Battle Scars

If a soldier breaks his leg while in combat, he gets medical care.

But if a soldier returns from war suffering from depression, rage or night terrors -- all warning signs of post-traumatic stress disorder -- he or she could find themselves fighting a new battle for emotional and sometimes financial support.

And the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder can be as deadly as combat. A recently released U.S. study revealed last year, more soldiers died from suicide than in combat.

In Canada, retired colonels and ex-reservists have warned Canadian soldiers are not far behind, and military brass refuses to recognize the problem.

CBC producer Donna Carreiro interviewed soldiers, veterans and loved ones who've lost them from across the country.

Soldier Stories: Capt. Drew Richarson

Drew Richardson

(Submitted by Drew Richardson)

Capt. Drew Richardson's job in Kandahar was to study a monitor and watch the live feed of soldiers getting blown up.

Yet somehow he didn't think he had the right to be traumatized by it.

It was such a terrible feeling to sit there.. and not be able to do anything. [It] was probably one of the worst feelings I've had in my life.

—Drew Richardson

"It was such a terrible feeling to sit there... and not be able to do anything. [It] was probably one of the worst feelings I've had in my life," Richardson recalls. "Yet I really felt like I don't deserve to be lumped in with the guys doing the hard fighting on the frontlines, because all I was doing was manning a computer."

Fortunately, the times, at least at CFB Shilo, are a-changin'. While once it was a career-threatening challenge to seek help for post traumatic stress disorder, in Richardson's case, it was the military who urged him to accept help.

"The level of support that I've received from... a military perspective has been phenomenal," he says.

Richardson is one of the new kids on the block. He signed up in 2003, fresh out of high school, and immediately embraced military life, getting a post-secondary education and going on to receive combat training in Gagetown, PEI.

But it wasn't until 2011 that he was deployed overseas to Afghanistan, as he says "at the start of the fighting season."

And though he was assigned to a desk at their Kandahar base, his job was sometimes a grim one, monitoring live feeds of the action of the troops on the field.

"Troops in contact, getting into firefights, improvised explosive devices found or going off," he says. "I certainly didn't know this at the time but I guess mentally, I wasn't really prepared."

But looking back he knows exactly what incident was the watershed one, the one that dealt the hardest psychological blow and left the deepest mental wound: On June 15th, 2011, an American soldier, while on patrol, struck an improvised explosive device and Richardson watched it all from his vantage point in front of the live feed.

"I just had that real helpless feeling," Richardson says. "While you're sitting back safe from the airfields, you're dealing with a guy dying about 15 kilometers away. It was such a terrible feeling, sitting and not being able to do anything.

"It was extremely painful and it's something that I still deal with today."

(Submitted by Drew Richardson)

Then there were his own close calls, like the time he went for an early morning run and suddenly heard the deafening whistle of a rocket overhead. It landed with an explosive crash right in front of him.

"My ears were ringing, I couldn't really see straight and I was dazed," he says.

But he had no idea he was traumatized until months later, when he was back in Canada and based out of CFB Shilo. Suddenly he started to drink, and drink a lot. Then there was the rage.

Both were uncharacteristic traits for the normally mild-mannered soldier.

But it was the crying jags he'd have, including one that lasted for four hours, that ultimately drove his wife to demand he seek help.

"(My wife) said to me 'all right, you're going to see the mental health professionals on base,'" he says. "She had put her foot down and said 'there is something wrong with you. You are not the same person that you were before you went to Afghanistan.'"

But again, in a sign-of-the-times role reversal, it was Richardson who resisted, even when the Shilo-based military doctors urged him to get into treatment. In fact, he wanted to head back to Gagetown for more combat training. And when doctors finally agreed to let him go, they made it clear that it was against their better judgment.

It turns out he should have listened to them.

For the first few weeks he managed to keep the PTSD demons at bay, by either holing himself in his barracks or drinking excessively.

But one day, while on a training exercise, he heard a noise up above. To this day he doesn't know what it was, or whether he imagined it. But at the time, he dove for cover, rolled to the nearest barricade and crouched down, weapon in hand, ready to shoot.

He was having a flashback, waiting for the rocket to land, just like the incident in Kandahar. It took other soldiers on the field to talk him down and bring him back to reality.

Three days later, he was back in Shilo and enrolled at the Occupational Stress Injury program in Winnipeg's Deer Lodge Centre.

