He was supposedly the warm-up act. He was Tim Isberg, a singer-songwriter from Fort Macleod, Alberta. And I was supposedly the main event, offering a talk about veterans’ stories, and how I came by them. But, as I sat there waiting for Isberg to finish his set, I was mulling over a problem in my head. I wasn’t quite sure where to start my presentation. Suddenly, I paid attention to what Isberg was singing.
“Listen to the voice,” he sang in a calming sort of way. “Listen to the voice calling me … calling you.”
It’s a little like entering that ride on the midway, you know, the one that’s as dark as the inside of your hat. You can barely make out shapes or forms, but that’s all they are. And it stays that way until you’ve made your way all the way through. I felt a little like that the day I entered what’s known as a dojo in Windsor, Ontario. Not that it was the least bit threatening, just slightly intimidating.
“Welcome to Aikido Canada,” the man in the martial arts robe said. “I’m Kevin Blok.”
“Oh, Chief Instructor Blok?” I confirmed.
“Yes,” he continued. “Take off your shoes and join us.”
At 22, Tim Laidler didn’t have a worry in the world. As a reservist in the 2nd Battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in 2008, he felt confident he could accomplish his eight-month commitment in Afghanistan – guarding supply convoys in Kandahar Province.
This particular day, however, Cpl. Laidler had been assigned an additional task, guarding the gate at Kandahar Airfield. A civilian ambulance approached. He opened its doors for a routine check and was suddenly faced by an Afghan girl of 16. She’d apparently been forced into an arranged marriage and felt her only way out was to set herself on fire, to be saved by the Canadians, or die by her own hand. She died.
“What had the global community come to, that a young girl had resorted to kill herself in front of me?” Laidler asked himself. “I suddenly felt myself disconnect. I felt myself die inside.”
Nearly 30 now and a survivor of post traumatic stress disorder, Laidler spoke to an audience of MPs, senators, active and retired soldiers, and a number of invited guests (myself included) on Tuesday. The 1st Annual Sam Sharpe Breakfast (exploring Veterans’ Mental Health and Wellness) was arranged by Durham MP Erin O’Toole and co-hosted by retired Gen. Romeo Dallaire, now a Canadian senator.
As MP O’Toole described it, the gathering over a breakfast in the Centre Block on Parliament Hill was designed to bring together key advocates trying to help Canadian veterans coping with operational stress injuries (OSI). O’Toole explained that he organized the event in honour of one of the original sufferers of PTSD.
“Col. Sam Sharpe was a Member of Parliament (for Ontario North) who served on the battlefields of the First World War,” O’Toole said last week in the Commons, “before returning to Canada where he took his life struggling with his mental injuries.”
Unlike Uxbridge’s own Col. Sharpe, Tim Laidler found help before harming himself. A former comrade-in-arms recommended he participate in the Veterans’ Transition Program, a research initiative at the University of British Columbia, connecting veterans with other veterans struggling with OSI. At first, Laidler said he resisted saying he didn’t need counsellors telling him what to do. But he learned to open up to his peers and that in turn opened up a brand new career.
“Otherwise,” he said, “I’d have gone off to a little corner of the country and disappeared.”
Laidler is now a Masters student at UBC as well as executive director of the resulting Veterans’ Transition Network. He explained that VTN all started with about a dozen guys in 1999, and has grown to about 400 volunteers whose goal is to launch similar programs across the country by 2015 allowing VTN to one day assist 150 veterans a year. Through his own story, Laidler emphasized that help had come from his community, from his buddies, from his family, but not from either the local or national offices of Veterans’ Affairs Canada.
Laudable for community, I thought, but not for the federal government or its civil service whose job is to help the veterans constituency. Indeed, VAC via the government’s current Veterans’ Charter has in some cases paid veterans lump sums to eliminate them from being a long-term drain on federal pension budgets.
Co-chairing the information breakfast with O’Toole this week, Senator Romeo Dallaire offered his own take on the growing PTSD problem. In 1994, Gen. Dallaire had commanded the United Nations assistance mission in Rwanda. The genocide he witnessed in the African nation became the subject of his 2003 non-fiction book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. The resulting PTSD had forced Dallaire’s release from the Canadian Forces in 2000, when he turned to lecturing and conducting research on conflict resolution.
During the Tuesday morning session, Dallaire lamented that despite the end of the Afghanistan operation last year, Canada “is still taking casualties. Not just the walking wounded,” he said, “but those taking their own lives.”
