Good day. I am providing key points as testimony to assist in the study of mental health and suicide prevention. I draw on 35-plus years of service to Canada with both the reserve force for 16 years and the regular force for 21 years, and with my ongoing efforts to reintegrate into civilian life since being medically released on December 15, 2013.
My views on mental health and specifically suicide prevention flow from having lost a friend who was a reserve officer; my involvement with a veteran of Bosnia who attempted suicide while I was his commanding officer; my experience on Operation Attention, roto 0, in Kabul, Afghanistan, from July 17, 2011 to February 15, 2012; and my ongoing transition struggles.
Preparation and training allows small teams to overcome even unimaginable conditions. Recovery requires similar support systems, which are not yet there for many veterans.
I enrolled as a private soldier in the 26th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, during December 1975. My entire career in uniform has been as a gunner or gunner officer.
From my initial class in military psychology and leadership at the Royal Military College of Canada, I realized that successful leadership required a profound understanding of human desires and fears. The knowledge and experience bestowed upon me by Canada has helped me to better appreciate the words of my grandfather, a veteran of the First World War, with service at the front and in the Home Guard for World War II, and my military mentors, and it has been augmented by the study of Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Viktor Frankl, Toffler, Roméo Dallaire, and Chris Linford.
When the call for testimony to this committee originally went out in 2016, my thoughts were that limited services were available to Canadian Armed Forces veterans from Veterans Affairs Canada to address reserve force mental health suicide prevention, and that both the CAF and VAC could and should be involving veterans in the process of change.
I am recommending the use of a systems approach to the integration of veterans, especially reserve force veterans, in a metric that leverages the existing operational stress injury social support—or OSISS—framework. This requires a modification, a change of attitude, so that we focus away from full-time OSISS coordinators, expand the volunteer opportunities, and stop the budget roller coaster.
Military theory—Sun Tzu, Clausewitz—which has been immortalized by the words of Napoleon Bonaparte, who said that “the moral is to the physical as three to one”, is a guiding principle. When I was in Afghanistan in August of 2011, I injured my right knee. While I was laying on the operating table getting seven stitches with the assistance of morphine, I knew that the injury I had was similar to ones that I had experienced over my career, which should have resulted in two weeks or more on crutches. Those were the medical orders in the past.
When they finished, I was asked if I could bear weight on my leg. I put my game face on and said yes. The reason was that if I had more than two days of light duties—forget about crutches—I would be returned to unit. My unit would have had serious problems. Shortly after I arrived in theatre they changed the operating procedures to prevent travel outside the wire with less than four personnel. Our team consisted of six. We lost one person—RTU—shortly before my injury, and we had another individual go home on compassionate leave for two weeks approximately two weeks after my injury. My team would not have been able to go outside the wire if I had been on light duties or on pain medication that would have precluded my driving.
During 2000-01 as a newly appointed commanding officer I found myself struggling to assist a reserve force officer recently returned from deployment in Bosnia. The system failed then to identify the obvious alcohol abuse symptoms he was exhibiting, and after his attempted suicide, provision of assistance only occurred through his wife's extended health care benefits. During 2012-13 on return from deployment to Afghanistan I felt like a failure and this was repeatedly reinforced as I fell into almost every conceivable crack in the system: no follow-up on a mental health recommendation for OSI assessment; limited, incomplete communication of information to the release base, the reserve unit; financial issues, eight months before pension resolved; access issues for mental health services, wait, wait, and end up bridging through the Canadian Forces member assistance program; and confusion on the medical release process.
I was actually assigned a VAC case manager and then, oops, they realized that I had to go back and wait for the Canadian Armed Forces to sort it out. I didn't get a CAF case manager until 2013. At that point, despite testimony to this committee, JPSU was not identified as an option even though it was very clear that I had recently returned from a deployment. There was confusion at every stage of the disability claim process. I actually had to go to Archives Canada and get them to provide the information because the system had not gotten around to addressing things in a timely manner and the documents went to archives.
A possible way forward is to involve veterans in change management. Warrior Rising, which is a book produced by retired Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Linford, on page 356 highlights, as has other testimony to this committee, including that of retired Lieutenant General Dallaire, that “a highly skilled ill/injured military veteran needs relevant work.”
Since 2012, I have spent a significant amount of time studying what has been done for operational stress injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. There are lessons learned from work, both positive and negative, done by the U.K., the United States, etc. It offers more than a starting point that would entail many years of further study before action is taken, which is what I perceive to be what the Government of Canada is currently looking at doing.