Since then, his fulltime job has been working towards recovery. He's been an out-patient at both the clinic and the health centre on base, engaging in everything from cognitive therapy (working through his fears and reactions with a logic-based approach) and desensitization exercises.

He's now got the drinking under control and he's talking through his anger. But his biggest support has been from other veterans themselves, veterans who've seen a lot more action and experienced a lot more close calls, but who've given him the same affirming message.

"They had gone through some of the really heavy fighting . . . and for me it was such a huge help having those boys tell me, 'you know what? You're just the same as us,'" Richardson says.

Then there's the support of Wounded Warriors, a national non-profit created by veterans and for veterans. Their mandate is to advocate for better recognition and support of soldiers with physical injuries, or psychological injuries, like PTSD.

"It was at that point that I finally realized that, you know what? I'm not alone," Richardson says. "And organizations like Wounded Warriors provide that ability for people to just network and talk about their experiences or not talk about them, as the case may be."

Wounded Warriors is such a support that in fact, this spring they'll launch a bike ride through parts of Europe with their British counterparts, all to raise awareness of PTSD. And Richardson plans to bike right along with them.

But it's CFB Shilo, he says, that's really taking the lead. Richardson's heard the stories of the older vets and the struggles they've faced, both in living with the stigma of PTSD and getting the proper help for it. In his case, he says, they're delivering a different message. They want to treat him and help him heal.

That's why, even though he's not on active duty right now, they're slowly re-integrating him back into the fold. He spent a few months volunteering at Shilo's military museum and now he's back doing desk duty on base.

"It's really helping me a large amount, even being back in this building on a daily basis," he says. "Feeling like I'm really making a contribution again through the paper I'm pushing and just having that ability to interact with the guys here at the regiment."

He's also determined to turn his own experience into a learning experience, one that will make him a better leader when --- not if, he says --- he's back in action.

"If I expect my soldiers to trust the system, I have to be willing to trust it myself. And while this is not a point of pride for me, it's just a reality that I see an opportunity to improve myself," Richardson says, "both personally and professionally."

Soldier Stories: Capt. Michael Cole

Michael Cole

(Submitted by Michael Cole)

I was drinking to make the pain go away.. I ended up in the hospital, with a 10 per cent chance of living.

—Michael Cole

Retired captain Michael Cole wanted to help the orphans in Bosnia.

Instead, he almost drank himself to death. Literally.

"I was drinking to make the pain go away," Cole said. "I ended up in the hospital, with a 10 per cent chance of living."

The pain he was feeling was extreme, but consider the source. Here was a guy who had seen a lot of action during his years in the military.

He had dodged death in both Gulf Wars, saw the bloodshed in the villages of Rwanda, and wept for the countless orphans roaming the broken streets of Bosnia.

Ironically, though, it was a compassionate effort dating back to 1996, helping out kids, that ultimately cost Cole his chance at recovery from PTSD.

Cole said it was an effort that was inexplicably choked by military red tape.

"That's how everything actually got started," he said. "In Bosnia, we were helping the Croats there, and the whole Baltic area was going nuts and there was all kinds of orphans."

The images stuck with him, so he and his wife back in Canada hatched a plan. They wanted to hold a fundraiser here, tapping into the circle of friends they knew, to raise money for these orphans and the orphanages they relied on.

But despite the fact it was a civilian effort, independent of his military duties, Cole's commanding officer refused to let him do it.

"I said, 'Well, it's with my own money and on my own time, so if you don't like the idea ... well, I do,'" Cole recalled.

What followed, he said, was a series of reprimands, including being denied a choice posting that he was once earmarked for, as well as hearings and appeals.

In the end, the conflict was resolved in arbitration, and Cole was given the post he wanted. But the honour came at a toxic cost, he said.

His PTSD was worse than ever, unresolved from his days in Rwanda, exacerbated by the office politics between his commanding officer and himself. Eventually, he suffered what he calls a "medical, well-documented breakdown."

So why couldn't he seek help for it? Because he was not allowed to talk about it -- one of the conditions of the conflict resolution agreement.

"I was given a gag order and I could never speak of this situation," he said. "So I couldn't speak to the medical people ... I couldn't speak to the social worker, I couldn't speak to anyone."

And that, he said, "set the tone for my working environment until I retired."

