An open letter to soldiers, as Canada ends its mission in Afghanistan

(REUTERS)

Listen

As Canada ends its 12-year mission in Afghanistan, here is an open letter we aired last week that many listeners responded to. Robert Semrau is a former Officer with the Canadian Forces, who's joined us before to talk about his experiences in Afghanistan. He's contacted us following numerous reports of Canadian soldiers taking their own lives. He wrote an open letter to all the men and women of the Canadian Forces and coalition allies. We felt it was such a heartfelt and important letter, we should share it.

"The other morning, as I said goodbye to my daughter and watched her get on the school bus, I realized there are children whose parents will no longer be there to say goodbye to them, or to love them and hold them, ever again, because they ended their own lives. This realization punched me like a fist and tore me apart inside. I ran upstairs to my washroom, locked the door, and I cried and couldn't stop crying, for a long time.

Afterwards, I sat down and wrote this letter. It's a letter written to all of the men and women of the Canadian Forces, who are currently serving or who have served in the past.

My fellow soldiers,

When we hear of our brothers and sisters in uniform committing suicide, the news hurts us in a way like nothing else can. As soldiers, we accept the fact that we will lose our brothers and sisters in combat. This is the reality of our chosen profession, and we accept it. But when we hear, again, that another soldier has committed suicide, it leaves us feeling sick, empty, and at the same time, we ask ourselves, "Why did they do it?" and "What can we do to try and make it stop?"

If we are incredibly fortunate, we won't be able to comprehend why they did it, and we'll never be able to understand why they ended their own lives. Again, if we are incredibly fortunate, we can't relate to the terrible feelings of hurt and despair they were feeling at the time, and we could never envision ourselves on that same, dark path that ultimately led them to ending their lives.

But maybe you're not in such a good place right now; maybe things have gotten really tough for you, and you can relate to those soldiers. Just maybe, right now, you're even starting to think you understand why they did it. It's possible those dark thoughts and feelings are going even deeper for you, and now you're also thinking of committing suicide. Maybe you've even thought up a plan, a way to do it, and you've given yourself a timeline, or a set of conditions. If those conditions get met, then you're also going to end your own life.

Listen to me when I say this, because this is the most important thing I have ever said in my entire life. If you're thinking of ending your life, then please, right now, listen to me.

I was a soldier once, and maybe I don't know exactly how you feel. Maybe I didn't see what you saw, did what you did, or felt what you felt. Maybe I'll never be able to understand what's happened in your life to bring you to that dark place where you're thinking or planning suicide, but believe me when I tell you, that I've been in some scary, dark places too. I've been hurt and in pain, I've been scared beyond belief, and I've felt terribly and utterly alone.

I don't care what anyone says or thinks... It doesn't matter where you served your country, or the colour of your helmet or beret. You served somewhere, and ultimately, that means you would've seen or done things you weren't prepared for. And maybe you feel bad about that now. Maybe you feel or think whatever it was that you saw or what you did, that it wasn't the right call. Decisions you made at the time, or didn't make; things you said or did. Whatever it was... you feel terrible about it now.

You have to understand something; and this is the truth. Whatever happened to you, whatever it was you saw, or did, you have to understand that there was no preparing for it. There was nothing in your training that could possibly prepare you for what you saw, or had to do. Your instructors just can't make you ready for a day like that. There is no ready. You did the best you could, with what you had at the time, and that's all anyone can ask. I know you did the best you could, because I was in those places too.

I also know that when you're a serving member, it's easy to feel like you're just a tiny part, a cog in the big, green machine; and when the machine is finished with you, it just chucks you out and replaces you with someone else. Or if you're not in the military anymore, it's easy to feel like it's forgotten you, or abandoned you. No matter what your feelings are, you need to switch your headset to receive, right now, and listen to what I'm saying: You are NOT replaceable. You are NOT expendable! You are needed. Your children, your family... they desperately need you, your friends don't ever want to lose you, and the Forces need you, to pass on all that you've learned in order to help keep the next generation of soldiers alive.

