Native of the Côte-Nord region (North-Eastern Quebec), he has 13 years of experience as a Vandoo and took part to 2 missions in Afghanistan. In 2013, to save what was left of his 18 years of marriage (from which 2 children, then 9 and 14, were born), he changes his career. In June of that year, he gets posted in Comox (with a one-month only notice) to become a driver. Dramatic turn of events, his wife changes her mind: the children and herself won’t come along.
In Valcartier, he started getting professional help after admitting that he “isn’t doing too well”. He is aware that the end of his marriage and the physical distance from his children will leave psychological, organizational and financial damage, but being far from his children is what hurts him most.
In any way he can, he tries to reverse the decision. With barely a month to get prepared, in the middle of all the emotional conflict, time goes by too fast.
He formally asks for a compassionate posting (an assignment under personal motives) in order to set his family situation straight. He indicates his weakening mental state. His master warrant officer does his best to keep him: “You’re a good soldier, I don’t wanna lose you,” he says. The request contains two attached documents: a letter from his social worker in Valcartier, and a CoC recommending that the decision to relocate him in Comox be reversed, since he didn’t meet all criteria for a compassionate posting.
A replacement, the soldier says, had even been found.
“An unfortunate, but not unusual situation,” as the career manager puts it in his reply letter. No mention is made of the recommendations to support the man’s already ongoing suffering.
The soldier counterattacks with a liberation request. He prefers getting out of the CAF than be separated from his children. He is met with a refusal because he must first complete his trade training (QL5).
Suck it up, Buttercup.
August 2013, in Comox, marks the start of a new phase to his suffering.
He stays over 6 months in the barracks. In his single room, without a television and the microwave in the closet, he bitterly reflects on the end of his marriage (that had survived since his return from Afghanistan) and on the painful separation from his children. Six longs months of darkness.
To make it even worst, he doesn’t speak a word of English! There is no way for him to socialize, and everyone’s endless “Do you understand?” make him feel stupid. He told me how once, when a warrant officer was talking to him, he hadn’t understood a single word and only laughed when he laughed. “You can imagine how bad I felt,” he adds.
No, he doesn’t understand.
The shock of change is already big. To switch from French to English is one thing, but to switch from the infantry base to an air force base is another. “Absolutely different!” am I told unanimously.
He takes English classes for six months. From the military system’s point of view, he is successful. But nobody knows the price –his price– of that administrative success, in his tiny, secluded room. In addition, the few Francophones with whom he has become friends are verbally shut off: “It’s English here. You will not speak French, including during your breaks.”
In December 2013, his ex-wife notices he’s not doing well. He cries a lot. The children move in with their father of their own accord. It’s because of them that he was able to get a PMQ in February 2014. His children are the one to get him out of his little room where he had been living cut off from the rest of the world.
Months go by. Even though he is able to meet the kids’ basic needs and, thankfully, they are doing well in English, all the other issues are heavy on his shoulders. They miss their mother and move back to Quebec in August 2014.
Alone in his now empty PMQ, he turns to alcohol and deals with anxiety and paranoia… and flashbacks of Afghanistan will not stop resurfacing. In 2014, he is finally diagnosed with a PTSD.
And above all, he receives no services in French. Papers, communications… everything is in English. He hardly understands what they say.
We’re in 2016 now. Two years later, what’s become of him?
He can’t drive since June. He spent every last ounce of energy trying his best.
A few weeks ago, his girlfriend contacted me from Valcartier where she lives: she was the one fighting for him because he had given up. Having lost her own husband in the military (and the father of her children) to suicide some years ago, she was desperately looking for a way to help him. She, along with the soldier’s parents, feared he would take his own life.
She bought an airplane ticket from Valcartier to be by his side and help him (to Comox!). They had to make sense of his papers, identify everything that would be pertinent to allow me to draw the administrative portrait of what he had been through since 2013: PR, any sent memos and replies, evaluations, reports. Unsurprisingly, the 22, alone in Comox, was striken with anxiety attacks just by thinking about organizing these papers.
“You’ll go back to YOUR OWN brothers in arms, to YOUR colors, YOUR world, in YOUR language and, especially, to YOUR family,” I told him the first time we talked. “I don’t believe it anymore,” he said, resigned.
Only when I found myself sitting at his kitchen table, in front of the mountain of papers, did I understand the source of his despair: that man had tried everything to make his voice heard. Memos in French translated by superiors (I’d even go as far as to say “adapted”) “so that everything is more understandable”. His memos are sent back, he is asked to work on them again… not to mention that the reports and the evaluations all point in the same direction. Regardless of the fact that everybody agrees that he is immensely motivated and determined to “cope” all the while seeing his distress, it seems they are all powerless to help him.
Except, of course, a system “that loves him” and that wants to help him. His recovery must be done through services determined by the decision-makers that have absolute control over him. For 2 years, he tried everything to express that what he needs the most is to go back to his brotherhood and family, in French. Yes, he needs first and foremost services in French. But in British Columbia, deeply isolated and far from all significant ones, these services will never be efficient.
“The psychologist scolds me for not socializing but I don’t speak English! What the fuck do you want me to do?” he rages.