"I was basically ostracized," he said. "Nobody knew the story and I couldn't talk about it. I could never explain myself."

Once he retired, in 2007, Cole did seek (and is still receiving) help for his PTSD. But he's received nothing in the form of a disability pension.

That's because in order to green-light it, Veterans Affairs Canada requires proof of his condition.

And while there is proof, including his "well-documented" breakdown," it's attached to his file that was tied up in the gag order.

And that file? According to the Department of National Defence, it either does not exist, or they just can't find it.

"So VAC did not believe my story without the documents, which DND denied existed," Cole said.

It's a bureaucratic battle that's gone on for years, and ultimately it took its toll on Cole. That led to his sudden path to self-destruction, when he almost drank himself to death.

"I was suffering seriously from PTSD from several things that happened in the Gulf Wars and Rwanda," he said.

"I was just trying to make the pain go away ... instead I got jaundiced. My liver had quit. I ended up in the hospital for a month."

Today, Cole is trying to rebuild his life and at the same time, make peace with his past. He is sober, and he has a supportive wife -- "a lovely lady," he said of her.

He's also reached out to other vets, telling his story and exchanging support on his blog. And last year, he wrote a book about his struggles.

But his battle scars from years of service will remain forever, and the war he has waged for a disability pension has only served to deepen those scars.

Soldier Stories: Sgt. Shane Oliver

Shane Oliver

(Submitted by Shane Oliver)

Shane Oliver was one of the tough ones.

Barely 21, the young soldier had already faced death so many times that his battalion buddies began to joke about it.

I would hang out in our clubs on base and listen to people make fun of other people that were sick (with PTSD). That's just the way we were (as) soldiers. If you were weak, you were made fun of.

—Shane Oliver

"I'd be coming into camp and all the guys are at the main gate and they'd say 'Ollie, something happened to you again?'" Oliver recalls. "'You'd better not go out again, something else might happen!'"

And though he'd laugh along with them, he was in fact rattled to the core with the horror of it all. But he never once let them know that.

"Infantry, we're a different lot," says the retired Sgt. from CFB Shilo. "If you were sick, you were eaten alive. You were the weakest man on the chain, and that chain was pulled off and thrown away."

Especially if that weak link was a war wound like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Equally as debilitating as any broken bone but nowhere near as acceptable.

"I would hang out in our clubs on base and listen to people make fun of other people that were sick (with PTSD)," Oliver says. "That's just the way we were (as) soldiers. If you were weak, you were made fun of."

It was a culture Oliver learned early and quickly bought into. Despite the fact he knew he was suffering from it.

(Submitted by Shane Oliver)

'Raining artillery fire'

It was the fall of 1993 when Oliver and others from the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry were in Croatia that, over a three day period, all hell broke loose.

  • Day 1. Oliver found himself driving for his life in a small, shaky jeep as artillery exploded around him.
  • Day 2. He was trapped in a shower of bullets, again the target of a surprise ambush.
  • Day 3. More artillery fire. This time, Oliver was in an armoured personnel carrier. A dinosaur of a tank, he recalls --- slow moving and with not a lot of protection. And coming towards him? A Russian tank armed with two heavy machine guns. But Oliver couldn't take cover because his hatch was broken. So while "it was raining artillery fire," his head was sticking out of the tank, exposed and directly on target.

Physically, Oliver survived the close calls. But back in Winnipeg at Kapyong Barracks, he realized he did not escape unscathed.

First, there was the unexpected rage. It would sneak up on him, seemingly from nowhere. Like the time he was filling out a report about his tour and by page six, he'd had enough of it.

"I started circling the whole page and marking an 'X' through it," he recalls. "I did it for all the rest of the pages. And I walked up to the front and [growled], 'I'm done. Here you go!'"

Then came the depression and the fatigue. And the nightmares.

"I was having dreams that were so real, it was crazy," he says. "Faces were coming out of the walls at night time; they'd be floating around the room. I would pull the sheet up and I'd be looking around, like 'is this real? Am I sleeping? Am I dreaming? I have no idea what's going on.'"

But in fact, he did know what was going on and his warrant officer did too, although neither of them would say it.

"He'd say 'Ollie, what's wrong with you?' And I'd say 'nothing, warrant," Oliver recalls. "And he'd say ' I know what's wrong with you, but you have to tell me.'"