There are post-traumatic stress disorder best practices and knowledge. I make these comments in the context that from 2012 to 2014, as part of my retraining, I completed my master's degree in social work and I became a registered social worker in the province of Ontario. I was able to do that because I had 20 years of experience as a drug education coordinator, and health promotion coordinator, prior to my deployment to Afghanistan. My take-away on this is that veterans have the experience to help if attitudes and full-time limitations can change.
What do I mean by attitude change? Most of the medical priority job opportunities are for full-time positions and the ones that I have looked at require that the individual obtain health provider sign-off that they are stable and will not be triggered. I do not currently satisfy these requirements. I am reading to you from a prepared script because I tend to lose focus and I get triggered by things if I'm not careful.
With the encouragement of my psychologist, I pursued part-time opportunities only to be confronted with failure as my qualifications fell short of Calian criteria for providing mental health assistance to Canadian Armed Forces members. This was despite becoming an authorized Blue Cross provider for social work and being a clinical care manager in 2014, based on my extensive experience as a military officer and a drug education coordinator, working in health promotion with all of the courses and background that I'd taken.
I had a total of one referral over the last three years, and then they cancelled it because they decided that it was inappropriate. That was all I was told.
Over the last three years, I have successfully worked in a volunteer capacity in reserve force mental health suicide prevention. Reserve units are geographically located across Canada. They offer a simple way to connect with many veterans who move away from larger communities. Working with reserve units offers one of the few ways to more appropriately address reserve force mental health challenges.
Although far from perfect, the OSISS framework currently offers a mechanism to connect JPSU transition services to the community. That could be enhanced by the integration of veterans, especially reserve force veterans, and could also benefit by linking to ongoing efforts to help veterans, like the Royal Canadian Legion operational stress injury special section. These are not competing entities; they're part of an overall system.
One of the problems is, if we go back to the budget issues, OSISS puts limits on its coordinators. They're not allowed to take calls after hours, because that would be considered overtime. If you don't have an extended group of volunteers, the March 2017 stop travel, then restart, offers a perfect example of the kind of roller coaster that we get into. The volunteer training course for OSISS volunteers was cancelled because of budget shortfalls, and now we're having to play catch-up, which will cost months.
I'm Jody Mitic, a city councillor here in Ottawa. I was in the military for 20 years, from 1994 to 2014, and was wounded in January 2007. I am an advocate for mental health. Although I was surprisingly cleared by three different professionals to be mentally stable, I think my wife would question it.
I got into politics to advocate for my brothers and sisters. I believe the more of us that are at any table as elected officials will help. I'm lucky right now that my MP is , a former commander of the army.
Overall, mental health is as much a veterans issue as it is a military issue, two different departments with the same goal of having people with mental stability throughout a career that asks a lot of them. When we take a guy off the street or a girl off the street, and put them into basic training, we teach them RICE on day one almost.
Do you guys know RICE? Anyone? Doctor? It's rest, ice, compression, and elevation. If you sprain your ankle, we need you to know that stuff because the medics are busy. Every little scratch can't be something where you run to the doctor and get a band-aid. You have to be able to take care of yourself.
What is RICE for your mind? Anyone? Right. We don't have that in our society overall. This is also a public health issue. I can go down to the Shoppers Drug Mart with a cold, get advice from the pharmacist, and ask, “What medication or home remedy would you recommend?”, and they usually have a pretty good answer. We can't do that for mental health at any level: military, veteran, or civilian.
We have to go back to the drawing board and train our people from day one to deal with mental stress. I believe there was a colonel, he wrote On Killing. I forget his name. He was an American, a green beret. He called it stress inoculation, and a lot of the experts do.
I noticed, in my career, that it was something we didn't do a lot of, specifically to prep mentally. We did a lot of push-ups, chin-ups, running, and target practice, but we didn't really train for the day that we would see our buddy vaporized in front of us by stepping on an IED—
Dave Grossman, yes, there you go—great guy. They're hard books to read, but there's a lot of great information.
The first time you see the insides of a person is when you're on the battlefield. There are ways to train for that. I always quote the show Band of Brothers, where they're crawling through pig guts. We never did anything like that in my entire career. As I said, the first time I zipped up a body bag was the first time I was putting one of my buddies in it.
