSI who just aren’t functioning normally. Their problems may seem minor compared to such serious conditions as PTSD, but they can also have a serious  effect on quality of life when played out in everyday life, in marriages, with children, on the job.

“Everybody comes back needing some help even if they don’t have PTSD or an OSI,” says James, a full-time reservist under contract with the CF who has served in Afghanistan three times in four years. “I’ll tell you that 90 per cent of the guys I talk to say they are numb on the inside; they feel frozen. They can’t reconnect with family or girlfriends or boyfriends. You’re missing a part of yourself, that part that feels.

“After living in a stressful situation for so long, then coming back to Canada, we are not really taught how to properly unwind, how to blend back into society,” he adds. To help with the transition back to normal life, CF units returning from Afghanistan went through a decompression period of a few days before returning home, during which time troops were checked for symptoms of OSIs and told where to get help should delayed symptoms develop. They’re rechecked a few months later. But, says James, following a honeymoon period of a couple of months back home, “you almost feel like an alien. You see people get upset over minuscule stuff, like their cellphones don’t work, and you want to throttle them. You feel you don’t fit into Canadian society anymore; your values are different.”

“A lot of the pain our vets have coming back isn’t about the death and near-death experiences as much as helplessness in the face of unfixable suffering,” says Westwood. “Most of our vets want to do good, want to make a difference in people’s lives. In wartime, in a military event, they suffer enormously. A lot of the suffering is suffering of the soul.”

Spiess and his buddy Rob Deans fought in the Medak Pocket in 1993 in the first sustained firefight by a formed Canadian unit since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus nearly 20 years earlier.

Although the United Nations had mapped out areas under its protection, some Serbian villages lay outside the protected zones, including those in the Medak valley. Croatian forces attacked the valley in September and Serbian forces counterattacked with long-range artillery and surface-to-surface missiles. After a UN-brokered ceasefire was agreed to by both sides, French and Canadian troops were assigned to supervise the withdrawal of the opposing forces. Gunfire and explosions were heard in nearby villages but the Canadians were refused access to the area by local Croatian forces who fired upon their white UN vehicles. A firefight ensued and four Canadians and seven French soldiers were wounded. When it was over, the UN troops entered the villages and discovered that a number of Serbian civilians had been massacred by Croatian forces.

“We’d seen some extremely horrible things, ethnic cleansing, genocide, really weird shit,” explains Spiess, who served with the Seaforth Highlanders. Two weeks later, they were back in Vancouver. Not only was the transition from war zone to peaceful city bizarre, but “nobody in our home units even knew what happened, like zero…nobody. We were very proud of our achievements, we were happy with the way we performed the job in the combat fighting. We actually did save many lives, a lot of the civilian population, though we couldn’t get to all of them. We couldn’t tell our story. The government had pretty much a gag order on,” he adds.

“I was pissed off,” says Spiess. “I was extremely upset with the government at the time because they’d let it happen to us, in fact they made it happen. Not being recognized is hard for a soldier because you train so hard all the time and when you actually do good with your training…you deserve a pat on the back and that was never given. There were zero supports in place and if you asked for support then you were in trouble and your career could be over.”

[ILLUSTRATION: RORY KURTZ]

ILLUSTRATION: RORY KURTZ

Shortly after returning home, Spiess left the service, but stayed angry. He had nightmares, drank heavily, got into brawls, and was so hyper-vigilant he found himself sleeping under his bed.

“Everybody reacts differently,” says Deans, who has remained a reservist with the Seaforth Highlanders for 23 years. “I didn’t have a traumatic reaction…it was this malaise and it lasted about 10 years. Looking back, it’s like a lost decade, not going anywhere and not wanting to go anywhere.”

Anger is a common reaction among returning war veterans. “What I’ve had are the standard things most people have coming back from Afghanistan,” says James. “Anger—a lot of anger built up. If you talk about your feelings or things that are bothering you, you’re weak. In the units everybody looks at each other thinking ‘if we’re going downrange tomorrow, are you going to be strong enough to pick up that rifle and protect me, just like I’d do for you?’”

