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On a fateful day in May, 2014, as veterans affairs minister Julian Fantino brushed past her dismissively, an exasperated Jenifer Migneault screamed: “I’m just a vet’s spouse. You’re forgetting us, once more. We’re nothing to you.”
The spontaneous outburst, recorded by TV news cameras, thrust her into the media spotlight and created political fallout that continues to reverberate.
Fantino’s callousness that day was the beginning of the end of his political career; he was soon shuffled out of the ministerial post and went down to defeat in the federal election.
Meanwhile, an all-party Commons committee made a sweeping set of recommendations to help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, including compensation for spouses who act as caregivers. Then the Liberals, in their election platform, promised $300-million in additional help for veterans with PTSD, including $100-million earmarked for the training and support of spouses and family members.
Migneault is cautiously optimistic about the new government’s plans for veterans. “I’ve learned a lot about politics in the past 18 months so I’m enthusiastic, but skeptical until it actually happens.”
Sipping a coffee in the kitchen of her home in Farnham, Que., she marvels at how one chance encounter had such a dramatic impact.
She has also been effective both at helping her husband and other veterans with PTSD. But it has come at quite a price.
Advocacy has become a full-time job – albeit an unpaid one. The calls from other spouses come at all hours, “and I can’t very well say ‘No,’ ” Migneault said. But as a francophone woman who has never been in the military, she is also often treated as an outsider by members of the military and veterans, especially because she speaks frankly and unabashedly about sensitive topics such as suicide, mental illness, sexual dysfunction and medical marijuana.
Claude Rainville left the military in 1998, after a 20-year career as a military traffic technician that took him to more than 70 countries, including Rwanda, Haiti and Syria.
When Jenny Migneault met Rainville in 2001 (they married a year later), neither of them knew he suffered from PTSD. The ex-soldier suffered from mood swings, going from sweet and loving to paranoid and distant, and had trouble holding down a job.
It was not until Rainville decided to return to the Canadian Forces in 2006 that he learned he had been diagnosed with severe depression before he left.
It began to be clear that he was suffering from PTSD. Migneault tried to get him help from Veterans Affairs, including a disability pension. In 2007, after quitting a government job to care for her husband full-time, she testified at a Commons committee about their plight, a raw plea for help.
“When I go back and read that testimony, it sounds exactly like the stories people now tell me every day: The desperation and not knowing where to go for help.”
The couple went through a number of volatile years, fighting constantly, getting to the verge of divorce on many occasions, and dealing with Rainville’s erratic behaviour, up to and including suicide attempts.
Each bit of progress seemed to be offset by setbacks.
When the federal government introduced a new Veterans’ Charter, including offering wounded veterans a lump-sum payment instead of a monthly pension, they jumped at the chance.
The couple took the money and invested it in a store. It was a monumental failure, financially and otherwise. Working seven days a week was too much for Rainville, and his condition grew worse. Migneault was burned out.
Looking around her cozy home on the banks of the Yamaska River, she is wistful. “This house reminds me of a time when we both had full-time jobs. Today, we have trouble keeping food in the fridge.”
To relieve her stress, Migneault turned to writing, mostly sharing her feelings with friends on Facebook.
Late one night in November, 2013, Migneault decided to unburden herself by writing an “open letter” to no one in particular, talking about how, because of PTSD, the family would be painfully alone at Christmas. (By this point, Rainville’s paranoia and erratic behaviour meant they had ceased having a social life, and were holed up in their home.)
One of Migneault’s Facebook friends shared the post with a journalist in Gatineau, Que., and she soon found herself on the radio, telling her story. That, in turn, led to an appearance on local TV.
At the time, two issues were really heating up on Parliament Hill: The Conservative government’s treatment of veterans and the growing burden of PTSD in the military.
Eloquent, passionate, francophone and talking about the impact of PTSD on families, Migneault brought some new elements to the discussion.
The Opposition New Democrats invited her to speak at a press conference on Parliament Hill, and then to listen to Julian Fantino address the Veterans’ Affairs committee.
“As I listened to his testimony, it felt like a series of punches to my face,” Migneault recalls. “He talked about service dogs, and finding volunteers to help veterans fill out forms and he made me feel, as a spouse, that I didn’t exist.”
When the minister left, she pounced.
Within hours, Migneault was beset with requests for media interviews. It was, she said, frightening and exhausting.
But, along the way, she found a voice and a purpose. “I’ve gone from being a spouse to Claude to being an advocate for all veterans,” she said.
Migneault met personally with 160 members of Parliament to lobby for caregiver support, and she has made important alliances with veterans’ groups, bringing family needs into the conversation.
But she has no formal support or organization. When the couple travel to events to speak about the plight of veterans of PTSD, they sometimes sleep in the car because they can’t afford a hotel room.
Migneault was approached to run for the New Democrats in the federal election, but refused.
“First and foremost, I’m still a spouse caring for my sick husband. I would love to work, but I can’t. That’s the point of all this,” Migneault said.
Rainville, soft-spoken and smiling, doesn’t look sick. But he easily loses his train of thought when speaking. He also suffers from tinnitus, a persistent ringing in the ears.
But the real challenge with PTSD is that it is unpredictable. He can, from one moment to the next, be consumed by his nightmares, believe he is in combat, or become suicidal.
Paranoia is also a common symptom. For a time, Rainville believed that he was under surveillance and can become highly agitated when encountering strangers. Migneault said that means she has to be around almost 24/7, to stave off downward spirals.
Rainville, for his part, said his spouse’s advocacy has been transformative. “For the first time, I’ve understood and accepted that I’m wounded, and I understand the impact of PTSD on my family and on Jenny. That’s helping me heal.”
He said it’s been tough to have the intimate details of his life discussed so publicly, but “if this is going to help other veterans like me, that’s okay.”
Migneault said she has mixed feelings about Fantino. “On a personal level, I owe him a lot: That encounter opened a lot of doors for me,” she said wryly.
“But, as a politician, as a minister, he was a failure. He was not worthy of the public’s support.”
Migneault said that while she has no regrets, she does have some ambivalence. While being listened to is nice, Migneault recognizes that promises have yet to be enacted and she is acutely aware that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of other veterans and their families who need help.
“People flatter me: They say I’ve had a dramatic political impact. But you know what? Nothing has really changed in my life. Claude is still wounded. I still have to care for him. That’s not victory.
“The only true victory would be no more PTSD, no more suicides, no more Jenny Migneaults.”
Are you a military family with a similar story? E-mail reporter Renata D’Aliesio at RDaliesio@globeandmail.com as she continues to bring attention to this important issueReport Typo/Error