Invisible wounds, revisited: Canada still falls short in treating soldiers’ psychic scars
Walter Callaghan says it took him seven years, debilitating alcohol and painkiller addictions, and a torpedoed career to convince the military he needed serious, long-term treatment.
For two years after that, his care was covered. He got back on his feet and went back to school, where he’s in year two of a PhD program.
Then in January he got a letter.
“You have completed your rehabilitation plan,” it said.
“Your Earnings Loss Benefit under the Financial Benefits Program is no longer payable.”
Veterans Affairs was cutting him off: It had decided he no longer needed twice-weekly, even weekly, psychotherapy.
This was news to him, he said, and to his doctors.
INVISIBLE WOUNDS: Crisis in Canada’s military
Callaghan and his physicians managed to save his physiotherapy and massage therapy as long as he re-applies every few months, proving his need.
Callaghan still gets psychotherapy but he’s down to one appointment every two weeks — not frequent enough to do the prolonged exposure therapy his doctor wanted to use to treat Callaghan’s persistent PTSD.
“That’s where you start challenging some of the memories, some of the trauma,” he said.
“It’s intentionally emotionally stressful. … You can’t do that if you’re going, ‘Well, see you in two weeks.’ It’s a recipe for disaster.”
He says Veterans Affairs didn’t believe his psychiatrist when he said he needed more regular sessions.
“[They said], ‘You need more proof that you actually need it. The stuff from your doctor isn’t enough.'”
“I’m still fighting with them.”
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Callaghan says he thought he was past that.
So did numerous other current and former members of Canada’s armed forces.
Past having to prove their psychic torment was real enough to warrant ongoing medical care, that despite chronic illness they could — they needed — to live fulfilling lives.
More than a year ago, Global News documented the struggles Canada’s soldiers and veterans go through in coming to terms with and seeking help for severe mental illness related to their work.
The award-winning series provided intimate portraits of a hidden crisis in the wake of a spate of soldier suicides.
Last year, in the wake of Corporal Nathan Cirillo’s shooting death at Canada’s War Memorial in Ottawa, Global News revealed persistent inequities in the benefits given to reservists and their families when reservists are hurt or killed serving their country.
Some things have gotten better: The military more readily discusses mental illness and the need for ongoing treatment. National Defence and Veterans Affairs, the bifurcated departments bookending a soldier’s career, are starting to mesh their bureaucracies to ease the transition from one to another.
Some of the people Global News profiled are healthier, more stable, happier, and say they’re getting the support they need.
Others say they are still fumbling alone in the dark.
Canada’s military still does not consistently track suicides and post-traumatic stress disorder. Years of simmering antipathy boiled over in this year’s federal election campaign, which featured an “Anyone But Conservative” movement made up of veterans who’d lost faith in the federal Conservatives.
Then-Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole dismissed the campaign as representing a fringe group of disgruntled vets backed by “union money.”
Things have improved, he said. Sick people aren’t being forced out of the military any more.
“Putting up your hand for support is not a direct exit to the door,” he told Global News.
“It bothers me when people suggest that.”
READ MORE: Ways to retrain traumatized brains
Phillip Kitchen watched a man die in his arms on a mountain in Afghanistan, the victim of friendly fire.
His convoy was caught in a fatal miscommunication with the Afghan National Army.
Outwardly, Kitchen emerged unscathed.
Friends called him “Rooster.”
Not because he was cocky. But because, like the protagonist in the eponymous Alice in Chains song, “he ain’t gonna die.”
He just became the king of close calls and night terrors.
Kitchen spent seven months outside the wire in Afghanistan. He was among the first responders after American aircraft fired on Canadian troops in September 2006, killing Pte. Anthony Graham. He’d been in Afghanistan two weeks.
“The mass casualty scene was something I’ll never get over,” he said.
“I was so unprepared for that job.”
But he excelled at it. Too much for his own good, it turned out.
When Kitchen returned to Canada in February 2007 he was “red-flagged” for a psychiatric assessment immediately, he says, and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder shortly afterward.
Being flagged should have guaranteed him prompt, thorough treatment.
Instead, Kitchen said he found himself working harder than ever.
“There was nothing set up for me. No appointments were made. They just said, ‘Go back to work.'”
So he did, providing “all-source intelligence” to front-line forces in Afghanistan.
