On Saturday, February 11, a Canadian veteran suicided. Sadly, that story has become routine. This soldier did it in front of police. That, too, is becoming an old story. This veteran was fighting for help from Veterans Affairs. That story is so common that we barely notice anymore; we assume every veteran is fighting with VAC.
Bombardier Carl Jason Dunphy. (Photo: Facebook)
The veteran from Edmunston, NB was Bombardier Carl Jason Dunphy, of the 5e Régiment d'artillerie légère du Canada. He served three tours in Afghanistan. He had short-term memory problems from the multiple concussions he received from roadside bombs. He also had PTSD. He may even have had other injuries which haven't been reported. He'd been appealing -- begging -- Veterans Affairs for help for his problems. On the morning of his death, Carl posted on Facebook:
"It's eating away at my resources and my strength. It's not up to friends and spouses to deal with this because a government organization doesn't act."
Within hours, apprehended by the Sûreté du Québec in St-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha!, Carl got back in his car and shot himself.
That's how Canada handles these sort of things.
Carl is yet another delayed casualty of the war in Afghanistan. Canada lost 158 troops over there. By 2014, we had lost 160 Afghanistan veterans to suicide back here. The count is much higher now, but we stopped officially keeping track. Frequently, we don't even give their rank, denying the fallen even token respect.
Pay close attention to government -- or any civilian -- discussion of veterans' suicide. You will hear a whole lot of statistics tossed around, especially ones comparing the incidence of mental illness between veterans and the civilian population. You will see comparisons of the suicide rates between those groups. There will be a lot of victim blaming, couched in statements like "we are there for veterans who ask for help." You will witness much hand-wringing by authorities, a lot of talk about how sad this is, and loads of implied shrugs and "What are ya gonna do?" Then, as soon as Carl is buried, or sooner if public attention can be distracted, everyone will go back to whatever they were doing.
That's how Canada handles these sort of things. We have shown it time after time. Even after the horrific murder-suicide of Lionel Desmond last month -- another veteran begging VAC for help -- we went back to ignoring the wounded. At the end of the news cycle, Canada simply doesn't care about these veterans.
Veteran Lionel Desmond and his family. Photo: Facebook/CP handout)
We do everything in our power to ignore these deaths. We don't want to think about them, because we want the war to be over, because we want the victims to be responsible for their fate, because we refuse to accept our responsibility to those who serve.
It's easy to see that at work: just look at how we compare veterans and civilians. It's like comparing apples and fire trucks -- other than being red, there's no commonality. Veterans and civilians are both people, but that's the end of the similarity. We conveniently forget the rigorous screening of applicants done by the Forces. Applicants are not only selected based on physical fitness; they are also screened for mental health. Before basic training starts, recruits are the healthiest people around. Training weeds out those who cannot achieve even greater fitness; that's the whole point of the rigors of basic. By the time recruits have passed and become full members of the Forces, the graduates are strong and fit in all respects.
How can we possibly compare these elite-screened and trained individuals to the rest of us? On average, Canadians are not particularly fit and healthy. The incidence of mental illness in the general population is largely due to the random factors which drive all disease; we haven't been screened. One doesn't compare the rate of heart disease among Olympic athletes to the rest of us fast-food eating, coffee swilling, smoking, lazy arses. Why are we comparing the mental health of soldiers and civilians? Because we want to duck our responsibility.
We call it a tragedy, like some Greek or Shakespearean drama, blaming the gods or fate or some vagary.
The truth is this: we take people who are in top condition physically and mentally, and we break them in body and mind. We send them off to do the dangerous and dirty jobs us civilians can't face. We push them out front, to face the horrors and uglies, to put their flesh and minds between us and harm. We use them like tools, working them until they break.
Then we chuck them aside and make them fight us for their benefits, until we break their spirit. We ignore their cries for help, even as we declare help is available. When they suicide, we call it a tragedy, like some Greek or Shakespearean drama, blaming the gods or fate or some vagary. The true fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves -- our sanctimonious, excuse-making, sniveling, victim-blaming selves. We may call ourselves civilians, and thereby suggest that we are generous and caring and somehow better than these dupes we dispatch to do our dirty work. There's nothing civil or enlightened or even humane in how we treat our veterans.
We cannot continue to hide from the truth. We broke them; we owe them. No amount of re-framing will change that fact. If these veterans made it home from a war, then we should be able to stop them being further casualties. Instead of stalling, delaying, demanding more proof of injury, blaming bureaucracy, and permitting Veterans Affairs and the Forces to point the finger of responsibility at each other, we need to react as quickly as Canadians do in times of crisis. We need to dive in and make things work. We need to grab on to the wounded, saying "It's going to be OK."
And we have to make it OK.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog incorrectly identified the first image as Bombardier Carl Jason Dunphy. It has been updated to an image of the veteran.
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Prior to the trauma, they often felt invulnerable as if nothing could harm them (the way a very wealthy person who can buy anything -- and sometimes anyone -- can feel all the way to a freshly trained soldier before they enter battle).
As bulletproof as they once thought they were is as vulnerable as they have turned out to be. There is a belief that they don't know how they survived the first trauma and an unconscious belief that they wouldn't survive being re-traumatized. One of the reasons for anniversary reactions.
Not being able to find peace outside or inside their life or inside their psyche, leads to a brittleness where anything can set them off. This leads to the heightened startle respond common to people with PTSD.
Inside there is a deeply held belief that any re-traumatization will cause them to shatter and fragment and there is an feeling of impending inevitability that it will happen which creates a state of terror, difficulty sleeping, heavy self-medication (which also dulls ones rational thinking).
Most of the symptoms of PTSD from withdrawing to alcohol and substance abuse to not sleeping (since the experience of and fear of nightmares adds to the terror) are attempts to avoid re-traumatization.
Feeling on the brink of going from brittle to shattering, fragmenting, losing their mind and never getting it back can cause a person who needs to be in control to take desperate measures. That is because to such a person, losing complete control is a fate worse than death.
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