A battlefield of the mind
Some veterans of earlier wars are still suffering for
the service they gave to Canada
By Ashley Demers
JUNE OF 1944, Flight Lt. Randell Mckay and his crew experienced one of the most terrifying moments of their lives. Following a bombing mission over Germany, they were attacked twice.
During the second attack, flames erupted from the starboard engine of their Lancaster bomber.
As pilot, Mckay was presented with a choice: he could push on and risk fiery death, or attempt an emergency landing at Royal Air Force Woodbridge. He chose the latter, and the landing was going well – until touchdown, when he discovered his starboard landing gear had been shot away. The plane veered to the right, and into another Lancaster, which was carrying 5,000 pounds of bombs.
He has no memories of the crash, but he does remember waking up on the cement, and hearing warnings screamed over the loudspeaker. Many of his crewmembers lay bleeding on the tarmac. Somehow, no one was killed.
Experiences like that leave thousands of Canadian veterans suffering for their country – mentally and physically – years after the guns fall silent. Although Veteran’s Affairs was set up to help those who serve, it cannot get involved unless a veteran or family member asks for help.
‘Admitting my struggle will make it seem
like I can’t handle what’s in my head’
The long-term consequences of military service were not well known until Gulf War veterans began complaining about post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in the 1980s and ’90s. Physical injury was considered honourable, but depression and anxiety were not. Veterans who showed signs of mental illness were often called weak or inexperienced, or cowardly. That stereotype has prevented veterans of all ages from seeking help.
Mckay, 94, is an example. He came back from Europe more than 70 years ago, but he still suffers from PTSD.
Mckay is not his real name. As an author of several successful non-fiction books, even today he worries that admitting to PTSD might influence his readers’ opinions of him. Two of his three books are autobiographies, but he doesn’t mention his PTSD in either. He does not want to be called untruthful, and he doesn’t want people to shy away from him. His wife, Jean, has agreed to let her first name be used.
He enlisted at 18 in 1941, and returned after the Nazi surrender in 1945. Though his time in the military was brief, it had a lasting effect on him – and on Jean.
She has woken up in the middle of the night to find him in the kitchen or the living room, sleepwalking.
She has witnessed violent outbursts, with Mckay suffering combat flashbacks.
In the early years after the war, kitchen knives and meat mallets had to be kept in locked drawers. Weapons were banned from entering the home.
Mckay began writing in the early 1970s, and published his first book in 1978. His autobiographies came shortly after. The process of releasing memories through writing took some of the pressure off him, Jean says, but he still has occasional flashbacks.
PTSD is difficult to manage without support. In Mckay’s case, only a few close family members and friends know about the mental trauma that he has suffered. He doesn’t remember the year he was diagnosed, but he says it wasn’t until several years after his return to Canada.
For a while, he was getting help, but when his therapist died, he didn’t find another one.
“Admitting my struggle will make it seem like I can’t handle what’s in my head,” he says. “I don’t want to come off like that to people. That’s not the impression I want to give.”
It’s common for veterans to withdraw when dealing with any form of post-service trauma, says former Veteran’s Affairs officer Frank Emond. Mental health injuries are the most difficult to overcome.
In many cases, encouraging a veteran to come forward for help is the most difficult part of their rehabilitation, says Emond, who spent 39 years serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force.
In his final years with the RCAF, he took up a posting with Veteran’s Affairs, at the time the youngest appointee ever.
After his retirement from Veteran’s Affairs, he became a services manager for the Integrated Personnel Support Centre, which helps to rehabilitate military personnel and their families. The centre is government funded, and provides immediate counselling and medical referrals for both mental and physical injuries.
Jean says she has tried to get her husband to visit the support centre, but he won’t go.
‘They’d act tough because they didn’t
want to be called otherwise’
With an increased public awareness of mental health issues, struggling veterans are starting to reach out for help. The ideal, says Emond, is to decrease the number of people suffering from mental illness, and bring suicide rates down. Yet suicide numbers and overall rates of anxiety a depression remain high.
Veteran’s Affairs estimates one in 20 combat veterans will experience post-traumatic stress. Statistics for PTSD among Second World War veterans are unknown because of the social stigma among people of that generation. However, Emond says, the number of sufferers is high among Afghan veterans. One in 10 have experienced PTSD since returning, despite extensive counselling and multiple programs available; it is unknown why.
