Sharing war experiences helps soldier deal with post-traumatic stress

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PTSD VETERANS CANADA
A man pauses as he touches the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after placing his poppy on top following Remembrance Day ceremonies at the National War Memorial in Ottawa Friday November 11, 2011. War vets often struggle with PTSD, but some have found ways to cope through sharing. | CP

TORONTO - Daniel Lafontaine's accounts of life in war-torn Bosnia send chills down the spines of his listeners.

His first-hand account of life as a hostage reminds his audience of the perils that soldiers must face in a combat zone, while his descriptions of city streets piled high with corpses paint a devastating mental picture of what havoc a battle can cause.

Lafontaine has spent time over the past nine months sharing stories of wartime horror with students near his home town of Quebec City.

The engagements are organized through the Historica-Dominion Institute's Memory Project, which records veterans' accounts of their experiences.

His words may help future generations remember the devastating effects of war, but they also help him to forget.

Lafontaine, 47, has found that sharing his experiences has been a crucial part of his recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"You always keep it in silence inside of you. Now I'm able to liberate all the bad things that I had in the back of my mind," the retired sergeant said in a telephone interview. "I can't control it, but I can accept the problems I have now."

Confronting those emotions was a long and nearly deadly process for Lafontaine, who said he showed no symptoms until years after he left the army in 2003.

When he began experiencing irritability, aggression and anger, he never attributed his shifting moods to the traumas he witnessed during his two tours of duty in Bosnia.

Only after a suicide attempt in 2009 did Lafontaine begin receiving help for PTSD and other anxiety disorders. He soon found sharing memories with his psychiatric team was not enough, he said, adding he felt it was important to ensure others learned of the sacrifices made by soldiers every day.

The fact that Lafontaine finds his public speeches healing comes as no surprise to Katy Kamkar of the psychological trauma unit of Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Sharing stories with a sympathetic, captive audience is an extension of the sort of treatments PTSD sufferers undergo in individual therapy, she said.

Victims often start treatment by avoiding potentially difficult subjects, only to find their reserve crumbles as psychologists urge them to discuss their trauma in detail.

Veterans who voluntarily take that step in front of a group of strangers, Kamkar said, have successfully navigated a crucial turning point.

"We always encourage conversation to reduce avoidance," she said. "The fact that yes, they have gone one step forward and are talking about it, definitely is very beneficial."

Remembrance lectures have the added benefit of great personal significance to former soldiers, she said, adding PTSD patients who involve themselves in a meaningful cause also improve their odds of recovery.

Maj. Ray Wiss, an army doctor who fought on the front lines during two tours of duty in Afghanistan, agrees.

While spared the crippling effects of PTSD himself, Wiss still finds himself swamped by grief for three close comrades who were killed by roadside bombs.

His many speeches all conclude with a poetic tribute to his fallen friends, and Wiss said he still finds himself choking back tears each time.

Still, he said, the warm reception his words receive goes along way to easing his pain.

"If you want to take a shortcut to PTSD, make it feel as if your sacrifice is worthless," Wiss said. "But to be valued for your sacrifice makes the sacrifice worthwhile."

Despite the acknowledged importance of facing emotional demons head-on, Lafontaine said the process is easier said than done for both past and present-day soldiers.

His forthright confessions of mental illness often earn astonished looks from fellow veterans, he said, adding the subject still bears a strong taboo within military circles.

"The reason why they don't want to talk about it is they don't want to need help, or they don't want to admit that they have a problem," he said.

Retired general Rick Hillier, Canada's national defence chief from 2005 to 20078, acknowledged that mental illness issues still don't receive the attention they deserve.

"Despite the incredible progress we've made, mental health is still not as discussed as openly and still not completely out of the shadows as it needs to be for our entire country," he said.

Hillier, however, believes the message may be heard more clearly over time as hundreds of veterans fan out across the country each year to bring Remembrance Day to life for the Canadian public.

Wiss said those who are on the speaking circuit to combat their emotional upheaval will hopefully find some solace if they approach the situation with realistic expectations.

"The pain of young, violent death never gets better. But what can happen if you deal with it in a healthy manner is that you make friends with the ghosts," he said.

"If you revisit the pain on a regular basis, you realize that, ok, it does get really bad, but it doesn't go beyond that." "What used to be unfamiliar territory, not just sad but also scary, becomes familiar territory. It's still sad, but no longer scary."

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