Oliver wouldn't. But he did seek help off base with a private psychiatrist. It was there he "connected the dots" between his ordeal in Croatia and the depression back home. It was there he acknowledged, if only to himself, that he had post traumatic stress disorder. The revelation was huge and profoundly therapeutic -- so much so, that the nightmares stopped and didn't return for another 15 years.

Fast forward

In 2006, Oliver, now a sergeant, was no longer the new kid on the block and he had the scars to prove it. He'd sustained multiple concussions over the years in battle and now he was struggling with vertigo and nausea, be it driving an armoured carrier or standing in front of a class of recruits. He would get so dizzy he would throw up.

And then the nightmares returned, more vivid than before, more haunting than he could remember.

"And I was like . . . 'why is this happening? I thought this was all resolved,'" Oliver recalls. "9/11 happened in '01. The whole world changed. Croatia, Bosnia, that's all in the past. I don't want to start talking about stuff I did over 20 years ago now."

Oliver has since learned the timing of the concussion symptoms and the nightmares were likely more connected than he knew. In 2012, the University of Pittsburgh released a study that revealed soldiers with multiple concussions were up to 35 per cent more likely to suffer PTSD symptoms.

But at the time, all Oliver could think of was that he was no longer able to do what he loved most: being a soldier.

Military doctors concurred and ultimately deemed him unfit to serve the military's needs.

"I had doctors in their office and they were explaining to me that my career was over in the infantry," Oliver says, crying. "And I was thinking, 'I don't get to train with these guys anymore?' They were going overseas, all my friends were dying and I couldn't go with them. But they probably saved lives by not having me over there because look at the way I was, with the concussions."

(Submitted by Shane Oliver)

'The big light bulb'

Oliver breaks down again as he recalls driving home from that meeting, crying harder and harder as he got closer to home. For a man who'd escaped death so many times, suddenly death was an appealing option.

By the time his kids got home from school a few hours later, Oliver was curled up on the floor in the basement, behind the dryer. That's where his son found him, weeping and wondering whether to kill himself.

"And he says 'dad, what's wrong?' I'm like 'Matthew, I'm so sick. I can't fix myself and it won't go away,'" Oliver says. "And Matthew says to me....'uh, well, can we go play some ball hockey?'"

Minutes later, Oliver was outside fending off shots while in net. Then and there, he realized he wanted to live.

"It was like the big light bulb," he says, chuckling and crying at the same time. "I am like 'what am I doing?' I cannot let something like this destroy their lives.'"

It's for that reason that Oliver has spent the past few years trying to rebuild his own life. But it's not been easy. Both physically --- he now has a pacemaker to help regulate his heartbeat (another ramification of concussion damage to his brain) --- and emotionally.

He is being treated for his PTSD and the treatment is ongoing. But it's a day to day battle. He is often on the verge of tears but he's found a new passion: coaching his son's hockey team. And he's launched a new business creating custom-made sports figurines.

Get him talking about either of those and the tears stop, the joy creeps back into his voice.

He is also on a mission. He wants to tell his story and strip the shame off post traumatic stress disorder. He wants veterans like him, and those still serving, to know it's not only okay to admit you've got PTSD but that it's also essential if these soldiers want to win the war against it.

"I'm always there for the soldiers and anytime they want to email me, call me, I can tell them what's going on," Oliver says.

"And I can acknowledge the fact that yeah, it's something that no one can see, but we know it's there."

Soldier Stories: Sgt. James Storey

James Storey

(Submitted by James Storey)

Night after night, she comes to the door wearing a cloak and begging for help.

But she is more than just a recurring dream that haunts retired Master Cpl. James Storey. She is the face of his post-traumatic stress disorder -- the personification of its searing pain.

"It haunts me. It hit me like a freight train," Storey said.

Just recently I was at the mall and a backfire happened, and I found myself flying behind a vehicle for cover and looking around for who was shooting.

—James Storey

Storey was a reservist when he was posted in Bosnia, looking after the Canadian, British and Dutch military police. It was there he received word of a civilian from a nearby village who had shown up at the base, desperate and distraught.

"She was asking for help because her husband was raping and beating her and threatened to kill her," he recalled.

But military police were not allowed to get involved with civilian issues, and Storey was the guy who had to break the news.

"I had to follow our mandate and our policy and tell her, 'No, we can't provide protection. She had to go to her local police force," Storey said, before breaking down in tears.

