FREE PRESS SERIES: It’s been eight years since the Canadian Forces ombudsman complained about the way soldiers’ mental health was being handled. There have been improvements, but services remain inadequately funded at a time when demand from troubled veterans and their families is rising, writes Free Press reporter Randy Richmond.
By RANDY RICHMOND
Last Updated: 26th October 2009, 10:04am
ST. THOMAS — It almost starts like a joke. Did you hear the one about the three national icons — the soldier, the Tims and the Canadians?
A Canadian soldier walks into a Tim Hortons and sits beside a group of Canadian civilians enjoying a national pastime — drinking coffee and complaining. The soldier was Capt. Bill Arnot, 55, just returned from Afghanistan.
“When you get back from something like Afghanistan, your frustration levels are quick to jump for all kinds of reasons,” Arnot says.
“Several people were sitting next to us and one was going on and on about how bad things were. I finally looked at the people, and said, ‘You have no idea, no idea how good you have it. So please, keep your bitching to yourself.’ Well, it didn’t go over very well.”
The customers complained to the manager and the manager suggested Arnot not talk to ordinary people in quite that tone.
“I am much better now,” Arnot says, but adds with a big smile, “I don’t do well with whining.”
Arnot grew up big and strong and outdoors all the time in Toronto beaches and Sutton. His dad was a police officer and after a short stint in the army marred by leg injuries, Arnot joined the Mississauga police force.
Over the years, he worked his way up to firearms trainer, then an instructor at the police college at Aylmer. During the 1990s, he turned back to the past, going back on the street as a St. Thomas police officer and joining the reserves. He’s now a full-time reservist and deputy commanding officer at 31 Combat Engineer Regiment in St. Thomas.
In May 2008, Arnot headed to Afghanistan to work in headquarters at Kandahar Airfield as an engineer operations officer.
He and a partner were available 24/7 to help oversee every operation involving engineers, from repairing roads to moving troops and equipment to large-scale reconstruction projects such as dams, roads, schools and medical facilities.
They worked 18-hour days, mostly 6O days a week. Working just as hard to rebuild their country were their Canadian comrades and Afghans.
Arnot still marvels seeing local workers pave, with hand tools only, an 800-metre section of road while he was there.
He came home convinced progress was being made.
He came home looking forward to seeing his wife, son and daughter and taking some time off.
“I went absolutely nuts,” he says. “You are going constantly for 9O months. To come back and stop all of a sudden . . . ”
Arnot got to know a military social worker while he helped out a family of a wounded soldier several years earlier.
Talking to that worker and other military friends helped him ease into life in Canada.
So did his wife of 33 years, Donna.
“I think many people are afraid of me. They look at my size and say, ‘I’m not going to say anything. My wife, she would just look at me and I’d realize, OK, time to slow down a little bit.”
Young and single soldiers, without marital support, have the highest rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorders, a national survey led by London psychiatrist Don Richardson found in 2007.
Arnot and other area soldiers also have the good fortune of living close to the Operational Stress Injury Clinic at Parkwood Hospital, where Richardson is a consulting psychiatrist.
“The number of people we are seeing from Afghanistan is continually growing,” Richardson says.
Since December 2007, the clinic has experienced a 50% increase in clients, now up to about 225, says clinic co-ordinator Rita Wiltsie.
The clinic helps both veterans and current soldiers. For a long time, the bulk of clients were peacekeepers from areas such as the Balkans and Africa.
The single biggest group now, at 26%, consists of people who served in Afghanistan, Wiltsie says.
London’s was one of the original five clinics funded by the federal government, which recently opened four more clinics with two more to come after two reports critical of how the military was treating stress among soldiers,
In 2002, the Canadian Forces ombudsman prepared a report critical of the Canadian Forces and Department of National Defence’s handling of soldiers’ mental health.
A review six years later found much had been improved, mainly in identifying disorders in soldiers and beefing up mental health programs.
But there are still problems, and still people falling through the gaps.
For example, the families of soldiers face far more stress and mental illnesses than originally thought, the 2008 ombudsman report said.
“They may suffer indirectly as a result of having to care for the military member. They may develop stress-related mental health problems themselves. Or the dynamics within families may be adversely affected.”
Whatever the problem, Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence must do more to help military families, the report concluded.
Military Family Resource Centres told investigators they lack resources to help more families.
The London Military Family Resource Centre is supposed to offer counselling and other services to families across Southwestern Ontario, but until last year, had only a London office.
Last year, the centre created outreach offices in Windsor, Hamilton and Cambridge, putting stress on the budget.
“Last year, we came up $100,000 short,” says executive director Gary Willaert. “It doesn’t look good this year because of cutbacks.”
National Defence contributes the bulk of the funding, with the rest from fundraising.
Last year, the centre needed a $50,000 emergency bailout from the local military budget to keep the outreach centres going.
Next spring, about 180 soldiers from Southwestern Ontario will head to Afghanistan, putting even more pressure on the resource centre.
Centre staff will help families before the soldier leaves, while he’s gone and when he comes back.
“The reunion is one of the most difficult parts of deployment. Everybody expects this happy forever after ending,” says Kym Wolfe, a personal development co-ordinator at the centre.
But spouses may find their routines upset and children discover their fathers need some space, she said.
“Family members don’t always expect how high a level of stress they will feel,” adds Beverly Robbins, co-ordinator for family separation and reunion programs. “They are so worried about the soldiers when they should be looking for their own red flags.”
Growing up as a navy brat, Londoner Dianne Boudreau remembers her father coming home from sea and the entire household being thrown into chaos.
Her father wanted to sweep the family up in his arms and celebrate, but her mother had to keep the house running, she says.
“Dad would say, ‘They don’t have to do this, let’s just go in the yard and play some ball or go for a drive,’ and mom would always be saying, ‘The kids have things they had to do.’ ”
Three of her own sons are in the military.
When one went to Afghanistan, “I just went right off the deep end.”
She’s a huge supporter of the centre and uses her own family to point out not just spouses and children, but the parents and siblings and aunts and uncles of soldiers need support.
Deployment and reunion can be even harder on the extended family of reservists, Robbins says.
“The regular force families, they know the whole military lifestyle. A reservist family may not know what to expect.”
Reservists come from all over the province, with families, especially parents, often not living near a military base, she says.
“Parents sometimes have no idea what to expect,” Robbins says.
It doesn’t help that soldiers themselves often only talk to their spouses about deployment, but leave their parents out of the mix, Robbins says.
That reflects one of the largest challenges the military has in helping soldiers come home — the attitude of soldiers themselves.
The 2002 ombudsman investigation found soldiers diagnosed with stress disorder were seen as “fakers, malingerers or as being weak and incapable.” About one-quarter of the 31 original recommendations were aimed at changing military culture.
Six years later, the stigma remains, the followup investigation found. Training programs that arose from the original recommendations had stalled and few brass at military establishments across the country were issuing any direction on training to help soldiers with stress.
In June, the military responded, launching a Canadian Forces mental health awareness campaign to educate soldiers and their leaders and change the culture.
“The support is there,” Arnot says. “Half the battle is the individual needs to ask. You can only push so hard.”
The attitude within the military, from the brass to soldiers, is changing, says Wiltsie.
“I think there has been a lot of work done to create a climate of acceptance,” she says.
“People are now coming forward, from military personnel to family members, and are telling their stories.”
Reproduced from http://www.lfpress.com/news/london/2009/10/26/11523511-sun.html