At the time, you're in combat; you can deal with it. Later on, you reflect on it, but there's no buffer. There's nothing to say this is what you're going to feel, it's normal, and you should be sad. You're not a wussy if you cry because your buddy died, but the attitude at the beginning was that way.
Fast forward to when someone becomes a veteran, as cases have shown.... A friend of mine's father-in-law was a Korean War veteran in his eighties, and suddenly he had PTSD from the war. It shows you that it could take a lifetime for it to expose itself. I may one day have symptoms and have to deal with it. My wife was released medically from the forces for PTSD. She was a medic.
I feel the overall approach needs to be teamwork between DND and VAC to come up with a game plan from the day we enlist someone to the day we bring them into the veteran's house. I don't know what the answer is. I think there are a lot treatments that work for seven out of 10, and then there are those three, and then seven out of 10 of those, and seven out of 10 of those. Whether it's dogs, yoga, virtual reality, MDMA, or whatever other treatments we hear about, they all work for about seven out of 10.
The flip side of that is the support system. I can tell you that Alannah was heavily affected by the DND side, where we went in expecting certain supports, very clearly written out, only to have them either be changed or yanked away or modified without our knowledge. Also, we were made almost to feel like we were having to fight for them. I hate when I talk to my brothers and sisters and they say they're fighting back for this and fighting back for that. It should never be a fight. You should not feel like you're in a scrap when you're going to a department.
We're fortunate as Canada's veterans that we have a whole ministry dedicated to our support. A lot of us feel as though we're fighting with this ministry that's supposed to be there to help us through life. I don't know what the answer to that is either, but I know, when it comes to dealing with the system, that causes a ton of mental stress to a lot of my brothers and sisters, to the point where they just won't....
Recently one of the widows, who was also serving and has a daughter the same age as our oldest, disappeared off social media, stopped returning calls. We found out that something had happened with her Veterans Affairs file, and it had completely shut her down socially. She didn't even want to pick up the phone, because just to call her Veterans Affairs office or the 1-800 number was a trigger, frankly. She just didn't want to have to deal with it.
I don't know what the answers are. I just know that we have a ministry for our support, and we have a lot of veterans feeling that they're fighting with it. I really wish we could change the tone on how that happens.
That's it for me.
My name is Phil MacKinnon. I retired just under a year ago from the Canadian Forces after 26-plus years of service. I joined in 1989 as a private. As a private I was told what to do, where to go, and when to be there. I did my job and would gladly do it again.
As you work your way up through the ranks, you're given more responsibility, but your orders come from higher so you're still told where to go, what to do, and when to be there.
Now I'm retired. No one tells me where to go other than my wife, and I'm not really sure I can repeat where she tells me to go sometimes, but a lot of times, you don't know what to do. When I was in the military, I had a doctor's appointment. It was a parade. I was there. I'm not in the military anymore. I haven't even got a family doctor yet because of the wait-list. I'm in an area that is underserved, so I have no family doctor. I have to try to make appointments to visit either the emergency room or a family medical clinic that will take someone in.
It's the same thing with mental health. When I had an appointment, I was there. For me, speaking to someone like that helped a lot. When my guys went through a traumatic incident, as their supervisor, it was incumbent upon me to ensure that they sought counselling for what was required. It was mandated for us.
My trade was military police. We dealt with a lot of traumatic issues. It could be anything from a very severe domestic to a suicide, what have you. My guys would go, they would do their stuff, and then I would ensure that they saw counselling.
Now I'm that person who's in need and to try to seek counselling, I don't even know where to go. I have talked to a case manager who I recently was in contact with, and she starting to get me on the right track again, but when I was diagnosed in 2006 with PTSD, I went through a lot of counselling, two, sometimes even three times a week. Before that my solace came from a bottle. On an average weekend I would drink two, maybe three 40-ouncers, sometimes a little bit more, depending on how rough a week it was.
I deployed in 2001 to Bosnia on roto 8, where I found out I was actually in a minefield, although it was supposedly cleared by the agencies. In 2003 I ended up on roto 0 in Kabul, Afghanistan, and went back on roto 4 in Kabul, and roto 0 in Kandahar. I finished that tour in 2005.
Prior to that I was deployed on Op Recuperation. I'm sure a few people here probably remember the ice storm. During the ice storm in 1998, I was deploying back home. I was told there was HLVW that had gone off the side of the road, and we needed to do an accident report on it. Okay, not a problem.
