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Edmonton veteran support group battles isolation and re-integration

Click to play video 'Old Boots Veterans Association' Old Boots Veterans Association
WATCH ABOVE: Every week, a group of retired military veterans and former RCMP members get together to have an open and honest discussion about adjusting to civilian life. Kendra Slugoski has more – Jun 26, 2019

Every week a group of retired military veterans and former RCMP members gather for a meeting in Edmonton. They are open and honest about their day-to-day struggles trying to adapt to civilian life.

Leaving service has been just as difficult as combat.

The group is called The Old Boots Veterans Association and late last year, it celebrated five years together. It’s a milestone for many who found it hard to open up to anybody.

The support group is independent and runs on a small fee and donations.

READ MORE: New Edmonton centre one stop shop for veterans’ services

Guiding the members is registered psychologist Liz Massiah, a self-described military brat herself (her dad was in the air force). Massiah said she got tired of listening to lonely and isolated veterans trying to go it alone.

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“When they lost the structure of the military, the routine of the military and the role, then they’re just lost,” she said.

A question she said she is often asked is: “How can I regain a sense a purpose when I feel like so much of me has been torn away?”

It’s not an easy answer. Massiah said re-integration is a slow process, especially when structure and order is drilled in year after year.

Adapting to family life and “civvies,” as the members called civilians, is often aggravating.

READ MORE: Number of Afghan war veterans receiving federal PTSD support nearly doubled over 4 years

Then there are the triggers.

“Triggers are fairly common,” said retired Major Pat Henneberry, who served nearly a quarter of a decade with the Canadian Armed Forces.

“Screaming kids — that’s something I can’t get used to.”

Henneberry said he discovered that trauma when he volunteered to chaperone a school dance. He said the music made him flash back to the sound of mortars and the lights were like tracer bullets — then he heard kids scream.

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“Unfortunately, I saw that for real a couple of times,” he said.

“The images came right back all from something innocent.”

Henneberry ran from that school gym and didn’t stop until two hours later.

Massiah said it’s drummed into military how to be strong.

“Any kind of difference, any kind of vulnerability, is seen as weakness and they’re thoroughly shamed for it.”

WATCH BELOW: Many military veterans say they are fed up with what they say is the federal government ignoring them. The frustration comes as Canada’s new veterans affairs minister visited Edmonton on Wednesday. Kendra Slugoski filed this report on Mar 13, 2019.

Click to play video 'Edmonton military veterans say they’re fed up with being ignored by Ottawa' Edmonton military veterans say they’re fed up with being ignored by Ottawa
Edmonton military veterans say they’re fed up with being ignored by Ottawa – Mar 13, 2019

Vulnerability and honesty is what has kept this group focused on healing. A task using their hands has helped.

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The group hand-stitched a couple of quilts and donated one of them to Valour Place.

READ MORE: 5th annual Walk of Valour hits the streets of Edmonton to help thousands

The candid conversation goes hand-in-hand with those stitches and has allowed members to share powerful stories for the first time.

“We don’t go looking for them; it’s not a therapy group, per se,” said Massiah. “Just ‘poof,’ there it is.”

Massiah called it a privilege to be a part of the group and said it has opened up her eyes to how vets see things differently — with a heightened sense of awareness.

“I truly believe that social connection is just so crucial. We all need people to love us and we all need people to call bulls**t and say, ‘Stop,'” Massiah said.

“I think that’s what we’ve achieved here.”