Ken Hansen is an independent defence and security analyst and owner of Hansen Maritime Horizons. Retired from the Royal Canadian Navy in 2009 in the rank of commander, he is also a contributor to the security affairs committee for the Royal United Services Institute of Nova Scotia. Amanda Hester is the director of operations at Mindful magazine, a part-time instructor and research assistant at Saint Mary’s University, and has graduate degrees in political science and criminology.
In 2007, after two tours of duty with the Canadian army in Afghanistan, Corporal Lionel Desmond was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Following the normal protocol for such cases, Cpl. Desmond was posted to the euphemistically named Joint Personnel Support Unit at CFB Gagetown in June, 2014; he was released on medical grounds one year later, and he returned to his family in the rural community of Upper Big Tracadie in Nova Scotia.
On Jan. 3, 2017, he killed his wife, daughter and mother before dying by suicide.
Now, three years later, the long-stalled medical inquest into the tragedy is finally set to begin. Matthew Bowes, Nova Scotia’s chief medical examiner, said the inquiry conducted by Justice Warren Zimmer will examine whether there is a “tangible connection between the deaths and the appearance of a failure of policy or practice which if corrected is likely to prevent future deaths of this same type.”
The families involved will surely be grateful for answers at last. But the problem with this inquiry will be its focus on the reactive nature of the post-trauma care system, rather than recognizing that a pro-active perspective is needed – a way to build resilience that stays with service members throughout their careers and into their post-military lives.
The butcher’s bill for Canada’s mission in Afghanistan was much higher than anticipated. Between 2001 and 2014, 158 military and seven civilian members were killed, more than 2,000 were wounded, and of the more than 40,000 who served there, 6,700 are receiving federal support for PTSD. Thousands of others left the Afghan mission voluntarily for “family” or “personal” reasons. What’s more, a 2018 research report by Veterans Affairs shows that both male and female veterans are significantly more likely to die by suicide than the Canadian general population, and that young men are the most at-risk group. Estimates of the monetary costs associated with these statistics vary between $14-billion and $18-billion – but at the highest end, a 2008 Rideau Institute report pegged the number at $28-billion, in an effort to include the costs of psychological care.
Cpl. Desmond was not the first to return from serving in Afghanistan with PTSD, and he will not be the last. Under former general and Canadian chief of the defence staff Rick Hillier’s Universality of Service Policy, many veterans like Cpl. Desmond were transferred out of their original units before being summarily released, dumping them onto the provincial health-care systems and creating an overwhelming demand for scarce services, especially in rural areas.
It should have been obvious before the two-year initial mandate in Afghanistan was up that things were not going well. Gen. Hillier’s bombastic rhetoric about “scumbags” and “detestable murderers” was instrumental in creating a cultural bias against what he saw as defeatist thinking and “weak leadership,” preventing a more realistic appraisal of the mission there. In the face of a new kind of enemy, soldiers were offered an old chestnut: Follow your training, obey your superiors and everything will be okay. While this might be enough to get a soldier through routine days, the reality of modern combat – and the unexpected experiences of loss, grief and trauma that come with it – became permanent wounds.
As Josh Makuch, a Canadian army platoon commander who served in Afghanistan between April and November of 2009, said in a statement broadcast on national radio during Remembrance Day ceremonies: “The military trained us very well for our mission, but the one thing they did not train us for was loss.”
While war is enacted in the moment, the larger context surrounding these moments requires developing the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual capacities to address the human needs of warfare. The frameworks within which we develop it must be comprehensive and reliable. This is not the case in the Canadian military, because as an organization, it would rather cling to antiquated command structures and its traditional approaches to operations.
Indeed, each failure in Afghanistan led only to recommitment to the higher mission and a refusal to look inward. But as revealed by confidential documents published by The Washington Post, leaders involved at the highest levels of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan had no idea what they were trying to accomplish there; it cannot have much been different within the Canadian military’s leadership. The confusion created when leadership insists progress is being made – even as casualties mount – can inspire soldiers to be as bold and radical as possible so as to impress superiors working toward unclear goals, while undermining trust and creating the instability that shock needs to be truly disruptive.
The problem with how PTSD cases are addressed starts at the beginning; traditional military training is not flexible enough to consider and address the multiple outcomes and consequences that arise from tactical scenarios, especially those involving counterinsurgency operations. But including mindfulness training as a framework to provide psycho-emotional resilience for soldiers can bolster a soldier’s toolkit for grappling with the traumatic experiences of loss and dissonance that can come from the demands of war. This would provide a workable and low-cost means for reducing the mental effects when “bad things” happen unexpectedly. Mindfulness training can and is used globally as a treatment method, but it requires foundational and early buy-in because the best outcomes emerge when it is used pro-actively, as seen in pilot programs with U.S. Marine Corps and other foreign military services.
Psychologists working with PTSD-afflicted veterans want the military to “do more” to deal with military suicides. However, committing more resources after-the-fact will not have the same benefit as a pro-active approach to resilience. Our modern-era faith in technology and training is a historical aberration; Mongolia, Japan and China have all included mindfulness awareness practices and mind training in their militaries and warrior classes for centuries. Pre-modern era warriors understood very well that no plan could stand for long against an innovative enemy. Misplaced trust can be a fatal error, both during combat and, as it turns out, long after the clamour of battle has ended.
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