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New books examine the stigma of PTSD among Canadian soldiers

MayFrontmatter_PTSD

The numbers are as sobering as they are troubling. According to André Picard, The Globe and Mail’s health columnist, Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan yielded 158 casualties among soldiers. That figure is high enough on its own, but Picard goes on to point out that as many as 71 soldiers involved in the conflict died by their own hand – eight in the Middle East, the remainder after returning home.

For Picard, the prevalence and severity of post-traumatic stress disorder among members of the Canadian military has reached epidemic proportions. “Where is the bullet-proof vest for the mind?” Picard writes in his latest book, Matters of Life and Death: Public Health Issues in Canada (Douglas & McIntyre). “How do you heal the minds of soldiers haunted by what they have seen and felt?”

These are questions a number of writers – veterans of the Canadian military and civilians alike – have recently begun taking up in a concerted manner. Military historian Adam Montgomery’s book, The Invisible Injured: Psychological Trauma in the Canadian Military from the First World War to Afghanistan (McGill-Queen’s University Press), is the first comprehensive look at mental illness among Canadian soldiers. Montgomery surveyed the extant literature on shell shock in the First World War, and battle fatigue, its Second World War successor, but “what I noticed was, once I got to the end of the literature – which in Canada is quite small, to be honest – I realized that nothing had been done on the post–Cold War,” he says. “There are a few pieces here and there that are mainly written by former military themselves that talked about what it was like in the Balkans and Rwanda, and things like that. But nobody had attempted a book about it.”

Montgomery believes much of this is attributable to the lack of combat experience among Canadian soldiers in the years between the cessation of open hostilities in Korea and the end of the Cold War. The subject of post-traumatic stress had been spoken of in the U.S. following the Vietnam War, and the U.K. in the wake of the Falkland Islands War, but in Canada, there was no comparable conflict to serve as a lynchpin for similar discussions. “Because we hadn’t been at war for so long,” Montgomery says, “PTSD hadn’t been discussed in Canadian psychiatric circles and hadn’t really made its way into the Canadian public discourse.”

That changed with the peacekeeping missions to Kosovo and Rwanda, the latter of which produced Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire’s 2003 bestseller Shake Hands with the Devil. What Dallaire did not write about extensively at the time was his own personal experience with PTSD as a result of his deployment. That subject is the focus of the 2016 volume Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD (Random House Canada), a highly personal, frequently painful reckoning with a disease that continues to be stigmatized and misunderstood. “I can’t help but think that if I’d lost a leg, I’d still be the man I was before I went [to Rwanda],” Dallaire writes. “The wound I suffered, and the fact that it went untreated for so long, and then the pills I still take for it, have fundamentally altered my sense of self.”

The sense of a fundamental shift is shared by Colonel John Conrad, a soldier for more than three decades, who returned from combat in Afghanistan suffering severe mental turmoil, an experience he describes in Among the Walking Wounded: Soldiers, Survival, and PTSD (Dundurn). “It’s like the devil touching you on the sleeve,” Conrad says. “Even though you’re knowledgeable about PTSD and shell shock – pick your name for it through the generations – it’s extremely hard to see it in yourself.”

Conrad admits that his wife, who contributed the foreword to Among the Walking Wounded, did not want him to write the book for fear of how others inside and outside the military would respond to it. “She was convinced it was going to hurt my civilian career and that it’s just going to bring more admonishment and more suffering to me.”

Though Conrad’s wife eventually came around, the issue remains a sensitive one among soldiers and military personnel, many of whom continue to operate under a code of toughness that precludes any admission of vulnerability or weakness. (Indeed, those complaining of mental trauma as a result of military deployment can face accusations of malingering or attempting to otherwise game the system.) One impetus for writing his book, Conrad suggests, is to forward a discussion about issues that remain hidden, and bring them at least partly into the open. “We’re losing good men and women right now, and we don’t need to. Not in a sophisticated society where we can actually have a conversation.”

Such a conversation is important, Montgomery says, because the issue is about more than just a note on someone’s medical chart. “I think that’s what sometimes gets lost in the discussion. We’re not just talking about a disorder. … We’re talking about human beings here.” He goes on to say, “I’m hoping that it gets a dialogue started. I’m hoping that other people will look at it and think, ‘I want to investigate this further.’”