There was a whiteout behind us. Before the OPP could get there to close down the highway, my patrol vehicle was hit by a 10-tonne truck from Toronto. I was in the driver's seat. The only thing that saved me was that I couldn't get the damn seatbelt undone. That seatbelt and the vest that I was wearing saved my life. I still have nightmares about it. I still have nightmares about Afghanistan. That's the way it is, but the counsellor who I had down in Halifax—and, God, I wish I could remember her name—was phenomenal, a psychologist. She told me one thing that has always stuck with me. She said, “You'll never get over it, but you'll learn to get through it.”
In 2014, I was posted to Toronto. We couldn't sell our house in North Bay so I went down to Toronto in IR, that is, imposed restriction. I was down there living in a tiny apartment. It was 490 square feet, my entire apartment, and you'd have to step out onto the balcony to change your mind. I was on the 22nd floor. The pain and the mental stress of being away from the family take a toll on a body, but you have nowhere to turn because you don't know who to turn to. When I'd get back to North Bay, I'd seek out my psychologist and talk to him whenever I could. Now, though, for his own medical reasons he's had to retire.
As far as I'm concerned, there needs to be a system in place so that veterans transitioning from the military can be taken on as priority cases. When I was diagnosed I had a lot of problems. I had anger issues, and the last thing you want is a Cape Bretoner with a badge, a bad attitude, PTSD, and nothing to lose. That's just a recipe for disaster.
There needs to be something to allow you to transition from the military, where they're providing your mental health resources, to an civilian system Veterans Affairs can refer you to immediately. If you have a civilian psychologist, you should be able to keep the same individuals. I have friends who have put calls into OSISS and have not received callbacks. They've sent them emails and not received an email back, even acknowledging them. There is a big disconnect and it's a gap that needs to be bridged and needs to be bridged quickly.
I didn't know what to put down or say, so I'm going to wing it. I have prepared a PowerPoint, which has not been translated, but I'll make it available to the committee afterwards. It goes into further detail.
I was looking for a title for this, and I called it “My 14-year Suicide Attempt”.
I grew up in Ontario housing in Markham, Eglinton, and Scarborough, quite poor, with a lot of discipline problems, such as break and enter, and theft. I failed grade 7. They thought I was a bit slow and wanted to send me to a special school, but my mom talked to them to keep me in a regular school. I was a survivor of long-term sexual abuse by a friend of the family.
When I was eight years old, I set our family apartment on fire and narrowly escaped that. I basically shut myself away from age 12 to about age 18, hiding down in the basement and working on an old car. It was my safe spot. I didn't socialize. I didn't date.
Then this thing called YTEP came up, where you could join the military for a year as a reserve and try out the system to see if you liked it and if they liked you. I applied as an aero-engine technician, to follow up on my love of mechanics. There were no openings, so they suggested I take ammunition technician, a trade I knew nothing about. I did. They said that if I did well on my course, there was a very good chance I could remuster or change trades once I had a foot in the door. This was a lie. Ammo tech is one of the few trades you cannot remuster out of. It's the smallest trade in the Canadian Armed Forces, with about 140 strong when I was in.
However, I did enjoy working with explosives. There are two aspects to ammo tech: the supply side and the operational side, the improvised explosive device disposal. I decided to go that route, just due to the interest in it. At that time, IED wasn't a word as familiar to everyone as it is now.
My first posting was at CFAD Rocky Point, out in B.C. As I mentioned, it was a very small trade, and all of a sudden it had an influx of 12 privates, which they don't normally have, so I was sent out to Rocky Point, which had no provisions for privates, no accommodations, and no junior staff. I was put on a naval base, Nelles Block, about 40 kilometres away, in transient quarters for six months, driving to a job with a bunch of old civilian ammunition workers who didn't want to work.
I hated my job. Isolation and depression set in. I arrived there in September 1986, and on December 6, 1986, I wrapped my brand new car around a pole after I had consumed a bottle of cheap navy liquor. At the time, you could drink on the ships for about 25¢ for a beer and 25¢ for a glass of whisky. I started to work on my alcoholism very strongly then.
To counteract this, the military sent me on a three-day life skills course, which is essentially a course to tell you, “Don't do this again or you'll go on a spin dry course.” It tells you to hide it. They kept me away from trouble and B.C. by tasking me and sending me on my trade qualification 5 early, and then immediately posting me to 2 Service Battalion special service force, Petawawa.
