Mathieu Belanger for The Globe and Mail
Jean-Philippe Poulin's life with PTSD: How a young veteran hit rock bottom, but rose again
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.
The young war vet almost died three times in Afghanistan but this is not what he mentions first.
"I miss doing extraordinary things," said Jean-Philippe Poulin, who served one tour of duty in Kandahar and now lives in an apartment in Quebec City where he is attending junior college and trying to restart life.
Since a short and tumultuous military career, Mr. Poulin's life has been a succession of crises, mental illness, a suicide attempt and drift. He's 31 and a long way from finding a new purpose.
A native of Sherbrooke, Que., Mr. Poulin first joined the military at 17, spent time as a medic and engineer. He bounced between the reserves and regular forces before leaving to enroll in college courses for civilian law enforcement.
Mr. Poulin's interests merged in 2007 when the armed forces went on a recruitment drive for military police to fill a manpower shortfall. The military also provided him structure. "I was in foster families all my life. I had a pretty hard time as a kid. I needed a family. I needed father figures. I needed discipline. It was an obvious choice," Mr. Poulin said.
He rejoined the military as a reservist and headed into training. By March 2009 he was a corporal in Kandahar where he split his time between front-line work instructing Afghan police and tending to detainees at the base.
On April 13, Trooper Karine Blais died and four soldiers were wounded when insurgents detonated a bomb under her armoured vehicle. It happened to be Mr. Poulin's birthday. "That's when my tour really started, when things started blowing up," Mr. Poulin said.
Mr. Poulin said he was almost shot three times by careless Afghan police. Plus, he didn't trust them. "I slept with my pistol under my pillow," he said. "We were never really sure if they were on our side."
Mr. Poulin found guarding Taliban detainees back at the base also stressful. Overseeing the mundane "douche, pipi, caca" routine of detainees, as he described it, may have been mind-numbing but tensions were also high as infantrymen performing guard duty were often angry at detainees – some of whom they blamed for the deaths of friends like Trooper Blais.
"I think we all struggled with the personal feelings and professional ethics of caring for them. There wasn't a lot of violence toward the Taliban, but it was stressful," he said.
The stress showed on Cpl. Poulin. He got into trouble for giving first aid to a little girl against the orders of his sergeant because he wanted to help. Sometimes he was called on to guard insurgents or civilians who were patients at the base hospital. He described the surreal experience of standing in a room with a wounded Italian soldier who was blown up by an IED with a suspected Taliban in the next stretcher. "We had a child shot through the neck who could only scream. That's all he'd do for the rest of his life," he said. "You're inundated with pain and start to forget what you're supposed to be doing there."
Mr. Poulin had 15 days left in his tour when he was disciplined by a warrant officer for driving a vehicle with emergency lights and sirens at the base when the only urgency was to return the vehicle on time. "I had already been consulting a psychiatrist. I was a nervous wreck. I went to my psychiatrist, who I was already scheduled to see that day, and I basically had a psychotic episode," he said. "I was broken."
He was medicated, signed "a promise not to do anything stupid" form and was escorted back to Canada, he said.
Mr. Poulin spent three more years in the military where he received some treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder before his release in 2012. He enrolled in a transitional program provided by a Canadian Forces insurer and dropped out. He followed his girlfriend, herself a soldier, to Gagetown, NB. On Christmas Eve 2014 the relationship fell apart. He stayed in Gagetown until the summer, taking an apprenticeship in aircraft engineering but it paid only $13 an hour. He could barely afford to live on that, let alone help take care of his young son back in Quebec City. "No matter what I did, it seemed like I was always losing something," he said.
He moved back to Quebec City where the bottom hit. He was broke and alone, and struggling with Veterans Affairs bureaucracy to sort out his next move. Near the end of summer 2015, Mr. Poulin says he became unhinged and disconnected. "I lost it."
He was doing 180 kilometres per hour when the provincial police stopped him. He was sitting on the side of the road in his Chevy Impala, shaking and crying. He wanted to drive into a truck but he hit a police radar trap first. "They saw my veterans card and I told them I was going to kill myself. They took me to a social worker instead of jail," he said.
Mathieu Belanger for The Globe and Mail
Mr. Poulin says Veterans Affairs has set him up with counselling and a regular stipend. He declared bankruptcy and is doing basic courses in Quebec's CEGEP junior college system. He's also back in touch with his 11-year-old son.
"I'm basically getting paid to take care of myself right now," he said. He's not sure what he will do next. Some days he thinks he should be a paramedic, other days a physiotherapist or cabinetmaker. "I think I should probably avoid being too close to suffering," he said. "I think I've done my share of that."
For the first time in years, Mr. Poulin sees room for optimism. It has to get better, he said. There's nowhere else to go.