On Thursday, the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs (SACPA) held an online event to discuss how well military veterans are being recognized and supported as they re-enter civilian society.
Speakers included Brad Hagen, a psychologist working with veterans, and Wayne King, a veteran himself and service officer with the Royal Canadian Legion Branch No. 4 in Lethbridge.
SACPA says while many Canadians are familiar with the First World War and the Second World War, they are normally less familiar with the other important missions that Canadian military personnel have served in, such as Korea, Rwanda, Bosnia, Namibia, Haiti, Cyprus and Afghanistan.
During the livestreamed talk, Hagen said the men and woman who enlist to serve their country do receive excellent training, and even though they are expected to do difficult things under harsh circumstances, they’re proud to make sacrifices for their country.
He went on to say members of the Canadian Armed Forces usually form strong bonds with their peers, which make them feel like a family.
“They have this tight-knit group that they can get support from, and they have routine,” Hagen stated.
“But, when they come back… that’s when the veterans I work with really struggle.”
Hagen also said that in some cases veterans feel closer to their fellow armed forces members than their own family because of the shared experiences they have in conflict zones.
“I hear a lot of veterans just feel incredibly lonely and cut off, even though they’ve done incredible work overseas,” he said.
“They’ve seen or done things they can’t talk to their own family about, and they can’t talk to people who are civilians.”
Veterans face considerable challenges once they try to transition to life back at home, which can include financial, vocational, emotional, physical and psychological troubles.
Speakers said mental health conditions such as PTSD, anxiety and depression often underlie many of their hardships.
King pointed out that because mental illness is very complex, it can be hard to mentally prepare armed forces members for what they are about to encounter overseas.
He said if people encounter veterans with PTSD, asking questions about killing others and the gruesome nature of the conflict zones they fought in do not help as they can easily trigger bad memories.
King noted that even though there is no ultimate cure for mental illness, it’s still something that can be managed with the right treatment programs, and that’s what the legion wants to remind veterans of.
“It’s my job to identify and seek out all of the veterans in our community, which at times is very difficult because there’s no source of information available to us as to who the veterans are, or what problems they may be facing,” King explained.
He said there are about 1,000 veterans in the Lethbridge area, however, only 300 are registered with veterans’ organizations.
In order for the legion to help connect veterans to supports, it needs those individuals to come forward first.
“There’s a number of things society can do which will help the veteran as much as possible, and one of the things is to recognize the individual as a veteran, thanks them for their service and continue to support the veteran either through contact with their member of Parliament or Veterans Affairs,” King stated.
“The veteran, understandably, feels that nobody cares and they tend to further isolate themselves from family, friends and the community and they often, unfortunately, turn to other solaces like alcohol and drugs.”
King said substance abuse then worsens the situation, which is why it is crucial for support services to identify veterans as early as they can so that the appropriate steps for rehabilitation and transition can be taken.
However, for individuals who are ready for help or awaiting it, the response from Veterans Affairs can often be delayed due to a significant backlog.
As a result of these obstacles faced by veterans during their transition, King explained they can feel inadequately recognized and supported.
He said that over the years, Veterans Affairs has hired more case workers to help with the heavy workload, but the backlog still remains due to the burden of immense paperwork.
Because of the experiences veterans have when it comes to the long delays, King said some may have feelings of resentment and frustration towards the bureaucratic barriers that stand in the way of them receiving timely support.
However, there are some local supports available.
“Some of the programs include the peer support program for OSA — operational stress injury — and it’s not just for the veterans, it’s also for the spouses and family members,” said Glenn Miller, a veteran and public relations person for the Royal Canadian Legion Branch in Lethbridge.
“We do have a combination of both, and our RCMP is also included in that.”
Miller added that the legion provides several volunteer opportunities which can help connect veterans to other people and help them form bonds.
The legion urges any veterans who are looking for support to reach out to them for information on what kinds of programs are available. The centre says it is more than willing to help veterans with their transition back into civilian life.
The legion will also begin selling poppies next Friday, and proceeds go towards programs that help veterans.