Petawawa was an absolute dream. It was all field. I loved it. I thrived in the field position, and I also became a very functional alcoholic, where you can drink until four and run in at six. That was fairly standard in the early nineties' Canadian Armed Forces. I am certain it's changed now.
I became HC improvised explosive disposal-qualified in April 1990. In this, I accomplished my initial goal. To top it off, at the age of 23, I was the youngest IED technician in Canadian history, which is yet to be matched—and it won't, because of the qualifications you need now to get it.
From there, I was posted to the Canadian Forces School of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering in 1991 as an instructor. While there, I was a member of the nuclear, biological, and chemical emergency response team as their explosive engineer. In Borden, in 1991, they found mustard gas Livens containers from World War I. I heard about it, because I was actually in my IED course when they found them, and they didn't know what to do with them. In 1994, when I was a member of the team, they decided they wanted to dispose of them.
The number one was away, so I was called up and I ended up disposing of the mustard gas. Now, the only way to breach these was explosively, so you had to ensure that you used just enough explosives to crack the shell but not crack the burster and contaminate all of Borden with mustard gas. I was contaminated and had to go through full decon. Mustard gas preserves very well. I had seven bars on a CAM, too. Every time I see balsamic vinegar now, which looks identical to mustard gas, I have a panic attack.
My time at Borden was the happiest time in my life. I met my wife. I had three children. My military career was progressing extremely well. I was promoted ahead of my peers. I was socially adjusted to family life and meeting new people. My drinking had become more social, not drink until four and run in at six. It was about family. My quality of life at that point could not have been better.
Then I was posted to Toronto in 1994. I was posted to the Canadian Forces base supply, as a 2IC of the ammo section and was meant to be the supply tech. As I was posted and the message was cut, Toronto announced that it was closing. We had two positions there: a master corporal and a sergeant. They didn't replace the sergeant because they lost the spot. In a small trade like ammo tech, you can't just take another sergeant from somewhere and put them in there.
The assumption was that if it was closing out, a master corporal could close it out. The problem is that there was an also a EOD team there. It was EOD 14, and they needed a chief. I was temporarily promoted to sergeant and sent over to the U.K. to have an advanced IED course and made the chief of EOD centre 14. During that time, notification hit the press that CFB Toronto was closing, which created concern for the community.
Various police forces announced an amnesty period for military-related artifacts. This had the unintended effect of increasing EOD teams by factors of hundreds. I was temporarily promoted to sergeant, as I mentioned. I was unaided until closure, after hundreds of emergency calls, thousands upon thousands of kilometres, often driven with hazardous cargo, such as 10 disposal IEDs, and the most horrifying event of my life, a post-blast investigation involving a young boy.
I was promoted to sergeant as I left Toronto, with an outstanding PER from the base commander, but Toronto closed and so did the fanfare. I lived in Angus, so I drove down every day.
All of a sudden, instead of going to Toronto one day, I went back to Borden, and they made me the explosives safety officer for southwestern Ontario. For the next years, I visited cadet units and militia units and gave briefings on explosives safety. I was living in hotels, driving a rental care, and had lots of money for claims, so I could hide my alcoholism. My days consisted of basically drinking until about three, waking up about noon, getting myself cleaned up, visiting a cadet unit, checking their lockers, doing an inspection, having a few beers with the senior cadet officer, telling some war stories, and then repeating if necessary the next day, until I found the courage to go home because I couldn't face my family anymore.
My drinking increased heavily. By that point, I was alcohol dependent. My weight substantially increased, from my perfect BMI in Toronto to BMI 31,and I was diagnosed with sleep apnea. In 1999, I received a medical category that wouldn't allow me to be unit tasked or operational. No one looked into the circumstances as to why I put that weight on. My symptoms of depression had set in, and my family life was deteriorating. I had worked alone for four years with no support, after an operational spot. I was nowhere near a base to be part of the unit functions and the camaraderie that a base has, be it a bowling afternoon, a beer call, or what have you. No one noticed the changes except my family, and I was away from my family.
After 15 years in, one year as reserve YTEP, I retired from the military on August 12, 2000, with a promotion PER to warrant officer. I was released in the tail end of the last force reduction plan, so there were no questions asked. It was a numbers game. They wanted to get rid of people, and they didn't care how they did it. When I asked for my release, no questions were asked. I was released in less than two weeks from my request. I received a basic physical exam and no mental health observation.