I indeed had the opportunity to hear him interact in his second language: his English is “acceptable”. Considering he did not speak a word when he arrived in 2013, went through a breakup and through isolation on several important levels (language, uniform color, etc.), I am astounded by how fast he proved he could learn. At the same time, however, I can attest it’s impossible for him to “go deeper” in any subject, not for lack of interest. Additionally, his accent is so strong people regularly struggle to understand him and ask him to repeat.
Through the conversations, he opens up to me more and more. He tells me of “his” Afghanistan, of a brother in arm that he lost during an exercise in Wainwright, of an explosion that almost killed him, of a little girl that had stepped on a mine and that he had carried to safety… and, often, of his best friend, that did not want to go on patrol but that he persuaded to go “because you’ll be done with it” and that, ultimately, never came back… He shares with me moments in which he lost it to anger or paranoia.
Because he is unable to talk about it to the psychologist, it stays trapped inside of him. At the same time, I realize all these “specialists” still don’t know about him after all this time. When he dares talk about his need to go back to Valcartier, he is kindly reminded that “that is the future and we must work on today’s happiness.” To do so, he has to fill a daily piece of paper with the number of coffees and alcoholic drinks he took, the number of sleep hours he got…
How is it that all these people –including his own specialists, with whom he can’t communicate clearly!– have ignored with a smile his need for services in French? Knowing he was alone, on the other side of the country?
Suck it up, Buttercup.
While the paperwork attests of his countless effort to make himself understood –both in English and in French– in front of a language barrier, his stranglehold is what leaves me most horrified.
First, while his colleagues are required to do it only once a week (and can do it with civilian clothes on), he is under the obligation to be in uniform to sign a daily attendance sheet at the JPSU. He sees nobody. « You’re still a military and you are now paid to come everyday. You’ll dress up, shave and show us how proud you are,” he was told. He is literally kept hostage at his own home. And no one asked if having to wear his combat uniform was helping him or not.
He is seen by English-speaking specialists (one social worker, two doctors and one psychologist). Recently, when he asked two of them to write him a letter acknowledging that returning to Valcartier would greatly help his recovery (why keep him in Comox if he can’t work?... if his knowledge of English was insufficient to earn him proper treatment?... if he is profoundly isolated?), he was told that they had not received permission to do so by the very same person (would you look at that). These contractors, hired by the military base, obey to an employer, so all is like a big Band-Aid hiding a real problem whose solution falls under the CAF. Above all, work is done, not for the man but for the machine, contributing to keeping this man in the dark.
One of them, sincerely sorry, even showed him the letter she wrote, but she also had to explain that she had to show it beforehand to Whom-It-Concerns and quite evidently, the letter did not pass the test because she could not give it to him.
Suck it up, Buttercup: look at how great a service we’re giving you!
Look, Ottawa, how good we are, here, in Comox!
Nobody seems to notice the sadness behind his eyes when he whispers: “Now, my children talk to me like I was a stranger.” His children are still his main motivation, his raison d’être. He loves them. He wants to be there. He feels as if he is losing them, he can hear it in the way they speak to him. Nobody considers his right to services in French, in spite of all his efforts. When he tells me that his plan was finished, that the rope had been installed and that he had been close to kick the step under his feet, I want to know who it is that’s keeping hostage a Vandoo that shouldn’t be there anymore
And, in fact, who is it that wants to shield his own butt, using a vulnerable soldier isolated by language?
I would like Ottawa to use this case and investigate in Comox. Generally, cases are not exceptional. By speaking with soldiers from one place, it’s usually the same names, the same patterns that come up. The same way of doing things… and there would be other French-speaking soldiers discriminated against by the system. How many are in his situation?
And most of all, why? The questions are worth being asked: is it because the “PTSD struggle” is not understood the same way on a flight base ( an air force base) ? Is it to protect a career and show Ottawa everything is in order and under control… when it is clearly not the case? or Is moving him back to Quebec too expensive?
In this case, he got around Comox: I’ve put him in contact with Ottawa directly.
In a first call, after asking the usual questions, he was told he would be called back the following day –which is how it went. The person told him his case would be re-evaluated and that a follow-up would be done the next Friday (3 days later).
When emails from Ottawa started to be sent to Comox, the next day, the personnel greeted him, all smiles and warm feelings: he was offered to work on planting trees on the base (as a bonus: in civilian clothes!) 4 hours a day. (Note: he had been injured on the back in Afghanistan and he is pensioned for it.) As a super bonus, he is offered more English classes to improve his communication skills (he is already drained by his non-treated PTSD, he has to go to the JSPU daily, and he must try to open up in English twice a week to specialists… can’t we give him a break?), he is reminded about available taichi classes… In summary, in panic mode, they try to keep him in Comox by making him see “all the services are there for him”.
I still can't believe it.
Said Friday, he learns of the good news in a recorded message: he is transferred to Valcartier… on October 17th.
I was there when he heard the message. The news slowly sank in. There is no mistake that he was in shock.
He then has one month left to finish the administrative process that will lead him there. A month is short when your world has crumbled and everything became rapidly complicated in your head… I promised him I would not let go until his departure: he needs someone that speaks English to help him every step along the way and make sure everything goes accordingly to plan, as much as possible. He is worn down by stress and it makes the information far more difficult to comprehend.
And while he shed tears of relief when he learned he would go back, his eyes are still heavy with sorrow when he reminds me that: “Now, my children speak to me like I was a stranger.” He knows more challenges await.
Valcartier, one of your yours is finally coming home. In my opinion, we almost lost him.