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Don't Cut Programs for Military Families: Spouses Are the Key to Troop Reintegration

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Don't even think about it.

That's the message that Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay and Chief of the Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk need to hear right now, as the federal government's spending review snakes through the bureaucracy, seeking new prey.

The fact is that a new front in the Afghanistan war has opened up right here in our own communities, and military spouses -- overwhelmingly women -- find themselves in harm's way. Every hour of every day, they are helping their returning partners adjust to Canadian society. This is dangerous work.
Why? Because the psychological and emotional -- not to mention the physical -- impacts on soldiers of serving in a theatre of war are profound, and can strip human beings of their spirit as fast and ruthlessly as napalm, spreading to the spouses and children of combatants like fire out of control.

I was an army brat. My father was a career soldier, a decorated veteran who served as a peacekeeper in Vietnam and Egypt. During the Second World War, he trained other soldiers to shoot rifles and ride motorcycles; he was strong and resilient. And yet he cried at every Remembrance Day service, mourning the human carnage of battle, honouring the fallen he had known.

He reintegrated pretty well, several times. Fortunately, he liked "civvy street", as he called it. But Dad was only able to adjust effectively because my mother was also strong and a full partner in the enterprise of the military family. She stepped forward during his absences, raising my sister and me, charting out her own career, learning to drive (which was unusual for women then), and focusing her energies on helping Dad re-enter society smoothly each time he returned. They were a team. There may be other ways to do it, but that's what they did.

Today, veterans are coming back to a country that -- while occasionally recognizing the service and valour -- never really suffered during the war. For better or worse, it's a society driven by a popular culture featuring Lady Gaga and movies like Transformers, and a political culture mired in incessant wrangling and undeserved narcissism. True, the very banality of this familiar social maw may comfort some returning veterans. But it is just as likely, maybe more likely, for them to experience civilian life as bizarre, self-indulgent, inconsequential, even alien.

If their country has remained basically the same, they haven't. Forget those elegant, top-down accounts of the noble victories of commanders. For the military employees who actually do the fighting on the ground, war is horrific beyond imagination. Wiping the hot bone and blood of your best friend off your face after a roadside attack changes you forever.

Only war veterans themselves really can understand what this means.

And the horror is coming home. Not surprisingly, after multiple deployment cycles, a growing number of members of the Forces report some form of "post-operational stress." The number of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder is rising, and there is some evidence that National Defence has been redeploying soldiers actually known to have PTSD.

There are other signs of stress in the military. Earlier this summer, 70 narcotics charges were laid by military police at CFB Wainwright (Alberta), where a drug lab and trafficking operation had been set up by trainees. There have been reports of an increase in domestic violence in military families, as well. And, according to the Canadian Forces Provost Marshal, military police received nearly 800 complaints of crimes in 2010, including almost 180 cases of sexual assault. Of course, these complaints are only the ones that are reported; as such, they likely significantly underestimate the scale of these problems.

The Department of National Defence currently offers programs for serving members to address operational stress, addictions, mental health and wellness. There are also 32 Military Family Resource Centres across Canada and more in other countries. The centres run a full range of services on youth, parenting, wellness, deployment, and family separation and reunion.

Like all programs, they need independent evaluations of their effectiveness. No doubt, they could work better and reach more people. They also could better target participants by working more closely with veteran's organizations.

Nonetheless, they are essential tools of support for military families -- especially for the thousands of spouses who are fighting for their partners, and for us, on the new front line of troop reintegration.
Minister Mackay, General Natynczyk: Don't touch the funding of these programs.

Don't even think about it.

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