I departed from Canada for Kosovo and started my civilian career of disposing cluster bombs in Kosovo. I then went up to Kurdistan, northern Iraq, and performed humanitarian demining for the United Nations. I attempted to rejoin the Canadian Forces in 2001, and the recruitment centre did not respond. Then, a plane flew into some buildings and that changed everything. I spent the next years in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Amman, Laos, Yemen, Russia, the Balkan states, performing EOD work, mine clearance, and then later high-voltage clearance of the power lines in Iraq, Afghanistan, Tanzania, and Rwanda.
I spent six years in total in Baghdad and two years in Afghanistan as a civilian working outside the wire. I'm being recognized by the United Nations for finding the largest cache of explosives ever in Afghanistan.
Do I have much time?
I'll wrap it up quickly.
I live like there's no tomorrow. I tried to get back with my family and it didn't work, which eventually led to three suicide attempts. The first was in 2010 in Iraq and another in 2013 in Tanzania, which was discovered by my work, which then fired me. I was sent home and at that point, I didn't know I was a veteran. I was in Canada. I had been out of the country for 14 years. I had no idea where to go or what to do, and eventually, I ended up in a hotel room slicing my wrists.
Obviously, I survived that third attempt and then spent a month in the mental health unit. It was there that an intern, who was a reservist, told me that I was a veteran and that's when I started getting help. I've recovered to the point now that, with the help of a service dog, I'm actually starting school in September.
My path through recovery has been long—from January 24, 2014, when I had my last drink. The road to recovery has been outstanding. I have my relationship back with my children. I can be in the same room as my ex-wife with my grandson now. I just want an opportunity to live a normal life and to volunteer and work in my community.
Quickly, these are my recommendations to the Canadian Forces.
There should be an introduction to VAC during basic training. As soon as you qualify for basic training and are released as an honourable discharge, you are a veteran and there's a good chance you may become a client of VAC. Soldiers should be made aware of this. As of 2000, as a sergeant in the Canadian Armed Forces, I didn't know I was a veteran. That's because Afghanistan happened and you only knew you were a veteran if you went to Afghanistan—even someone who was working in Afghanistan under a different uniform.
Mental health exams need to be done prior to enrolment, before selection for specialist trades, after operational task ends, prior to command of an operational team, and before release.
I also have some quick recommendations to VAC.
We don't need more case managers. Case managers need more help. They should have assistants working directly for them who can answer the vets' calls directly—a veteran 911. We have to be treated differently. If you have an episode in an office, you don't call the police and send out three police cars and a paramedic because we are suicidal. I said, “Delay, deny, hope we die and don't finish our claims” and that resulted in a suicide attempt at my house, apparently. That was last October.
Regarding service dog assistants, the studies have been done on the benefits of a service dog. I wouldn't be here today without this dog. The studies have been done. There has been enough supportive information. VAC needs to adopt a program now because dogs will save lives. I have this dog from Audeamus, and Marc Lapointe is in the area. We really need to resource this now. If I didn't have her, I would not be here. I went through some very dark days in the last three years and she's helped me through them.
The last thing is incentives for civilian medical doctors. When you are not a part of the medical community, you come out with nothing. You don't even have a health card. Doctors realize that veterans are a burden to their practice because of the documentation they require for absolutely everything we need, so they won't take us on. There have to be incentives for medical doctors to look after vets.
When I joined, as I said, it was in 1994 and if you had any issue mentally, a different word was used. You were a “wuss”, even if it was physical. I sprained an ankle pretty badly on exercise once and I was told to suck it up. Funny, I don't have ankles anymore, so it's not really an issue. That was a joke, guys.
Voices: Oh, oh!
Mr. Jody Mitic: In centuries past—I'm a geek for history—every warrior class has had its reflective moments, its self-examining moments. If you look at samurais, they practised perfect calligraphy. If you look at the Spartans, they had their mountain where they would go and take their hallucinogenics and things like that. They also had the camaraderie of the march to and from battle.
What we've lost in the western modern military is these moments where we would reflect. Even the monk knights prayed and fasted a lot. It's basically meditation and self-reflection.
I would from day one come up with a system somehow. Maybe we would talk about best practices and we would teach our soldiers that as much as they want to bench press 300 pounds, we need them to spend 20 to 30 minutes a day thinking about how they're going to feel the first time they take a life or the first time a friend of theirs falls in battle. Also, we need to simulate these actions somehow. I know I keep talking about crawling through pig guts, but that's a very visceral training tool to prepare you.
