At first, he says, his boss seemed to brush the problem off, telling him he’d be okay. Capt. Johnston started seeing a psychiatrist, sometimes squeezing in an appointment just before heading off to handle a repatriation. Eventually, he was called in to see the base surgeon and told he was relieved of his post. He physically collapsed, devastated and feeling as though he’d failed.
The mental scars are still there – he gets nauseous when he smells pork burn on a barbecue; sometimes, he’s simply overcome by sorrow – but he’s dealing with his demons. He’s remained in the military and runs a charity, Wounded Warriors, that helps injured soldiers.
His attempts to break down the stigma of mental illness have permeated his unit, whose soldiers are quick to encourage their fellows to seek help if they need it.
“You have a responsibility to your family to make yourself well,” Sgt. Jenkinson said. “There’s no shame in it. And I would argue the exact opposite, that it takes courage to go up to your friend, or to be a friend for somebody when they need you there.”
Soldiers and the people
Afghanistan has given the military the most public attention it’s received in generations, from the mourners lining Highway 401 during repatriation convoys, to the crowds that turn out for Remembrance Day ceremonies, to the central place the war took in our country’s politics.
Filling up his car at a gas station, for instance, Cpl. Easson has been approached by strangers to thank him for his service.
MCpl. Scheepers suggests people separate the work of individual soldiers from the fractious political debate over our country’s participation in the war.
“Although they might not support every mission the Canadian soldier goes to, there is a lot of support for the Canadian soldier. ...It’s not the soldier that chooses those policies to go there, it’s the government,” he says. “I’ve never had any negative connotations from being a Canadian soldier in Canada.”
“Really?” Capt. Johnston interjects. “Different in my day when I started, I’ll tell you that.”
When he first enlisted in the 1970s, anti-war sentiment, fuelled by the American war in Vietnam, was running high. At one point in the late 1980s and early ’90s, MCpl. Burnett adds, soldiers were told not to wear uniforms while travelling from home to the unit, for fear of attracting animosity. But for the most part, people were indifferent to the military’s activities. When he returned home from the Golan Heights, there was no ceremony. Just a quick greeting from his girlfriend and his mother at the airport.
When the shift in attitude came, he said, it was plain to see.
“I was on parade with the regiment in 2008. What really got me was marching down the street and, spontaneously, the crowd would applaud,” he says. “That means something. It caught me by surprise, the recognition.”