Matthew Scheepers is a well-spoken 28-year-old with dark hair and an understated charisma. He finished a carpentry apprenticeship last spring and frames houses for a living.
Eric Jenkinson, 45, has enjoyed a long career at an information technology company and raised three children in the Toronto suburbs.
Wayne Johnston, an extroverted man with a handlebar moustache, is a former salesman for Toyota.
All three have been to war.
They are members of the Ontario Regiment, a reserve unit based in Oshawa, the industrial city of 150,000 east of Toronto. Its soldiers represent a cross-section of modern Canadian veterans, a group whose identity is shifting with the turnover of the generations.
Captain Johnston, 54, did a tour of duty in Bosnia and later handled the repatriation of fallen soldiers during the war in Afghanistan.
Sergeant Jenkinson and Master Corporal Scheepers served in the deserts there. So did Corporal David Easson, 39, a tall man with a deep, booming voice and a dry sense of humour, and Corporal Mitchell Allems, a boyish 24-year-old with aspirations of becoming a police officer.
Master Corporal Steve Burnett, 44, an amiable supervisor at the local auto plant, was a United Nations peacekeeper in Syria’s Golan Heights in the 1990s.
On a recent Saturday, they sat down with The Globe and Mail at regimental headquarters to talk about reintegrating into civilian life after returning from war, the mental toll of the conflict, and how Afghanistan reshaped the military’s relationship with Canadians.
Joining up and shipping out
A passion for history motivated Cpl. Allems to sign up for the army at age 16. He volunteered for the Afghan mission in part because of national pride – “I wanted to do the big thing” – and in part to broaden his horizons. Save for a holiday in Hawaii, he had never been out of Canada before.
Once deployed to Afghanistan, where he worked as a driver and gunner, Cpl. Allems found an additional motivation as well.
“When I got over there, I realized that my reasons [for going] could be a little bit selfish, but the realities on the ground were, these people do need help,” he says. “That’s really what helped me motivate to push through, and be even more supportive of the mission. Looking first-hand, seeing what we were doing.”
MCpl. Scheepers, for his part, joined somewhat inadvertently when he signed up for a militia co-op to earn high-school credits (it wasn’t until he swore allegiance to the Queen that he realized the program entailed joining the army).
In 2006, he volunteered for the first of two rotations to Afghanistan, and quickly received a baptism by fire. On his first day outside the wire, he was in an armoured personnel carrier, travelling with a convoy. When they approached a police checkpoint, a Toyota Corolla packed with homemade explosives blew up, killing civilians in nearby cars and disabling his vehicle.
While his crew stayed behind with their damaged carrier, the rest of the convoy continued on and drove into an ambush, where insurgents pounded them with mortar fire.
“We had radios and everything, and we could hear what was going on. And I knew it was the rest of my friends out on the convoy that was getting hit,” he says. “I guess it’s easier to leave than to be left behind.”
Later, at Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar City, he came face-to-face with another reality of modern war: The attack was already being reported on CTV.
On one of his last days at Kandahar Air Field in the spring of 2009, Cpl. Easson approached a group of newly arrived troops to ask for a light. Among them was Karine Blais, a raven-haired 21-year-old from the Gaspesie.
The soldiers in the group, on their first tour, asked Cpl. Easson what to expect outside the wire. He left them with a word of advice.
“Don’t worry about anything happening to you,” he said. “Concentrate on what you’re supposed to be doing. If anything happens, react, but don’t lose sleep.”
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.
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.”