I just finished reading an article in the Toronto Star about the trauma experienced by some soldiers coming back from Afghanistan: a litany of assaults (often against women and children), alcohol abuse, and suicide attempts. A long way from the happy hardship related by Christie Blatchford in Fifteen Days.
Canadians love their boys and girls in uniform, and even those people who oppose specific actions, such as the war in Afghanistan, are rarely, if ever, accused of a lack of patriotic support. So how does it happen that veterans are left to fend for themselves, left to negotiate the hazards of civilian life? The judge in Keddy’s case (Keddy, a veteran, assaulted his girlfriend) is bewildered at the state of affairs, and the Crown prosecutor responds:
“They are aware he’s got psychological issues. There were programs set up for him that he has not been attending. And their position is … they’re not in the business of 24-hour-a-day babysitting, because they perceive that he is a soldier and has responsibilities himself.”
In other words, the military has programmes to help these soldiers, but they are responsible for availing themselves of the programmes. To me this seems a bit backward.
The vetrans’ ombudsman in Ottawa, retired colonel Pat Strogan says:
“the military must better prepare soldiers for the stress of war, including subjecting them to virtual-reality representations of warlike conditions before they go on tour.
‘I don’t think the military is doing enough. It’s not all about learning how to pull the trigger and strip and assemble your weapon. It’s also about seeing the blood and gore and really being able to relate to somebody who’s badly mutilated and you have to put tourniquets on. We tried to set up a program of stress inoculation. I brought it to the powers that be.’
At the risk of contradicting an expert, that also seems backwards to me. Divorce them even further from the reality of civilian life before they go? Wouldn’t that make it even harder to acclimatize to civilian life later on? Sure, they mightn’t be as traumatized by the experiences in the war, but they’d hardly find it easier to live without it or to connect with loved ones and refrain from violence once back home.
It seems to me that soldiers should have training on the de-escalation side, the same way as the military provides training to ramp up to field duty. A gradual demob programme for veterans (ideally together in a group) to get used to not needing to be hypervigilant, a system for dealing with violent and aggressive compulsion, mandatory mental health care for those who suffer from suicidal thoughts, depression, or guilt. A support system for the families of returning soldiers so that they can report signs of drug use, physical aggression, or trauma. I see this type of programme as one that every veteran would participate in—just like every soldier needs training to go to war, every soldier needs training to integrate back into a non-war state after the fact.