We'd have a gentleman like Joe. Sorry, what did you say you actually go by?
A voice: Don.
Mr. Jody Mitic: Don would set up explosives to simulate artillery coming in on us. That was great. When I was under mortar attack by the Taliban, it kind of felt the same, so I kind of knew that my heart rate would go up and I was prepared for it a little bit.
I think this is where DND has to step up and start from day one with a soldier and train them to deal with mental stress. Also, tell them it's okay to feel scared. It's okay for this. It's okay for that. Rely on your training, because a lot of the tough-guy attitude comes from people saying, “Don't be such a wuss. Suck it up.” That's great in the moment when you're under attack or something, but in training, I believe the mental attitude needs to be fostered that you toughen through repetition. That's a training thing, and that's a budget thing, because that kind of training is expensive. It's also just a concept that we seem to have lost in the last seven years or so.
Frankly, those were my benefits. In that case, to be fair to VAC, it was the DND side, but I hear similar stories from people who are applying to Veterans Affairs as well.
Actually, Alannah had some hearing damage from a mine strike. She applied and was denied immediately, and then she had to appeal. That did its thing, so she got a settlement. Then somebody lost her file, and her case manager was reassigned and she didn't know, so there was this 14-month delay where she was constantly calling the office and not getting anywhere.
She had stressed out enough when I was being messed around with by our case manager in the military. That one was a shock to us, because these are people in uniform who we thought were there to support us. I'm not saying they didn't support us. They did, but not in the spirit in which we would have expected them to treat injured, wounded soldiers.
She is much smarter than I am, so she was able to find her way through the system and deal with the right people. She's also Irish, so when she really gets on a roll, people tend to stand to. Her biggest thing, and my biggest thing, has always been.... As I said in my opening statement, this is a ministry established to help veterans transition into normal life, but so many veterans feel that it's not even worth calling, as in the case of our friend, for fear of receiving negative news or being denied something they expect should be easy-peasy.
I am considered to have my stuff together and to be relatively successful, but any time I have to deal with Veterans Affairs, I get a little uneasy. I look for better things to do, whatever they might be, because I just don't want to deal with, “Well I thought it was this”, and they say, “Well, no, it's not that. It's this”. There are certain benefits you would think are automatic that just aren't.
I was on a committee under former Minister when the last government was in charge, and a lot of it was about cutting the red tape and getting rid of all these forms that have to be repeated, but that's just part of it. It's also about the ease of accessing benefits. Call them entitlements for service or whatever you want to call them, but the spirit of it just doesn't seem to be what a lot of veterans feel it should be.
It all comes down to the word “suicide”.
It's a scary word. I'm not afraid of it. I'm actually quite lucky. I feel like someone who has diabetes, or a heart condition, or a kidney condition and knows it. I have a certain condition where, under the exact correct circumstances, I don't want to live anymore. I avoid those circumstances, such as booze and working overseas, and I work with my therapist on meditation and yoga. That is my treatment to avoid suicide. It's no different from having a heart condition and eating a Baconator every day—you're going to shorten your life.
We have this stigma on the word “suicide”. We have to get rid of that, so that you're not afraid. If you have a suicide ideation or you're thinking about it, you're not thinking about actually doing it. It enters your mind over a long process. Your mind starts playing games with you and starts eliminating the reasons why you should live, on your own.... That fear of coming out and saying, “I just feel down”, without all the cavalry being called in all of a sudden, is the way you balance it, especially if you're doing medicine changes, you're by yourself, and you don't have anyone to talk to. You ride it out, thinking that it's going to get better, and you don't want to call and get everyone wound up again.
When you lose your temper in the Veterans Affairs office I've seen what happens, so you bite your tongue. You try not to get angry about the system, which, as we've all heard, is not just aimed at me. It's a system-wide problem when you can submit a claim in September 2015 and still argue it.... A lot of us joke that they do it on purpose to test us, to see if we actually are injured. When it comes down to that, there is no camaraderie. There is no brotherhood like we had in the forces. It becomes you and an insurance company. I don't see it as VAC; I see it as an insurance company. We all know the word “appeal”, because you're denied the first time.
To go back to the question of suicide, look at the word as not so scary. Everyone in this room is capable of suicide based on the information available to them at the moment they choose to do it. No one is above it. Let's not be scared of it. Let's get some peer support groups and start getting the word out that it's okay to speak about it.