Nfld. & Labrador

Rezori | PTSD, and a toxic legacy that never really ends

There's a perception when soldiers are pulled out of a conflict zone like Afghanistan, the fighting is over. As Azzo Rezori writes, the reality is very different.
A Canadian soldier is seen on patrol southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan, with a sunflower stuck to his helmet in this 2010 file image. (Anja Niedringhaus/AP)

There's a common perception that when a country like Canada pulls its soldiers out of a conflict zone like Afghanistan, the fighting is over.

Things are never quite that simple. Wars don't just end when the shooting stops. They continue in the ruins they leave behind, as they continue inside the bruised hearts and souls of soldiers who fought them and carry them home like stowaways.

I was reading up on post-traumatic stress the other day when I found myself thinking of Werner, an old friend of mine who died six years ago.

I had not made the connection at first. Then I realized that something quite important had clicked. All of a sudden, so many things that had puzzled me about Werner's quite unhappy life became clear.

I saw the ghost of his father standing over him, the German soldier who'd battled the Russians at Stalingrad and lived, spent two years in one of their prisoner-of-war camps, and then brought it all back with him when he finally made it home.

Fuelled by hatred

Werner hated him all his life, even at his funeral. He could never forgive him his cold heart, his utter need for control, his frequent outbursts of rage and the brutal punishments and beatings that came with them. Werner was too young to see the wounded man in him. All he experienced was the monster.

When I first met Werner, he was an extremely talented and skilled interior decorator, a fussy, sometimes infuriating perfectionist, also an astute collector of beautiful things which didn't have to be of great value.

He detested authority and had a sixth sense for the underdog.

As I got to know him better, I saw two distinct personalities in him. One was warm and generous, boyishly charming and eager to help and please. The other was filled with hate and the helpless and self-indulgent rage of the victim.

He lived in Dartmouth and came to spend Christmas with us a few years before his death.

A snow storm swept through St. John's the day after he arrived and shut the city down. We spent the day keeping a fire going, listening to an endless stream of carols, trimming the tree, wrapping presents, snacking on a lot of sweet things, and drinking far too much sherry.

A heart bared

By the time we were done with supper, my wife and daughter were ready to go to bed. Werner and I put more wood on the fire, went on the beer, and started talking.

I know that secret now. It was the war that the old man had brought back from the shattered front and then passed on to his son, who in turn passed it on to his daughters.

That night, Werner bared his heart, and I could no longer tell love from hate. I also came to see how PTSD is a toxin that passes from one generation to the next.

By then, he'd already been battling bipolar disorder for many years and lost everything — his health, his wife who'd left him, his two daughters who wanted as little as possible to do with him because they remembered him much the same as he remembered his own father.

He blamed everybody except himself and his father. It was as if he was protecting a dark secret.

I know that secret now. It was the war that the old man had brought back from the shattered front and then passed on to his son, who in turn passed it on to his daughters.

No easy victory

Werner did have a small circle of dedicated friends who accepted him as he was and took care of him as his health deteriorated and his will to live left him.

The last of those friends to see him alive left him in his apartment in (under the circumstances) reasonably good spirit on the night of May 13, 2008. He didn't answer his phone the next morning. Police had to break in his door. They found him on the floor next to his bed. A heart attack was suspected. 

A light breeze full of spring and promise ruffled Mahone Bay one week later. The ocean sparkled all the way to the island-studded horizon. A gently sucking swell pushed and pulled Werner's ashes away from the little cove into which we'd scattered them with two dozen white roses.

Three of us perched on a narrow ridge of tilted bedrock and watched in silence as the grey slick that once was Werner separated into two halves. It seemed that, released from torment at last, his spirit had decided to depart with a chuckle.

One of the two halves ended up larger and with more roses. If his spirit meant us to guess which represented which side of him, I want to believe that in the end his good side came out on top, that somehow his heart, however war-weary, had prevailed.

If so, it was no easy victory.


Azzo Rezori


Azzo Rezori is a retired journalist who worked with CBC News in St. John's.