Nova Scotia

Why November can be the hardest time of the year for some veterans

While the sombre ceremonies at cenotaphs offer the chance to reflect and honour those who've died, Remembrance Day can also bring up difficult memories for veterans.

'You can still hear the sounds of war. And it brings you back there in a way that's not welcome sometimes'

Brad LeBlanc, Gus Cameron and Larry Bergeron visit the cenotaph in Hammonds Plains, N.S. They are part of the Veterans UN-NATO Canada group, which has around 800 members across Nova Scotia. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Hearing the bugle call on Remembrance Day before the two minutes of silence is one of the few times a year that Brad LeBlanc feels his eyes well up.

Though he now goes to a cenotaph each Nov. 11, that wasn't always the case.

In 2012, LeBlanc was part of a ceremony in Kabul. In the years that followed his return to Nova Scotia, he chose to mark the day privately, remembering those lost and his experiences in Afghanistan away from the crowds. 

"You carry those memories with you when you come home and you can still smell the area, you can still feel the ground under your feet even though you're back in Canada," said LeBlanc, who is president of the Veterans UN-NATO Canada group in Nova Scotia.

"You can still hear the sounds of war. And it brings you back there in a way that's not welcome sometimes."

The social group aims to connect with veterans who are isolated and to provide some of the camaraderie they had in the military. The group's leaders say there are increased worries about people's mental health at this time of the year.

The relationship a veteran has with Remembrance Day can be complicated. While the sombre ceremonies at cenotaphs offer the chance to reflect and spend time with others who served, LeBlanc said some struggle with what they witnessed in conflict zones and memories can come flooding back. 

Brad LeBlanc is shown in Afghanistan in 2012. (Brad LeBlanc)

"I'm not saying it's warranted, but a lot of guys feel guilt," he said. "They come home and they left brothers or sisters there and they heard and felt what war feels like. Attending a cenotaph brings them back to where they were."

Larry Bergeron, the UN-NATO group's provincial vice-president, welcomes veterans who are wrestling with post-traumatic stress disorder to his home on Nova Scotia's South Shore. He offers equine therapy.

But few people reach out once November comes around.

Larry Bergeron offers equine therapy to former military members and RCMP officers at his home on Nova Scotia's South Shore. (Larry Bergeron)

"It is a time to grieve ... everyone takes it in a different personal way," said Bergeron, a chef by trade who was with the Royal Canadian Air Force for 25 years. His work ranged from time stationed in the Middle East to responding to the Swiss Air crash off Peggys Cove in 1998. 

Bergeron said he and other members in the group are poised to offer support in the event that veterans or their families are experiencing a crisis. 

"And when I say 24/7, I mean 24/7. A call, you know, that's all it takes," he said.

John Whelan is a psychologist who treats veterans and first responders who have post-traumatic stress disorder. (CBC)

Psychologist John Whelan treats military personnel in Nova Scotia suffering from PTSD. A former navy member himself, he said how people react can vary depending on how it has been since they served and whether they're still dealing with the physical and mental aftermath.

"It's not just November 11th," he said. "Often it's the entire month. And I know many veterans who will be preparing in October … to steel themselves for this period."

He said that withdrawing from public ceremonies may be the best way for some people to maintain their mental health. 

This year has been particularly challenging for people who served in Afghanistan after the U.S. military's evacuation from the country last summer and the resurgence of the Taliban. 

"It's a complex time for that generation of military veterans," he said. 

Debbie Lowther, CEO and co-founder of VETS Canada, says calls go up every fall. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

Debbie Lowther has been seeing that in her work. She runs VETS Canada, a national non-profit organization that supports veterans experiencing homelessness that she founded with her husband, who served in Afghanistan. 

"For the most part, it's definitely triggered people's mental health," she said. "It's been disheartening, I think, for those who served and now it seems like it's all been for nothing." 

Calls to VETS Canada usually go up in November and Lowther said people's families are often affected, too. In a time of crisis, a veteran could spend money meant for rent or groceries or relapse into an addiction. 

"We always just encourage people to be supportive and .. understand that it could very well just be a temporary little bump in the road and that things will get better and that there's help out there," she said.

'We always reflect every day'

The UN-NATO group meets for breakfast every week. Gus Cameron, the Halifax chapter's president, said numbers have been down since the beginning of the pandemic. But group members still take note when they don't hear from people.

Cameron, who served for 26 years in the Royal Canadian Navy, said a friendly voice can go a long way to ensuring people know they're not alone.

A table of remembrance and a painting Larry Bergeron created in honour of naval officer Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough, who was killed in a helicopter crash last year, and Cpl. Pat Embree, who died suddenly a few weeks later. Both Cowbrough and Embree were members of the Pipes and Drums and the UN-NATO Veterans groups. (Larry Bergeron)

"There's a couple of people that are on my mind right now that I haven't heard from for quite a while," he said. "I know one of the vets frequents a pub in the north end of Halifax. I'm going to walk in there and leave a note behind the bar for him. Yeah, we have to keep checking." 

The group's breakfast begins with a moment of silence. At a small table, they arrange one empty chair tilted forward in honour of members and friends they've lost. 

Bergeron said remembering happens year-round. 

"We always reflect every day when … we get up in the morning. When I put my flag up, which I do every day where I am, it's a reflection of our veterans and our serving members," he said. 

LeBlanc said this year he's been in touch with friends he served with in Afghanistan; there are some he always makes a point to connect with on Remembrance Day.

He said he never wants to pressure other veterans into attending a ceremony and some may struggle in crowds. But he said he's found it has become an important time to honour those who sacrificed their lives as well as to connect with people who understand the unique experience that is being in the military — from time overseas to the toll it takes on loved ones back home. 

Brad LeBlanc met his infant daughter, Lola, for the first time at the airport after returning from a tour in Afghanistan. (Brad LeBlanc)

LeBlanc's daughter was born while he was in Afghanistan. He said it was a "shattering experience" for his family to wait for days for information every time there was news someone had been injured or killed. 

"I think veterans in general internalize these things … there's things we say to each other and there's things we keep inside. And a lot of the time, the things that we keep inside, [are] what comes out during a [Remembrance Day] ceremony," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC in Halifax. Over the past 13 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

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