October 9, 2010
From soldiering to the streets
By KATHLEEN HARRIS, QMI Agency
VICTORIA, B.C. — He wore the uniform with pride for 15 years, and never had to fire at the enemy.
But after leaving the military, he battled his own demons and tried to kill himself four times.
Spiralling into depression, alcoholism and self-destruction after he was honourably discharged from the Canadian Forces, Robert Waller spent his post-service years in despair and on the streets.
“For me it was the most difficult thing of my life, and I couldn’t cope,” he says of the transition from military to civilian life. “I never did find my niche after I got out of the service, to this day, and it’s been 20 years now.”
Waller, 60, is among what some estimate to be a legion of thousands of homeless war veterans and ex-CF members. Pushed to the edge by post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions or family breakdown, they endure crushing poverty and ultimately, utter desperation.
Some are debilitated by the psychological scars, or physical wounds, of war. Others couldn’t cope with the abrupt return society after a structured, disciplined life in the Canadian Forces. Some say scant support was there to help them make a successful transition.
“I was kind of disappointed with my country that I wound up there,” Waller says. “But I can’t blame the whole world for what happened to me. Everybody makes twists and turns in their life and I made some bad ones.”
QMI Agency has learned of Second World War veterans who are regular clients of the Salvation Army, an Afghanistan veteran rendered homeless after gambling away a $50,000 disability payment and a former Edmonton peacekeeper who pawned his medals to survive on the street. More than 800 food hampers will be delivered to needy veterans and their families in Calgary alone this year. Across Canada, men and women who once served their country are combing dumpsters and trash cans, lining up at soup kitchens and sleeping in alleys or shelters.
Waller, whose tragic story found a happy ending in Cockrell House shelter for veterans in Victoria, B.C., calls his homeless experience the “worst nightmare” of his life.
“I was scared to death every moment, but then sometimes I couldn’t care less what happened to me,” he said. “My kids were all grown up and I had nothing to live for. I just thought, if death comes, it comes.”
Sitting back from a busy street in suburban Victoria, Cockrell House is less than a kilometre from the Veterans Memorial Parkway. CF veteran Dave Munro helped launch this program — the first of its kind in Canada — to help the homeless and hard-to-house get back on their feet.
“They’ve signed on the dotted line, unlimited liability, and they’re putting their life on the line to do anything for Canada,” he said. “It seems to me that we owe them a term of gratitude. For whatever reason, they’re on the street now and the problems that they have, we can help them recover.”
The project was spearheaded by the local Legion with funding from the federal government, individuals and veteran and regimental groups. Some had been “couch-surfing,” “camping” or roaming the streets for years. Others like Luke Carmichael had been living in the wilderness.
A warrant officer with 10 months to go before he was up for a 20-year service pension, Carmichael was so debilitated by PTSD after his second tour in Cyprus he couldn’t make it through the final stretch. He spent 10 years in the woods, alone with his nightmares, venturing out just once a month to fetch food and supplies in town.
As a paratrooper with the Airborne regiment, Carmichael was on the ground for the “vicious, small war” — and left haunted by the image of a dead Greek soldier, his body bloated by the 105-degree heat. After five months of reintegration at Cockrell House, Carmichael now lives in a modest nearby one-bedroom apartment.
“This wouldn’t be much to most people, but to me it’s heaven,” he says.
Carmichael says there is more support and financial assistance available now than when he left the military feeling hopeless and abandoned, but he still worries about the vets returning from Afghanistan.
“The big bang is coming, believe me. There’s going to be a lot more cases of PTSD in a few years because of the combat,” he says. “Afghanistan is a very, very bad place to be for any soldier.”
A broad network of support has been established in recent years for CF veterans and their families during and after deployments, in addition to services to help transition back to civilian life. Veterans Affairs Canada has launched three projects — in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto — specifically geared to find and help homeless vets, and is partnering with veteran, mental health and community groups to do it.
“The CF population is a very proud population — they pride themselves in self-sufficiency and professionalism and I think, for many of them, to come forward to ask for help in any circumstance can be very difficult,” says VAC’s Vancouver district director Adrienne Alford-Burt.
Many homeless ex-CF say they have benefited from funds now available under the New Veterans Charter passed five years ago. But Canada’s Veterans Ombudsman, retired Col. Pat Stogran, says existing measures aren’t enough. VAC must be more proactive in reaching out to homeless veterans, right across the country, with a national strategy and significant funds to ensure the vets of Kandahar — a mission he calls ‘Canada’s Vietnam’ — don’t wind up on the streets.
Susan Ray, a nursing department professor at the University of Western Ontario, is now conducting a study, possibly the first of its kind, on homeless veterans in Canada to find out how and why some of them wind up on the street. Some common threads are emerging: most have been beaten down by a “domino effect” of multiple stressors: the difficult adjustment to civilian life, marital breakdown, injury, depression or addiction to alcohol or drugs.
She has not yet interviewed any Afghanistan veterans, but notes soldiers often manage initially, then fall apart two, five or 10 years down the road.
“The Afghanistan group we’ll probably see in another five or so years,” she said. “We’re going to see even more homelessness if we don’t start dealing with these issues now.”
Claude Rochon lost two buddies: one in a parachute accident and another in a truck explosion. The former military communications specialist survived, but was eventually medically released due to a serious leg injury.
Feeling bitter and betrayed by the military, he suffered PTSD and drank heavily to cope with internal rage, chronic pain and dark bouts of depression. He became isolated from friends, family and society at large, eventually leading a nomadic existence through the U.S. and Canada.
“I was angry. You go from being recommended for advanced promotions to being told you’re useless,” Rochon says, adding he received little support upon release. “It’s hard to adjust. You knew how to deal with people and knew how things worked in the military. On civilian street you can’t do the same thing and interact in the same way.”
Self-destructive behaviour turned suicidal. He tried to pick fights with hope that drunken bar patrons would kill him. Today, Rochon is on a positive path at Cockrell House, with plans to complete his master’s degree and undergo knee surgery to increase his mobility.
Denys Melanson’s life also changed dramatically when he was pinned under a piece of heavy equipment in the line of duty. The Halifax-based sailor was eventually medically released and went where the work was — from fisheries in BC to the oilsands in Alberta — but found physical tasks increasingly difficult. His marriage broke down and times were very tough, but he never hit the rock bottom of the streets. First through the door at Cockrell House, he says comrades, the military and government all have a duty to care for those in need.
“It’s only fair and honourable if somebody has offered to make that sacrifice, even if they didn’t end up making the full sacrifice,” he says. “It would be the same as a family member. You would check in on them even if they moved away or fell on hard times. You wouldn’t cast them off. We don’t leave our wounded in the field. Why would we leave them on the street?”