Brothers in arms: Ron and Ryan Anderson both survived tours in Afghanistan — but not PTSD
In a Canadian military family, parents watched their sons die slowly, unable to conquer the trauma of war
Ron and Ryan Anderson were soldiers — good ones, too, according to their friends — but they didn't die on the battlefield. They died at home in Canada, unable to deal with what they saw and did during war.
Ron took his own life in 2014, seven years after he returned from Afghanistan. Ryan, five years younger, also served in Afghanistan and died in October.
"They brought the war home with them," said their father, Peter Anderson.
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Ryan slipped away quietly on a friend's couch in Fredericton after taking cocaine and carfentanil, a potent opioid estimated to be 10,000 times more powerful than morphine.
Also in his system were drugs prescribed to treat the post-traumatic stress disorder that consumed his life after he returned from Afghanistan.
Ron and Ryan were part of a group of Canadian soldiers who came back from the war alive, only to find life back home a battle as well.
"Were they casualties of war? I think they were," said Blair Williams, a retired soldier who credits Ron Anderson with saving his life in Afghanistan. "I should say, we are."
A few weeks ago, the Andersons' mother and father, Maureen and Peter, received a Silver Cross medal in memory of Ryan. It's given to the family of a soldier "who died on active duty or whose death was consequently attributed to such duty."
Around the same time, Veterans Affairs Canada sent the Andersons a letter saying Ryan's funeral costs would be covered, because his death was "related to" his PTSD.
Unlike most Silver Cross mothers, whose sons died on a faraway front, Maureen watched her two only children die before her eyes.
She still doesn't know how their deaths could have been prevented.
And the answer to that question could save another generation of Canadian soldiers.
The family business
Ron and Ryan Anderson were built for war.
The brothers grew up in a military family, moving around the globe before settling near New Brunswick's Canadian Forces Base Gagetown. Their father, Peter, was a sergeant major.
There was never any doubt that Ron and Ryan would follow in their father's footsteps. They grew up playing "army" and following their dad to work.
Both enlisted as soon as they finished Grade 10. Their parents couldn't have been more proud.
"I figured it was a good life," Maureen said.
Ron and Ryan quickly racked up tours in conflict zones: places like Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Eritrea and, finally, Afghanistan.
They were well-trained, reliable soldiers and the medals piled up. During his first tour in Afghanistan, Ron, the eldest, received a commendation for treating an injured Afghan child in the middle of a hostile crowd.
Ron didn't hesitate when he was asked to deploy to Afghanistan a second time, his fifth tour in a combat zone.
It was what he was trained to do.
A mother's intuition
Maureen didn't want Ron to go back. He wasn't the same after coming home from the country the first time. Didn't he have enough tours under his belt?
"I really didn't want him to go," she said. "I just had a bad feeling."
But she didn't say anything. Ron was looking forward to being deployed.
And it would be Ryan's first tour in Afghanistan. Ron was going to keep an eye on his younger brother.
They didn't know the carnage that awaited them.
On Easter Sunday in 2007, six Canadian soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing west of Kandahar City.
Five of the six men were from the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment at tight-knit CFB Gagetown, where the Anderson brothers were posted. They included Sgt. Donnie Lucas, one of Ron's close friends.
"It was the first men to be killed in our unit in a very long time," said Blair Williams, who was also in Afghanistan at the time.
After the blast, Ryan was dispatched to the site, a job that may have seen him picking up his friends' remains.
Days later, Ryan travelled in the light armoured vehicle carrying Lucas's casket in the ramp ceremony, held before a soldier's body is sent home.
"It touched his heart. Another friend that's not going to get to go home."
A harrowing week
Two months later, on June 13, 2007, Ron was in the Afghan desert when his heart started pounding. He was sweating heavily and his body was vibrating.
Ron went to the medic, and the doctor knew exactly what was happening. It was the soldier's first panic attack, and the first sign that something was very wrong.
"It was just after my buddies got blown up," Ron told a provincial court judge one year later.
The next few months weren't any easier. Fifteen more Canadian soldiers died in Afghanistan before Ron returned home to New Brunswick, according to Veterans Affairs Canada data.
Two of the most harrowing days came in early July.
A suicide bomber in a van rammed his vehicle into the side of Williams's LAV, blowing it up. Four soldiers were wounded, including Williams, who was critically hurt.
Ron, uninjured, spotted a man on a motorcycle with a pistol in his hand, according to a National Post article written by Don Martin, who was embedded with the troops.
"What I was told was the secondary bomber was coming over with a pistol and a grenade," Williams said.
"Ronnie ended up shooting that fella to prevent him from killing us."
Williams survived, but his body and mind were battered. He suffered a severe concussion, a broken jaw and shrapnel wounds. His military career was finished.
It was a close call but Ryan wasn't injured. Still, the events affected the brothers.
"Sgt. Ron Anderson said he has been particularly shaken up by this week's convoy — and made no bones that he's had enough of being scared and can't wait to get home," Martin wrote in the National Post.
Eight pills a day
Ron arrived back on Canadian soil on Aug. 16, 2007, but the elation of his homecoming was short-lived.
By the fall, Ron was withdrawn. He wasn't playing with his young children.
He started seeing a psychologist and psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
He was prescribed eight pills a day: an anti-psychotic medication, anti-depressant pills, plus something to make him sleep and something to help him relax.
By that point, the military had given Ron a desk job, putting him charge of a battalion's operations and training — a far cry from the fast-paced world of danger on Afghanistan's front lines.