I asked Dallaire about the elephant in the room at Tuesday’s Sam Sharpe Breakfast. Why wasn’t the body most responsible for veterans’ welfare, Veterans’ Affairs Canada, present and accounted for at the breakfast?
“Canada’s veterans are an unlimited liability… and (caring for them) is a lifelong covenant,” he said.
“What about the Veterans’ Charter?” I asked. “Isn’t paying veterans lump sums instead of living up to that unlimited liability, cutting them out of the system, violating the covenant.”
“We can’t talk about the charter,” he rationalized. “It’s still before Parliament.”
It appears, nearly 100 years after the Ontario Regiment was decimated at Passchendaele, Belgium, sparking Col. Sam Sharpe to take his own life in 1918, that just like it was back in the Uxbridge colonel’s day, the fate of Canada’s veterans lies more in the hands of family, community and fellow soldiers than it does in Veterans’ Affairs Canada, the body most responsible to service that unlimited liability.
Earlier this fall, I challenged students in my college History of Broadcasting course. I asked them to find elderly residents in the GTA to talk about their memories of what is known as “the golden age of radio.” Not surprisingly, some of them went to seniors’ residences to find their sources. Others called on grandparents who had grown up in the 1930s and ’40s to recall the radio broadcasts that shaped their childhood. What I didn’t expect was a history lesson back from my own students. One group played a recording of their interview with an immigrant woman who was 90 years old.
“When I was a girl of 17 in Afghanistan,” the woman on the recording said, “I was never allowed to listen to the radio. It was something only men could hear.”
The first time I went to the local chiropractor’s office, I arrived early and got caught up on some National Geographic stories. Then it was time for my session and I prepared myself with excuses. I expected a barrage of questions, such as, how long had my shoulder been bothering me, what previous treatment had I undergone, and why had I waited so long to deal with it. But that wasn’t the first thing Dr. Peter Begg asked me.
“Where did you get all your research for that Vimy book of yours?” he said.
I had a chance encounter with a member of the Wounded Warriors the other night. I had just completed a presentation about the battle at Vimy Ridge at the Whitby Public Library. On our way out of the library, he gave me an update on plans the group has to take about 30 younger Canadian vets on a bicycle tour of Normandy later this spring. (By the way, they’re doing it entirely on private donations. No government funding.) He recounted a recent exchange between his group and a Veterans Affairs Canada committee reviewing the needs Canada’s latest vets – those returning from Afghanistan. He was encouraging greater support for vets with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Give them time,” the VAC rep apparently said. “They’ll get over it.”
During a college class the other day, I wanted to give my broadcasting students a sense of the power of television as tool of influence in the 20th century. I chose something in their lifetime – the fall of the Berlin Wall – in 1989. That’s when the Western media began covering the activities of dissidents in East Germany, I said. And that sparked the popular uprising that pressured the Communist regime to open crossing points at the Wall. To make sure my students understood the context, I asked if everybody knew the basis of the Cold War.
It was a Saturday in the spring of 2002. A photographer, who been born and raised and in fact had worked most of his professional life for newspapers in and around Cobourg, Ont., got a call from his father. Pete Fisher’s dad told him to keep an eye out for something happening on Highway 401. Four Canadian soldiers’ bodies had just arrived home from Afghanistan and it looked as if there would be a procession along the highway between CFB Trenton and Toronto, where the bodies would officially be released to the families.
“I didn’t know the soldiers’ names,” Fisher wrote later.
There was a day in my parents’ lives that changed everything. It happened in 1941. My father was 19 that September. My mother was a year younger. They both had grown up and gone to school in New York City. But events that day just before Christmas, meant that my mother would see her brother-in-law and her future husband, my father, go off to war. My parents were both U.S.-born and their American president described the change that day indelibly.
“December 7, 1941, is a date which will live in infamy,” Franklin D. Roosevelt said.
Last Saturday night, during a fundraising event at the McLaughlin Armoury, in Oshawa, Ont., I met the mother of Demetrios Diplaros. Her son, a 24-year-old private in the third battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment, was killed on Dec. 5, 2008, when the armoured vehicle in which he was travelling hit an improvised explosive device near Kandahar, Afghanistan. Mrs. Diplaros and I spoke for a few minutes during the event, but mostly I just looked sympathetically into her still hurting face. As our conversation wound up, she thanked me for listening.
“I don’t know what I would have done without the support of friends and the military family,” she said, as she held on to me for dear life.