“I knew the information I could provide saved lives so I really got right back into high-intensity,” he said.
“I was busy with work. It was so important to me that there was really nothing else that could shake my focus.”
That is, until he began relying on pot to ease uneasy nights. And when he owned up he found himself out of a job.
He’d been named “Soldier of the Year”; “Station-person of the year”; “Service Member of the Quarter.” But now Kitchen was discharged — “unfit for military service.”
He was less than two years shy of a decade of service. Instead, Kitchen was left with $10,000, no prospects, and an untreated illness.
Three times, Kitchen submitted grievances for his dismissal.
The third time, three years after being booted from the military, Kitchen won and got a medical release.
His PTSD, which the Canadian Forces had diagnosed in 2007, was treated for the first time. He began receiving income again.
“It’s been a journey,” he says.
But he acknowledges things are better. Kitchen is getting regular Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, designed to salve the pain of his most traumatic memories.
He loves being a stay-at-home dad to Logan, Dillan and Emily. “It’s a full day’s work,” he laughs.
“The kids are a big source of happiness.”
Six months ago he got a service dog, a black labrador retriever named Canty.
But he’ll probably never have a paid job.
“My symptoms, sometimes, are not work-friendly.”
“She vets everyone,” he said.
And his treatment by the organization to which he devoted his life still rankles.
“It’s been a really hard pill for me to swallow,” he said.
“You give your life to serve and you expect, you know, a little bit of cushion for the fall.”
The experience has been made more bitter by Kitchen’s inclusion in a National Defence recruitment video he says is still in use.
“I’m still recruiting for the Department of National Defence,” he said.
“They tell me I’m not fit to serve, yet they can have me on their website for the last 11 years.”
Wayne Johnston knows he’s lucky.
He’s been retired more than a year. He’s doing all right financially, and he says his treatment is keeping his PTSD under control.
But what riles him is that many others are in a far worse position.
“If you do not have a degree of financial security — by that I mean, ‘I can feed the kids, I can pay the mortgage, I can make the car payments’ — if you don’t have that, you can never, ever, ever work on your mental health.
“And I say that from experience.”
The predominance of lump-sum payments to people leaving the military, instead of monthly payments, leaves vulnerable sick people without long-term stability, he said.
“I try and put myself in the mind of a 25-year-old. … You give him a lump sum of $90,000 and you expect him to work on his mental health as he’s released from the forces.”
Johnston calls the rancorous election campaign — and the months preceding it — “blue on blue.”
“This election has caused veterans to really fight with each other,” he said.
But he’s optimistic things will get better, although he knows the government will need to work some actuarial wizardry to reconcile monthly payments to people who’ve already been released with a lump sum.
“I think there’s a great deal of hope with the Liberal platform.”
Stephan Moreau gets all the help he needs because he knows now he has to ask for it.
“At a personal level, I’ve been pretty fortunate,” he said.
Sports have worked wonders: Since his medical discharge following a PTSD diagnosis, Moreau has started studying mechanical engineering. He’s competed in multiple triathlons and in last year’s inaugural Invictus Games. The games, held in London, are meant to “support rehabilitation and generate a wider understanding and respect for wounded, injured and sick Servicemen and women,” according to the website.
There, Moreau got to meet royalty in the forms of princes William and Harry, above. But he also got to feel strong and proud — valuable emotions that can be tough to come by if you’ve got a chronic illness.
“Stuff like this really gets me going,” he said.
Support is out there, Moreau said.
But “you still have to reach out, you know?”
If you aren’t persistent, the help isn’t there.
“Veterans Affairs is pretty short-staffed,” he said.
“My case manager, she’s awesome. … She’ll call me once in a while, but unfortunately their workload has probably doubled.”
And it’s toughest to be your own advocate when you’re sick.
“Reaching out is not always easy when you suffer from PTSD,” Moreau said.“If you walk around with a broken leg, somebody will say, ‘Hey, listen man, let’s call an ambulance.’ They’re not going to let you just sit on the sidewalk with a broken leg.”
Moreau’s own stubbornness has helped him cope, he says.
“I want to adjust and live my life and I want to accomplish stuff.”
Last week he started neurofeedback therapy for his PTSD. Veterans Affairs is covering it. But he had to ask first.
“It’s something I had to reach out for. They didn’t call me and say, ‘Do you want to try neurofeedback?'”
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