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Master Corporal Matthew Scheepers at the Oshawa Armoury: ‘There’s a certain simplicity in only having to worry about staying alive, and your buddies around you.’ ,” at the Oshawa Armoury in Oshawa on Saturday November 3, 2012. Photo by Chris Young for The Globe and Mail (Chris Young For The Globe and Mail)
Master Corporal Matthew Scheepers at the Oshawa Armoury: ‘There’s a certain simplicity in only having to worry about staying alive, and your buddies around you.’ ,” at the Oshawa Armoury in Oshawa on Saturday November 3, 2012. Photo by Chris Young for The Globe and Mail (Chris Young For The Globe and Mail)

Canadian veterans reflect on life after war Add to ...

Two weeks later, Cpl. Easson landed in Ottawa, where his unit’s commander picked him up. Driving along Highway 401, they noticed people gathering on the ramps, and the officer remarked that a fallen soldier’s convoy was a half-hour behind them.

When Cpl. Easson arrived at his parents’ home, he borrowed his mother’s car and drove back to the road, arriving in time for the procession. It wasn’t until later that he learned the soldier was Cpl. Blais, whose armoured vehicle hit a roadside bomb northeast of Kandahar City.

“It was kind of surreal,” Cpl. Easson says. “I’ll never forget it for the rest of my life. Pretty much every Remembrance Day, that’s who I remember.”

Going back to civilian life

When Sgt. Jenkinson returned from Afghanistan in December of 2010, the Chief of the Defence Staff greeted him and fellow soldiers at the Ottawa airport, and he caught a ride home with two members of his unit. There were tears and hugs when his wife answered the door.

Then followed weeks of decompression. Sgt. Jenkinson had put his usual line of work – computer consulting – out of his mind during his tour, and needed time before he went back to it. It also took time before he could talk to his wife about the worst aspects of war: On one occasion, he had tried unsuccessfully to save the life of a mortally wounded Afghan child.

“As a parent of a child pretty much the same age, it first hits you as a parent, it hits you as a human being,” he says.

Both of MCpl. Scheepers’ returns began joyously. The first involved beers in the armoury mess. The second time, his friends picked him up and spent the night partying. The next month was full of reunions with friends and family.

But the upbeat mood was tempered by the realization fellow members of his unit were still in harm’s way, thousands of kilometres overseas. He spent more than a year trying to find his place in the civilian world. And despite the times he missed home while in Afghanistan, the mundanity of day-to-day life sometimes made him wish he was back on the front lines.

“There’s a certain simplicity in only having to worry about staying alive, and your buddies around you,” he says. “Whereas back home, it’s like: ‘Ah jeez, I gotta file my taxes, I gotta take the car in.’ All these responsibilities and things that you could just forget about because they weren’t important when you were there.”

For Sgt. Jenkinson, both his service and transition back to everyday life were helped by his job, which eased him slowly into work when he returned, and by his wife, who was left alone to care for their youngest child while he was away.

“If it wasn’t for a strong relationship with my wife, and her support, and all the families…we couldn’t do it,” he says. “While you’re there, you can’t worry about…whether the garbage is out. You have to worry about what’s there, what’s immediately in front of you.”

Since he came back, he’s been open in discussing his experiences with her: The journals he kept in Afghanistan, for instance, are available for her to go through. Sgt. Jenkinson has never reread them.

The psychological toll

Capt. Johnston had been working as a repatriation officer for more than a year when the mental cost of the conflict came into sharp relief. Attending every repatriation ceremony, meeting grieving families, posthumously getting to know every one of the country’s dead soldiers – it was enough that he took to drinking Nyquil to get to sleep.

One day around Christmas, he found himself at home, staring at the television, when his wife asked if he was all right. He started to cry.

“I’m getting tired of bringing these babies home,” he told her.

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