By Herald on October 26, 2020.
We may never fully understand the service of our veterans or their sacrifice, but we can at least give them our concern and our attention, says Royal Canadian Legion branch service officer Wayne King and veterans’ therapist Brad Hagen. Both men spoke at the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs weekly YouTube livestream speaker series on Thursday.
“I hear a lot of veterans just feel incredibly lonely and cut off,” explained Hagen. “And even though they have done incredible work overseas, they have seen or done things they can’t talk to their own family about. And they can’t talk to people who are civilians about.”
“When they return back to Canada out of that environment some of the difficulties and, quite frankly, the horrors of some of the scenes they were involved in remain in their mind,” added King, who is also a former service member. “But yet they are separated from that support structure they have been able to have while they were in the service, and they tend to isolate themselves. They isolate themselves from the community, and they isolate themselves from their family, and the difficulties arise which impact all of those social connections.”
The problem for too many of the veterans he deals with, said King, is the Veterans Affairs bureaucracy which often takes too long to navigate when these former soldiers are looking for immediate support.
“When they try to deal with it and seek help, the bureaucracy requirements of getting their entitled supports to them is an extremely lengthy process,” he said. “I have many veterans who have been trying to get the support they need for themselves and, quite frankly, their families, and the process has lasted well over a year, and there has been no resolution.
“Many of them, unfortunately, succumb to the feeling ‘nobody cares.’ They feel they are not going to get the support, and they turn to drugs or alcohol which, of course, does little more than worsen the problem.”
It does not help, explained King, that there are no official lists in the Lethbridge region of the veterans who have served, which he estimates to be in excess of 1,000 former members, he can access to find them and see what their needs are. Privacy laws also prohibit institutions such as senior-care facilities from revealing this information, confirmed King, leaving him little choice but to rely on word of mouth to reach out to veterans in the community and get them the supports they need.
“I have actually had some veterans tell me they will follow another veteran if they see a veterans’ licence plate,” agreed Hagen, who counsels many veterans with PTSD as part of his practice, “and follow him or her right to the driveway, introduce themselves, and see if they know about veterans’ services. It’s crazy the lengths we have to go to reach out to veterans.”
Once he knows who the local veterans are, and where they are, King can then approach them to see if they need extra supports and he works closely with the Calgary Legion branch service office to co-ordinate those supports with Veterans Affairs.
“We determine what assistance might be available to them,” King explained. “And what additional evaluation is required whether it involves specialists in the medical field or simply a review of their service file. If everything falls into place, then various assistance programs can be initiated.”
“Some are more difficult to come to grips with than others,” King admitted. “A veteran who has a broken limb is relatively easy to deal with in the context of getting medical attention to his disability.”
PTSD is another story, acknowledged King, and the process to get those supports was often much more arduous.
Hagen said the best estimates available at the moment suggest about 30 per cent of veterans suffer from some form of PTSD, but the science is not fully settled on why some veterans seem to be more susceptible to the condition than others.
“We don’t definitively know why some veterans develop struggles psychologically or emotionally and others don’t,” he said. “The best research is the majority of veterans do very well returning to civilian life and reintegrating back into a different kind of life. We know a few factors that seem to make it a bit more likely for veterans to develop some difficulties, but, again, it’s not for every veteran.
“We know extreme trauma or stress does affect the brain in a number of different ways. There is an interplay between our frontal cortex and amygdala that triggers off our fight-or-flight system, and then our hippocampus that tends to remember really vivid memories. It seems like trauma throws us into a situation where those systems go into overdrive. And the person has trouble settling them down because the body keeps trying to keep us alive by sending all these false signals.
“It is almost like a smoke detector that keeps going off even if it is just toast burning,” Hagen stated.
Hagen said also previous trauma experienced prior to military service seems to have some role in the emergence of PTSD in some soldiers after they return from their overseas campaign, but it is far from a bedrock, definitive rule that all soldiers who experienced earlier trauma in their lives will develop PTSD.
“It makes sense if people have had previous traumas in their lives, either accidents when they were younger or difficulties in the house they grew up in, if there was violence or abuse,” he confirmed. “It doesn’t necessarily predispose a person to have troubles later on if they go to Bosnia or Afghanistan, but it does kind of prime the brain for already having an exaggerated stress response.”
Hagen said there is a common feeling among the veterans he counsels that their service and sacrifices are not as appreciated as they should be. And this adds to their sense of isolation, and sometimes aggravates their psychological condition, he stated.
“The veterans I spoke to said they get a surprising number of people asking them did they kill anyone?” Hagen said. “Or did they shoot anyone? They are not sure why civilians ask this, but they all said, ‘Can you please not ask that question? It’s quite an insensitive question.’ But what they all said is they rarely get thanked for their service or thanked for what they did. They said if people could take an extra few minutes and show interest in the veterans: Where did they train? What was their rank? What were their special skills? Was there anything they were particularly proud of? So just show some interest in them, and they also really encourage civilians to visit the museum out by the airport. They love it when civilians just take an interest in what the Canadian Armed Forces have done.”
King emphatically agreed with Hagen, and hoped with Remembrance Day coming up, which can be a hard time for local veterans as they reflect on past combat experiences or friends lost, that many in Lethbridge will take the time to mark the day and show their appreciation for the veterans.
King said this year’s Remembrance Day ceremonies mark 75 years since the end of the Second World War, giving them extra poignancy. But, sadly, he said, the Legion has had to cancel the usual public ceremony at the Exhibition Grounds due to COVID-19.
“This year is going to be particularly difficult (for veterans),” stated King.
He encouraged community members to mark Remembrance Day in more personal ways this year, and to try to take time to reach out in safe ways to local veterans they may know who are in need of support.
“We are asking this year people not attend these ceremonies, but observe th