You signed up because you believe in something, an ideal, something bigger than yourself, and you wanted to make a difference with your life. You have a sense of honour, and dignity, that few people can relate too. For you, words like honour and courage actually mean something. You have trained your mind and your body to overcome challenges that most people could never overcome, not in a hundred lifetimes. But now you don't see the point anymore. Now you think there's no other way out for you. But that's just not true. These negative thoughts and feelings you're thinking, they've formed up into a wall. When you come up to that wall in life, even though it looks extremely high and scary, and you don't think you can ever possibly get over it, you can never forget that first and foremost, you are a soldier! You have been trained to always find a way. You will either go over it, under it, around it, or through it! You will find a way, or you will make one.

Remember during basic training, when you're running the assault course? Remember how you're running and jumping over and through the obstacles, until finally you come up to that big freaking wall? You slam into it, catch your breath, and you look up. And it's way too high. No matter how tall you are, or how good of shape you're in, you can't jump up and reach the edge. No one can. It's specifically made that way. It's too damn high, on purpose. It's there to teach you one thing. It's there to teach you that no matter how good you are; no matter how switched on and professional, no matter how physically or mentally fit, there's going to be a wall in your military career, and it can be mental, physical, or emotional, but something is going to happen where you have to finally admit that you need someone's help to get over it. YOU CAN NOT DO IT ALONE! You have to find a fire-team partner, you have to admit you need their help, and then together, you can get over it, just like the wall in the obstacle course. You are not only an individual, someone who has to face all of life's hardships and challenges all by yourself. You are a part of something bigger. You are part of the team, and you have helped the team, over and over again, and now you need the team's help. You were trained to work as part of a team: don't ever forget that the smallest unit you ever break down into is two soldiers. You go nowhere, and do nothing, alone. So why are you going through this dark place, your own personal hell, all alone?

You weren't trained to think or act that way, you were trained to rely on the team when you needed it. God knows the team has used you enough times, so guess what? Now you need the team, and that's okay; the system was designed that way. You can get through this, but no one can help you if you won't tell them what's wrong! You have to find a fire-team partner, someone that you can trust, and tell them what's going on with you. If you can find a soldier who was over there with you, well, all the better, but you have to find someone. You've got to lower your shields and reach out to that person; tell them what's going on with you. You've thought about it for long enough; I'm telling you that now, right now, is the time for you to demonstrate the same courage and the same heart which led you to sign up in the first place, and to admit that you've come up to a wall that you can't get over alone.

Please... find that person that you can trust with this. It can be a colleague, an NCO, or an officer. If they're not responsive, or seem like they don't know what to do, then find someone else! Keep going until you find a person who will be your fire team partner; someone who's going to see you through this. I'm willing to guess you won't have to try too hard to find that person. Soldiers care more about each other than civilians could ever comprehend, and that bond, the bond of comradery which was forged in extreme hardship, blood and tears, that bond isn't going to let you down now.

Find that person and let them know what you've been thinking and feeling; lower your guard, and ask for help. You can stand down now. You don't have to face this alone any longer. You were never meant to face this alone.

Later on, when you get through this (and you will get through this), you can be that fire team partner for someone who needs your help.

Please, stand down... and let someone help you."

Robert Semrau, former Canadian Forces Captain who currently works as an international security consultant

It's worth noting there have been an estimated 10 suicides of Canadian Forces soldiers since November.

If you'd like to comment on his letter... tell us what it means for you to hear his message.

Tweet us @thecurrentcbc. Or e-mail us through our website. Find us on Facebook. Call us toll-free at 1 877 287 7366. And as always if you missed anything on The Current, grab a podcast.

This segment was produced by The Current's Peter Mitton.


From The Current Archives


Robert Semrau: The Taliban Don't Wave 








Canada is not doing enough to treat soldiers with PTSD 






Comments are closed.