This article is part of The Unremembered, a Globe and Mail investigation into soldiers and veterans who died by suicide after deployment during the Afghanistan mission.
Tech-generation soldiers aren't finding Royal Canadian Legion halls nearly so inviting as their predecessors did. What today's fighting men and women value more than a place to socialize over low-price beer is connecting with their brethren online. Social media has become the new Legion.
It's a critical shift in the battle for the mental well-being of our soldiers. Many lucky enough to have survived the brutal conflict in Afghanistan have been unlucky enough to come home with post-traumatic stress disorder. Many of these soldiers have been getting real-time help online, with information passed along by veterans who have been down a similar path.
At least three times a week from her apartment in Victoria, Dana Batho serves as an online administrator for Send Up the Count. She handles Facebook messages and directs Canadian soldiers wondering what to do and where to turn. The Facebook group is named for a military phrase, when soldiers must number off so their commanding officer knows if anyone is missing.
"[SUTC] began with a simple idea: Call a buddy. Find out how he's doing. And if he needs help, find out where he can get it," said Ms. Batho, who suffered from a neck injury in 2012 while training for Afghanistan. (She has been medically released by the Canadian Armed Forces and is now fighting for her health benefits.)
The online group offers quick, direct access to someone who has shared those worries and can ease some stress until the right professional connection is made.
"What we are is a generationally relevant way for veterans to communicate with each other," explained Sargent Brian Harding, SUTC co-founder, reservist with the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, and an RCMP officer in Whitehorse. "The nature of socializing, the way that humans socialize in our society, has changed. The advent of online social media has made it easy."
SUTC is one of the most used social-media outlets, with over 9,500 members, but it's far from the only one. Military Minds is a website and Facebook group that links the afflicted and their families to the right agency and raises funds for vets in Canada, the United States, Australia and Great Britain. It's managed by Scott Casey, a former United Nations peacekeeper who served in the former Yugoslavia. Military Minds has a working relationship with Sheepdog Lodge, a back-to-the-basics log cabin north of Ponoka, Alta., that treats PTSD by taking away smartphones, laptops, TVs – anything that distracts from relaxation. "When guests come here they get a real-life, calm perspective," Allan Russell said, the Sheepdog co-founder is also a firefighter and EMT worker.
Another resource is the Veteran Well-Being Network, which was started in 2013 by Colonel Brock Millman of 31 Brigade Group in southwestern Ontario. It is considered a model in the peer-support community. At first a regionally focused Facebook group, more like it have sprung up across the country and all assist in everything from in-person suicide interventions to helping soldiers pack up and move to a new location.
Also available is Wounded Warriors Canada, a non-profit, independent veterans charity focused on mental-health initiatives. Its executive director, Scott Maxwell, said its Facebook page has drawn more than 123,000 users with 73 per cent coming in as new visitors.
When SUTC opened its cyber-doors for business three years ago, it drew 9,000 visitors in just a few weeks. Most of them sought relief from PTSD and have become recurring members, some even reaching out offline to meet and converse with other sufferers. More online users are expected since there are likely still Canadian troops who have returned from Afghanistan harbouring fears of stepping on land mines or seeing a friend blown to bits.
Sgt. Harding, Sgt. Jordan Irvine and Sgt. Dan McInnis founded SUTC shortly after four Canadian soldiers had taken their lives over eight days in late in 2013. SUTC offers veterans an apolitical forum where anyone can post a comment without fear of embarrassment or reprisal.
"We're not the experts on medical releases from the military," said Sgt. Harding. "But in the span of 20 seconds I can send out a link to the people who are. … We're all networked together."
In its 90th year, the Legion, with its 300,000 members in 1,400 branches, continues to offer top-ranked programs. But newer groups with a social-media presence have joined the front line.
In this war for well-being, those in need have taken on the charge.
"It's not been just one group, one body that's changed things," said Mr. Maxwell of Wounded Warriors. "It's been the 100 per cent buy-in by the veterans. It's been their willingness to take it upon themselves to access information and help communicate it. Facebook is the perfect tool for that."
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