August 14, 2014 8:00 am
Updated: August 14, 2014 8:04 am

‘The invisible pain’: Veterans march across Canada to raise PTSD awareness

Jason McKenzie on his march across Canada to raise awareness for post-traumatic stress disorder.

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OTTAWA – The nightmares started soon after Jason McKenzie returned from Yugoslavia.

He replayed the feeling of the armoured personnel carrier he was travelling in with 13 other soldiers sinking into a muddy river, swept up under a blown-up bridge, as he struggled to get out.

“That’s where most of my trauma, most of my PTSD goes to,” said McKenzie, a 41-year-old Canadian Forces veteran who served in the former Yugoslavia in 1992 and 1993.

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“I have a lot of issues at night waking up in the dark, coming out of a nightmare. I panic, and I know that I’m feeling the panic that I had that day.”

READ MORE: Invisible Wounds: Crisis in the military

It was one of the memories McKenzie shared with his family for the first time recently, as he prepared a march across Canada to raise awareness for post-traumatic stress disorder.

New Statistics Canada data released this week shows one in six members of the military have reported experiencing symptoms of mental or alcohol disorders.

The idea for “Into No Man’s Land: PTSD Awareness March Canada” came from McKenzie’s friend and fellow veteran Steve Hartwig. And the goal is to let veterans – and the Canadian public – know that it’s ok to talk about PTSD.

WATCH: Veteran walks across Canada to raise awareness about PTSD

“When Steve put the idea forward, it just resonated with me and I hadn’t actually sat down and talked to my family about my PTSD and the struggles I’d gone through since I got out of the military,” said McKenzie, a father of three.

“I shared that with them and it was a very profound moment, where we shed a lot of tears and they were just like, why didn’t you ever tell us about this?

“That solidified for me the importance of the journey. Because if that’s what I’ve gone through, other people have gone through [it].”

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The two men plan to walk about 32 kilometres a day in 16 kilometre blocks – just like they do in the military while carrying 50-pound rucksacks.

Blisters, tendonitis and other sports injuries are par for the course, and they are sleeping in a trailer in parking lots or with friendly strangers who take them in along the way.

Their march started on June 23 in Victoria, and will stop in Ottawa on Friday. The plan is to end on Sept. 14 in St. John’s, Nfld. A third veteran, Scott McIntyre McFarlane, recently left the march, to deal with his own PTSD.

Jason McKenzie on his march across Canada to raise awareness for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The people that see us walking, they can see our physical pain, and it’s a metaphor for the invisible pain that people with PTSD go through,” said McKenzie.

They are also accepting donations, in order to pay for the march and if possible, set up a foundation. McKenzie said depending on what they raise, they may donate the money to another veterans’ group. So far they’ve raised almost $10,000.

A spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino said Veterans Affairs Canada is aware, and supportive of, the Into No Man’s Land walk.

READ MORE: 1 in 6 Canadian Forces members reports mental health or alcohol issues

Returning from battle when he was just 20 years old, McKenzie began self-medicating with alcohol to erase his memories of bullets and land mines.

Eventually he saw a psychologist, who diagnosed him with PTSD.

“I really didn’t know what it was at that point. It wasn’t something that was discussed,” he said.

One of the major symptoms is avoidance – not talking about one’s problems.

“There’s a lot of shame there, so those people aren’t asking for the help.”

He said he’d like to effect change in treatment, to make it more comprehensive and give people choices that include clinical, traditional and alternative care.

Now the self-employed owner of a construction company based in Saskatchewan, McKenzie said he’s found he can cope best through exercise, sleep, and healthy eating.

READ MORE: Is there enough mental health support for first responders?

“You combine all that and I can keep my symptoms at bay,” he said.

But he does fall back.

He thinks the Canadian Forces has done “a great job” in providing resources to soldiers in combat regarding PTSD, but he can’t say the same for Veterans Affairs.

As recently as December he was in a “pretty low place,” and called Veterans Affairs looking for help.

He said he received a call two days later to make an appointment with a general practitioner to get an appointment with a psychologist – which he secured about a month later, when he felt he no longer needed it.

Fantino’s spokeswoman said she couldn’t comment about individual cases. But Ashlee Smith said the department has invested $4.7 billion since 2006 and has a host of resources including clinical care managers, 17 specialized clinics, approximately 4,000 mental health professionals, and a 24-hour telephone crisis and referral centre.

“Veterans Affairs remains committed to supporting veterans with mental health issues,” Smith wrote in an email.

For McKenzie’s part, it wasn’t enough.

“It just put such a sour taste in my mouth that I just kind of gave up on it,” said McKenzie.

“Now being on this journey, this walk has been more healing than anything I’ve gone through (in) the Veterans Affairs system.”

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© Shaw Media, 2014

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