It was tradition to attend the Remembrance Day service with my mom, and since her passing I am proud that my kids continue to attend the service with me.
My dad, who was a Second World War veteran, never attended the services. He was one of many veterans who returned from the war suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which we hear so much about today.
But other than historical labels of “soldier’s heart,” “shell shock,” and “war neurosis,” it was not understood during his lifetime. My memories of Remembrance Day as a child were getting ready to go to the service with my mom, only to return home to find my dad, as usual, drunk at the kitchen table.
After his war service, his life was one of misery, as he spiraled into alcoholism, which was his medication of choice to repress the horrors that played out in his mind from his war experiences. He was a good, honest and decent man, and he was a good soldier.
However, that was often overshadowed in the throes of his addiction by an ugly and violent person who made the rest of the family’s lives difficult.
He struggled holding down a job and his local legion, the Club 100, was his home away from home. Due to the hyper-masculine environment, which still exists today, within military and para-military organizations, soldiers and first-responders did not talk about their struggles, for fear it was viewed as a sign of weakness.
So there was never any level of open commiseration about war experiences at my dad’s legion.
However, even though the veterans did not speak about the atrocities they experienced, my dad found solace in being with other veterans who understood his need to drown his pain in alcohol.
To this day, I have nothing but respect for my dad and the legions themselves. What little was offered to my dad was often sourced through the legion and today they remain strong advocates for veterans who have to navigate the bureaucracy of Veterans Affairs Canada.
They also took on the issue of PTSD. Today, there is a program called the Veterans Transition Program that supports veterans with operation stress and PTSD, which was initiated in 1999 by UBC psychologists, medical experts and the Legion B.C./Yukon Command.
Funds for these important programs are made possible through the Legion’s annual poppy drive and their other fundraisers. Our local Legion alone raises over $170,000 annually from all of its fundraisers, which goes to support veterans and community organizations.
I was recently informed by Jim MacDonald, past president of our local legion, Branch 88, that 50,000 young Canadians served during the 12-year Afghanistan War and 158 lost their lives.
I personally know one of the veterans from Maple Ridge who asked me to be a reference for him when he was enlisting. Reflecting on my life with my dad and knowing that our society still struggles to properly address mental health issues, I have to admit that I had my reservations, but I did provide it, as he was determined to enlist.
He joined us for a family dinner the week before his departure to Afghanistan, and when I asked him how he was feeling, he said that he felt that he had trained up to be part of a team and that it was his duty to now be in the game and his only hope was that he returned with all of his limbs, as he would rather die than lose limbs.
I still remember the uncomfortable silence, as the potential reality of either sank in with everyone.
Years later, we had a surprise visit from him, as he wanted to show off his lovely wife and two beautiful little girls. As we sat around our kitchen table, I could not help but reflect on the difference between my childhood kitchen table, where my dad’s anger was often vented, and that of these two little girls. Their dad, unlike my dad, had a healthy transition from army to civilian life and would be the source of many happy childhood kitchen table memories, as their dad had the support and did not suffer the effects of PTSD.
Today, the Veterans Transition Program helps to ensure veterans’ needs are met upon leaving the forces, but we still know that many will not reach out for mental health support, due to the stigma associated with it, so more must be done.
It is interesting to note that the program did not get adopted by Veterans Affairs Canada until 2013, four years after the Legion’s leadership.
It still shocks me that veteran organizations, like the legions, have to lobby heavily to ensure veterans’ services remain intact.
Government has an obligation to live up to its commitment to our veterans, otherwise the integrity of the relationship between the state and its soldiers has the potential to be undermined and may discourage those who are willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice —their life— from committing to this important and necessary service to our country.
Within that, PTSD is a reality, it was my dad’s reality, and everything needs to be done to support veterans who are suffering from such, as anything less is a disservice to our veterans and their families. Families who all truly deserve happy memories at their kitchen tables.
Cheryl Ashlie is a former Maple Ridge school trustee, city councillor, constituency assistant and current
citizen of the year.