It's called an invisible injury, yet the wounds are often right there in plain sight to loved ones.
Some soldiers who come back from deployments appear to be physically fine, but suffer from the mental wounds of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Given what military members face in any given day, there's a myriad of causes and the symptoms can present in many ways, from flashbacks to sleeplessness to depression. As much as it impacts the returning servicemen, their family and friends suffer right alongside their loved ones as mood swings strike.
Chris Dupee has spent countless hours dedicated to the cause of raising awareness of PTSD within in the military. An active-duty solider currently based in Toronto, he launched MilitaryMinds.ca initially as a way to help out-of-work veterans. It quickly morphed into a forum for helping military folks dealing with PTSD.
"I just decided to take a stance and throw myself out there," he said. "That was last November and it just skyrocketed since then."
Dupee spent a tour of duty in Afghanistan from 2008-09 and returned with PTSD. He said it took about a year for him to get treatment for his symptoms, which included apathy and behaviour changes.
"I just didn't care about anything," Dupee said. "I was doing stuff I wouldn't have done before. Being more reckless, getting into fights. . . . I'm still battling with that attitude, but I recognize it and I just avoid situations know."
Dupee's site includes YouTube videos of service members dealing with the disabling illness and an active Facebook page where PTSD sufferers can band together, talk about how they feel and support one another. Although it started in Canada, military members and their families worldwide have posted their stories and joined in the conversation.
The dialogue is an important part of recovery, according to Dupee. It also gives family members a forum to find out more about the condition and how to support their loved ones.
"Silence is the killer," Dupee said. "Troops have PTSD, whether they know it or not, and they're scared to come out to say that they have PTSD because of the stigma because they're afraid they might get made fun of or their career progression will be jeopardized."
The issue of PTSD came to the forefront in Prince George this month. Greg Matters, a 40-year-old veteran of the peacekeeping campaign in Bosnia, had been struggling with PTSD. According to his family, he had been doing better since seeking treatment.
Matters, who had some run-ins with the RCMP and the courts over the past 18 months, was shot by police after a standoff in Pineview on Sept. 10. His death is being investigated by the Independent Investigations Office and a coroner's inquest is likely.
Matters had been in contact with the Citizen on the days leading up to his death, writing about his struggles with PTSD. Although PTSD hasn't been formally linked to his death, it will likely be part of the investigation and inquest.
Sadly, death is an all too common outcome for PTSD patients. In the United States some of the figures are shocking. According to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 18 American veterans commit suicide everyday. On average, one active-duty U.S. soldier takes his or her own life each day. Although not all of those deaths can be attributed to PTSD, the psychological toll that war takes on service members likely plays a part.
Although similar figures aren't available for Canada, the military ombudsman released a report this week examining how the Canadian Forces have dealt with operational stress injuries, like PTSD. Although ombudsman Pierre Daigle said significant progress has been made to help those dealing with those type of injuries, the report shows there is still more work to do.
"We found that a persistent shortage of qualified mental health care personnel is the largest impediment to the delivery of inclusive, high-quality care and treatment to Canadian Forces members suffering from mental health injuries," Daigle wrote.
In his experience talking to the troops, Dupee said the wait times for treatment vary from base to base. He said treatment isn't always available at the time a solider gets up the courage to report his or her symptoms.
"That's when the system should grab that guy, bring him and sort him out." Dupee said. "Instead he's got to wait four to six months for his appointment with a specialist. In that time there's a lot that can go wrong."
The ombudsman's office has been looking at PTSD issues in the military since 2002 and the current report is the third follow up to the initial study.
Despite all the formal reports, Scott Polson said there's still a barrier to treatment access.
"It's not just from the top, it's also from peers," said Polson, who works alongside Dupee with Military Minds. "Peers might say, 'I was standing right beside you the whole time, we were on the same tour and I'm fine, how can you be touched or how can you be affected differently."
Dupee and Polson said more awareness at the grassroots level is needed to overcome both peer pressure and self-induced stigmas.
"The strongest way to show how strong you are is actually to face it," Polson said. "To say, 'I have a problem and I have to get it fixed.' "
Another stigma is that only front-line infantry troops can suffer from PTSD.
Polson said forces members who might be at more of a distance from the actual battlefield, such as air force, navy or even logistical personal, can also suffer from the illness.
"There are also people that are more on the logistical side of the world, doing supply and feeding and that type of stuff," Polson said. "They will also most definitely be touched by certain events and threats."