The next day he was told she took his advice and went to her local police, but they turned her over to her family, who turned her over to her husband, who murdered her.

"Every day I still have nightmares of this cloaked woman (who) comes and asks for help, and I can't help her," Storey said quietly, breaking into tears again.

Such is the torment of post-traumatic stress disorder. In James Storey's case, a delayed response to one of countless brushes with death, that he learned at the time to treat as all in a day's work.

Like the time he and a British Major were driving to a training exercise but were given the wrong directions. Very quickly they learned they'd made a wrong turn and ended up in a mine field.

"And looking out the window and seeing the mine right out of my vehicle window and the major looking out his, at the time, it seemed like nothing," he said. "We turned around and left."

But today, if you ask him to drive onto an unfamiliar country road or farmers field, he'll flat out refuse.

(Submitted by James Storey)

"Because of the fear of what happened on the tour," he explains.

Then there was the sniper: a local villager who decided to use their base as target practice, night after night, day after day, for more than two months.

"Like he would just shoot at certain buildings or fire off over top of the camp just to get a rise out of the British to see how they'd react. And the British never fell for it, so we had to just deal with it," he said.

And so he tuned out the sound of bullets as they shot around him, whether he was standing outside HQ having a cigarette or walking to the supply tent, the bullets hit nearby walls so close that pieces of brick would fall down around him.

Again, he went into auto-pilot, as he calls it. But again, the ordeal eventually caught up with him.

"Like, I look back on it now, and I can't imagine what was going through my mind when we were being shot at so closely but you know, we didn't dive for cover," he said.

"Just recently I was at the mall and a backfire happened, and I found myself flying behind a vehicle for cover and looking around for who was shooting," he said.

"That's the PTSD kicking in."

It took its time before revealing itself. In fact, Storey says it wasn't until he was back in Canada that he learned very quickly something was terribly wrong.

First, the nightmares of his time in Bosnia. The cloaked woman dreams. Then the depression. And then the anxiety attacks.

"My ex-wife had to rush me to the hospital where I thought I was having a heart attack," he said. "But it was just anxiety."

Then there were the angry outbursts, he said, over seemingly innocuous activities.

"Refusing to go out and do gardening because of the smell of dirt," he recalled. "And extremely jumpy. Minor stuff like dropping a fork or a knife in the house and the kitchen would send me over the deep end."

At this point, Storey did seek help from the military medical staff in Calgary, and though it took a while, he said, they eventually recognized the severity of his crisis.

Well, sort of.

They sent him to the PTSD Clinic in Edmonton, but despite the fact he was suicidal, they sent him there alone, in his own vehicle.

Once there, during what he calls a "grueling three-hour" interview with the military doctor, he opened up even more. He wanted to die. He could not bear the pain and the nightmares anymore. Every day, he thought about ways to kill himself.

"He sent me home," Storey said. "He let me get right back into my vehicle and drive all the way back to Calgary all by myself."

Storey was stunned, especially since he himself had been trained in suicide intervention as part of his role in policing.

"What we were taught was that as soon as you find out that someone admits to the thought of suicide, everything is supposed to stop right there and put that person into protection."

Instead, he was referred to the Occupational Stress Injury clinic back in Calgary, as an outpatient. It wasn't enough, and his PTSD only got worse.

By 2010, the military had had enough of James Storey.

"They basically said, 'We're not employing you anymore. Get the hell out of our unit,'" he recalled.

And therein lies the other grim reality of soldiers seeking help for PTSD.

Not only is it a tough battle to get the help they need, it's especially challenging for reservists. A part-time soldier. Not one of the "real" soldiers.

And if he kills himself? You'll never know. The military doesn't include reservists when tallying up that dark death toll.

This, despite the fact their duties and ordeals can be identical. And this, despite the fact that while Storey was a reservist, he was a career reservist, having served with the Canadian military for more than 25 years.

"They banished me. They kicked me out after serving 25 years faithfully and loyally," he said. "So I was basically treated like a leper from my second family."

And while he eventually did receive good help back at the Calgary military clinic, by that time it had cost him his marriage, his career and quite possibly, any real chance of building a future for himself.

All because of what he calls a no-win combination: being a reservist diagnosed with PTSD.

"They are still of the mindset that PTSD is contagious," he says."And (reservists), they pick us up, they use us and they throw us away like garbage when they're done."