Bob Sutherland went to Cyprus in 1968 with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, and later served with the Canadian Airborne Regiment. He explains that the “tour…was unpleasant,” but his body language makes it clear his words are a huge understatement.

Cyprus was granted independence in 1960 and three years later civil war broke out between the Greek and Turkish communities. Canada was the first to answer the UN call for peacekeepers, supplying 25,000 CF members over nearly 30 years, during which time there was a coup d’etat and an invasion. More than 160 UN personnel died on the mission, including 28 Canadians. “I went over there a pretty nice kid at 18,” explains Sutherland, “I came home very confused.” After two years of service, he left the military and went on to secure a good job on the West Coast, get married and have a family. “I’ve been blessed in my life, but I had some monsters. When they came out it was really ugly.”

For more than 40 years he lived with hyper-vigilance and a hair-trigger temper. A noise in the night would catapult him out of bed, breaking through the door if it happened to be closed. Once his wife dropped something in the kitchen and he jumped so violently he dislocated his shoulder. His temper got him into trouble more than once. “I would be playing with the dog or the kids throwing the ball and some guy came around the corner on a four-wheel drift and I’d be on him and I’d pound him.”

Others isolate themselves, driven by anger, guilt, paranoia, fear and shame. “They learn to not go out, to stay at home and live in the basement,” says Westwood. “Social isolation sets in (and by that time) they’ve usually tried to self medicate with alcohol or drugs or by losing themselves in the digital or computer world.”

Jeff, who does not wish to have his name disclosed, had two tours in Afghanistan with the Royal Canadian Regiment between 2003 and 2006. On one tour “I was supposed to be in a certain location but I wasn’t and they put someone in my spot. Something happened and he didn’t come back. He was killed instantly, so from that I had quite a bit of guilt.”

During decompression at the end of one combat tour, something was said that offended him deeply, leaving him mistrustful of counselling and therapy. “I sloughed it off for years and dealt with my own beast. There were…instances where I scared myself, but (I’d say) ‘nah, whatever, maybe it was just too much booze.’” Following a violent bar fight “I started closing myself off; avoiding confrontation because I didn’t want to get into an argument” that could lead to a fight. “Then the nightmares started.” He banished them by drinking too much. “I wasn’t in the best place. Thoughts (of suicide) did go through my head…it’s one of the darkest places you can go, just looking for a way out.”

Two years ago Jeff went along to a VTP session to support a buddy. The experience changed his life.

In the January/February issue we will explain how these sessions helped Jeff and the other veterans we met while gathering information for this two-part series.

Here’s What’s Available

woundedwarriors.ca funds OSI treatment programs and Hands Up!, which augments services to the wounded and injured. Information available on the hotline 1-888-499-9996 or online at info@woundedwarriors.ca.

The Veterans Transition Program is a group-based, soldier-helping-soldier program available to serving members and veterans in British Columbia and Nova Scotia. Information is available at info@veteranstransitionprogram.ca.

Operational Stress Injury Social Support (OSISS)  is a peer support network offering peer, family and bereavement support to serving members, veterans, RCMP, and families.

The Royal Canadian Legion’s service officers are available at branches, provincial command offices and at national headquarters. Call toll-free 1-877-534-4666.

The Canadian Forces Member Assistance Program and Veterans Affairs Canada 24-hour Crisis Help Line 1-800-268-7708 offers confidential professional counselling.

Veterans Affairs Canada’s Operational Stress Injury Clinics

Canadian Forces Operational and Trauma Stress Support Centres are situated across Canada. Contact information for the one nearest you can be found through the Canadian Forces Mental Health Services website.

DND/CF Transition Assistance Program can also be reached by calling 1-800-883-6094.


  • Gerry

    I am going through a transition to civilian life problem. Since retiring after 21 years(85% operational), I find it hard to work with civilians who don’t have the same caring, professional outlook as I did when I was in the CAF. I just want to hide from them, because they take for granted what others in the world have to fight for in their every day life.

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