It’s time to help our soldiers. Here’s how

Cpl (ret'd) Lionel Desmond with his Wife Shanna and daughter Aaliyah. They all died Tuesday.

If you are concerned about the fate of our soldiers and veterans,
Why?

Because, it does a better job than I ever could – better than I’ve ever heard anyone else do – of articulating the biggest mental health challenge facing soldiers today.

On Tuesday, Canadian army veteran Lionel Desmond,who had served two tours in Afghanistan with the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, died. Police believe he killed himself. Suicide is not uncommon among veterans. Police also believe Desmond murdered his wife, daughter and mother before turning the gun on himself. Murder is very uncommon among veterans.

There is a great deal of talk about what may have caused Desmond to kill himself and his family. PTSD is the prime suspect. But, I suspect it may not be the lone culprit. That’s why you have to read Tribe.

PTSD is not the only problem

PTSD may well have been a factor in Desmond’s death – in fact, if anything contributed to his alleged decision to murder his family, it seems likely to be PTSD and/or an underlying mental illness. But, I suspect he also suffered – along with thousands of other soldiers and veterans – from another unnamed mental health culprit. I’ll call it separation trauma.

Junger does  a great job explaining the phenomenon of separation trauma in Tribe. I’ll try to summarize it, but let me first relate some personal anecdotes.

In 1995, while I was still in uniform as the Executive Assistant to the Base Commander at Canadian Forces Base Toronto, I attended a luncheon at the Canadian Forces College alongside the base commander, college commandant and other senior officers from Toronto and National Defence Headquarters. I was the only one at the table under 40 and the only one below the rank of colonel. During the conversation, in which I mostly listened, the generals chatted casually about the fact “the average Canadian Forces pensioner received three years of pension cheques.”

I was flabbergasted. At the time, it was possible to retire from the military as young as 40 with a pension. It was impossible to remain in the military after age 55. In either scenario, retirees began drawing their military pension immediately. If the average retiree only drew three years of pension, that meant they were only living three years beyond retirement. In other words, the average military pensioner died between 43 and 58. They were talking about my life expectancy.

This card reminds me I used to belong to something important. Also, that I once had hair.

This was before Afghanistan. Before PTSD became a household word. This was during peacetime, in a peacetime military that really didn’t deploy on operations very often.

After lunch, I asked my boss about this on the drive back to the office. He confirmed the information and noted it was one reason the military had created what it called the Second Career Assistance Network to try and help retirees better transition into civilian life. He felt it had likely succeeded at improving the life expectancy somewhat.

When I left the military a couple years later, I paid my outstanding tab at the officers’ mess, turned in all of my uniforms and military gear. My final act was to slide my military ID card out of my wallet and hand it to a clerk who destroyed it. This left a gaping empty slot in my billfold.

I was no longer Captain Towhey. I no longer belonged to this wonderful team, the regimental family that had been my identity for 14 years. I no longer had an immediate kinship with the global fraternity of military brothers in arms who recognized and respected each other wherever and whenever we crossed paths.

Instead, I was a nobody who used to be somebody. To help assuage the loss, the military gave me a “Record of Service Identification” card. It was the same size as my military ID and looked very similar. It was designed to fit into the empty space in my wallet so I wouldn’t have to look at its gaping emptiness every time I bought milk. It would remind me I used to be somebody. It’s still in my wallet today, where it reminds me I once was young and had hair.

It’s difficult to describe the sense of loss I felt when leaving the army

Junger does the best job I’ve yet seen. One day, I was a key member of a team that depended on each individual teammate for success – and survival. We each had a role to play and we were willing to risk our lives, even die, to accomplish the mission and keep our teammates alive. We could do anything. We were the last resort of our nation, of democracy, of civilized society, when worse came to worst. When nothing else worked, they called us for help. And we’d dedicated our lives to responding to that call and succeeding, whatever the impossible task.

Then, I wasn’t.

Human beings have evolved over millennia to be interdependent organisms. We function together, as a tribe. All of our instincts are tuned to support our tribal nature. When disaster strikes, we pull together. There are infinite examples and mountains of evidence of this. Junger explains it clearly and convincingly.

But, modern society is designed to support individualism. We can live, work, play entirely alone. When I was cut out of the military, I was no longer part of it. I was lucky enough to have a job lined up before I left, so I went immediately into another environment. Not as supportive or immersive as the army, but still… I had a new identity. Still, I found the transition difficult.

Now imagine you’re a soldier returning from Afghanistan

Imagine you’ve just left a place where your tribal instincts were turned up to 11. You lived, ate, bathe, slept, exercised, worked, bled and died together with the same mates for a year in the toxic environment of combat. Or, maybe you weren’t even in combat. Maybe, you never even went outside the wire. But, you were still immersed in tribal life, 24/7 for the entire duration. Now, you’re home.

First, you get time off – you change out of your uniform and leave the base, heading out on much-deserved leave. Away from the army. Away from the tribe. You find yourself in a shopping mall, perhaps, standing against the wall – watching the sea of humanity flood past, all around you. People you’ve sworn your life to protect. People who are going a million different directions, for a million different reasons, each on their own. None of them you know. None of them are part of your tribe. You’re connected to no one. Alone. In a room full of people.

Imagine, you’ve been injured – physically or psychologically. Imagine your injury is so bad, you can’t fight in combat again. In Canada, the army is very small and it can’t afford to have anyone serving in uniform who can’t pick up a rifle and fight. That’s a trade-off our society has made: to enjoy the fiscal benefit of a smaller military, we have to require everyone in the military – whether infantryman or cook – to be able to fight. You can’t. So, you’re forcibly retired. Expelled from the tribe.

You’re at home. Alone. No longer one of the tribe. But, hey – it’s not your fault. You’re a hero. You’re a veteran. You’ll get a pension (maybe) so you don’t have to work again (maybe). Even if that happens – and it often doesn’t – it leaves you unemployed. You used to be essential, part of a team of heroes capable of saving society. Now, you’re a patient. A cripple. A charity-case. A burden.

Worse, you will likely have to fight for your benefits. You’ll have to act for yourself – in self-interest. Something, you’ve never done before. You were trained to be selfless – to admire, above all, those acts of self-sacrifice that won medals. Now, to survive, you have to humiliate yourself. To ask for help. To plead. To grovel.

That’s the world our soldiers return to.  And, when we try to help them, we often make it worse. Activists want better benefits – more charity – for our veterans.

What our veterans need is not more charity – they need a purpose. They need to be needed again. They need an opportunity to contribute again to society. They need challenges they can face, by working together for the greater good – again.

Veterans today don’t even have the Legion to belong to. The Royal Canadian Legion is a national organization with standing in government circles. But, in the long years between the Second World War and Afghanistan, it became an old folks club.  It did not adapt to the needs of today’s 20-something veterans. So, instead there are a dozen new advocacy groups speaking on behalf of veterans with specific needs. But, they’re ad hoc, disorganized and disjointed. They’re not a tribe.

Tribe is a must-read for anyone concerned about the mental health of our soldiers.

Our veterans need jobs. They need corporations, agencies, governments to recognize they have enormous leadership, management, problem solving, creative thinking and soft skills that are lacking in the private sector and broader public service.

Our veterans need a place to belong. They need one national advocacy and social group to coordinate their efforts. They need a tribe that welcomes them.

Let’s be the tribe.