“Most veterans don’t want negative attention on them,” Emond says. “It’s mostly association with ideas of the past. Boys used to be excited to grow up and go off to war. Then they’d realize it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. They’d act tough because they didn’t want to be called otherwise.”
Mckay is one of those boys. Rather than seek professional help, he represses the past. His living room walls are free of military memorabilia, aside from a 214 Squadron crest. Even his Distinguished Flying Cross, and his Chevalier of the French Legion d’honneur are packed in a box under the guest bedroom bed, Jean says.
“He gets it through his head that if he asks for help then he’s making a big deal of himself,” she says. “He thinks he’ll come across as a lineshooter.”
She uses the Second World War-era slang for a loud or boastful person. The term still resonates with many veterans of all ages, and it often defines an attitude that keeps them silent.
Veterans need to be made aware that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness or egotism, Emond says.
In his eight years with the support centre, Emond says he has seen more than 400 people. The stress keeps him awake some nights, and he has sought out help for himself, so he can stay strong for those he counsels. Though he has never met Mckay, he says the former bomber pilot’s case sounds very familiar.
The most painful cases involve the loss of a loved one to death by their own hand, Emond says. Suicide rates have increased, and more than 70 Afghan veterans have killed themselves, many of whom he’s counselled.
He says his most emotional moment was the first Afghan veteran suicide, an army private. The veteran’s mother was distraught, and asked Emond for help. He spent hours at a time with her, consoling her.
Isolation and PTSD had contributed to her son’s depression.
“The most common symptom, if you can call it that, is that they see a change in their personality,” Emond says. “During an operation, you are in very tense positions. You’re operating in response to everything around you, and are in very dangerous situations.
“When you come back to Canada, you’re going through stores and you’re still always on the go, looking around yourself, waiting for the danger. This can further trigger PTSD symptoms.”
Mckay says he was anxious to get back to Canada in 1945, and left the air force to study law as soon as he could. While he had minor episodes, he dismissed them. It wasn’t until after finishing school that he experienced severe PTSD. By this time, he was married to Jean, and she saw changes in his personality.
“He’ll be normal,” Jean says. “And then he’s not. It’s instant. It’s hard to describe unless you’ve witnessed it. It’s a shift in who he is.”
‘You’re going through stores and you’re still always on the go,
looking around yourself, waiting for the danger’
Jean describes her husband’s “normal” as a combination of strong, calm, and quiet. That changed when he had his first serious flashback.
Jean was cooking, and had food and utensils scattered around the kitchen. Something was simmering on the stove. Then he started yelling frantically. Then he tossed food everywhere and smashed dishes. Jean was scared, and knocked her frying pan off the element, spilling hot oil that ruined the floor.
She recalls that he was cutting grooves in the counter, when he slipped and knocked himself unconscious.
Mckay doesn’t like to talk about it, but says neither of them knows what triggered the flashback. Jean says the atmosphere in the kitchen was calm until a loud pop came from the frying pan, so she wonders if it was the sound that provoked him.
Mckay says he has never searched for his triggers, and he doesn’t want to.
“I don’t want to search,” he says. “Never have. Then, if I knew, I’d think about it and it’d ruin the way I experienced things. Now, if I knew, it might drag me back into it more. I’ve finally mostly escaped.”
Now, his reactions are mild. Jean has found him staring at nothing, or his eyes filling with tears after a nightmare, but she says he’s been coping better. His only bad relapse followed the death of their 55-year-old son in 2013. Mckay had to be rushed to the hospital, suffering from chest pain. Jean says he won’t tell her about the memory that sent him there.
Emond says that it’s common for people to forget their flashbacks. He also says that at times, episodes aren’t flashbacks at all. They can be made up by the brain, in an attempt to mesh together current and past experiences.
Jean – the person Mckay calls his “closest confidant” – still knows very little about his experiences. He won’t talk to her about things he has witnessed.
This, Emond says, is dangerous behaviour. Repression and isolation can contribute to PTSD. Veterans of all ages need to educate themselves on mental health, he says. And then get help.