His anger bubbled over on June 23, 2008, one year after he had his first panic attack in the desert. Ron threatened to kill his then-wife and members of her family.
At his bail hearing, Tara Anderson told a judge she didn't want to ruin her husband's career or keep his children from him.
"I'm just scared and I don't know what he's going to do anymore," she said in court that day, her voice shaking.
'I just want to be left alone'
She described how Ron returned from each tour more agitated, unable to handle normal life.
"He'd go out in the garage and he'd start drinking," Tara told the judge.
"Then he'd break down and start crying and screaming and talking about things that had happened over there. Things that bothered him that he seen or did."
"I can't help it," Ron said.
"I'm withdrawn. I don't want to talk to anybody. I don't want to be around anybody. I have no one that comes out to my house anymore. I just want to be left alone."
Judge Patricia Cumming released Ron from custody, but expressed frustration. No one could tell her what PTSD actually entails and how to tell if someone is a risk.
"All we know is that today is that I listened and watched Ronald Peter Lorne Anderson and he is wound tighter than a spring," Cumming said.
Ron was found guilty of uttering threats and unsafe storage of firearms. He received a conditional discharge, which kept him out of jail, but lost access to his collection of vintage hunting rifles and shotguns for one year.
He and his wife separated and then divorced soon afterward.
By 2014, Ron and his girlfriend had moved to a house in the middle of the woods in Doaktown, a village 90 kilometres from Fredericton and away from his family and friends.
His family believed things were improving. Ron's career in the military was finished, but he loved the outdoors and seemed to be in his element at his new home.
"Nothing against Doaktown, but who do you know in Doaktown?" Roberts said.
"That's why he went there, because he didn't know no one. He isolated himself."
His family was shocked when Ron's girlfriend called the Andersons early on the morning of Feb. 24, 2014, to tell them he'd shot himself in his garage. He was gone.
At his home, Ron's parents watched RCMP officers emerge with a freezer bag filled with prescription pills.
Losing a brother
Going to war together had drawn Ron and Ryan closer. They talked every day.
After his brother died, Ryan began spending hours at a time at Ron's grave. He made his mother promise to bury him with his brother Ron and insisted his name be written on the monument while he was still alive.
Ryan filled his apartment with pictures of his brother and got a tattoo on his leg in memory of him. "Brother and best friend," it said. "Never forgotten."
As he grieved, his parents saw Ryan falling into the same pattern as Ron. Now out of the military, Ryan isolated himself and refused help.
"He just gave up," his mother said.
"He lost his best friend, his brother. I think he just felt the world just left him there with nothing."
Desperate to save their younger son, Maureen and Peter publicly raised alarm bells about the mental health care veterans receive.
"I am afraid for [Ryan], I'm sick about it," Maureen told CBC News in 2014.
But Ryan continued to deteriorate. He stopped eating and lived off Boost nutrition shakes. Normally clean cut, he grew a thick, long beard.
Doctors prescribed him a cocktail of prescription drugs on top of the medical marijuana he took. His parents later learned he was on nine different medications, including anti-anxiety pills, an anti-depressant and an anti-psychotic drug. He took 18 pills a day.
"And he'd pile them into his hand and wolf them down."
'Ryan went with him'
Ryan's family and friends didn't know he was harbouring a deeper secret. On top of the prescription medication, Ryan was using street drugs.
But they knew something was wrong. After moving into his own apartment, Ryan isolated himself more.
"As close as me and Ryan were, I had no idea he was doing drugs that was harder than marijuana," Williams said.
"It was a secretive lifestyle."
Williams visited Ryan often, talking and watching movies inside Ryan's apartment.
He could understand Ryan's anguish. After returning from Afghanistan wounded, Williams was also battling PTSD and trauma from the front lines.
He was getting help and seeing improvement. He desperately wanted his friend to be able to do the same thing. But Ryan didn't want to accept any advice.
Ryan was at a friend's apartment, watching music videos, when he stopped breathing.
The friend called 911 and told Maureen and Peter to meet them at Fredericton's Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital. Maureen doesn't remember getting dressed or leaving her house.
But she remembers knowing her son was already gone.
"The day Ron went, Ryan went with him," Peter said.
Ron and Ryan left behind six children between them.
The next generation
Ron's oldest son will graduate from high school this spring. He plans to follow his father's footsteps into the military.
His grandparents, with whom he's living, support the idea. The Andersons don't blame the military for the death of their sons, nor has it diminished their love for the military.
It gave them a good life, with a sense of security. They're sure it will do the same for their grandson.
"You can't go on dwelling on if there's going to be another war," Maureen said. She's wearing a blue "proud and strong military wife" shirt.
The Andersons know what killed both their sons.
How their deaths could have been prevented is much harder to know.
Last fall, three government departments banded together to launch a suicide prevention strategy aimed at reducing the risk factors for veteran suicide.
"They do recover," said Alexandra Heber, chief psychiatrist for Veterans Affairs Canada, of veterans who commit to treatment. "They get on with their lives."
On a cold March day, top-ranking military officials piled into the Andersons' tidy home in Lincoln, N.B.
They were there to present Ryan's Silver Cross.
It's a medal no mother wants to receive, but Maureen now has two of them. She plans to wear them on her left collar this upcoming Remembrance Day.
The Andersons wonder if the system will do a better job of protecting their grandson.
"I only hope so," Maureen said.
"Because … I really don't know. I just hope for the best."
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