Kevin Berry described his military barracks after returning home from Afghanistan as "a horror show."
After serving with the Third Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment in Afghanistan in 2003-04, Berry and many of his comrades returned home haunted and psychologically scarred by the experience.
"If you walked through the hallways of the shacks, it was just a horror show the first few weeks after we got back," Berry said. "Guys screaming, falling out of bed, things smashing. You could lie awake at night and just hear people screaming up and down the hallways."
Berry recalled having vivid, violent nightmares every night, but at first he figured it was only temporary, that with time and in many cases with alcohol, the psychological wounds would heal.
"The only accepted outlet socially in the military for dealing with that kind of stuff was to get hammered," he said.
For Berry, that led to alcohol abuse.
He left the military and things didn't start to get better until he was finally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) years later. Now with treatment, he's finally able to live his life again.
Berry came to Prince George last week to attend the funeral of Greg Matters, the veteran with PTSD who died in a police shooting last month in Pineview. Although Berry had never met Matters, nor did he know his story until he read media reports of his death, he felt it was important to be at the funeral on Friday and support the Matters family.
A Vancouver native and the B.C. representative with the Canadian Veterans Advocacy group, Berry is raising awareness about PTSD both with current and retired members of the military as well as with the public.
"There's never been a war without psychological casualties," he said. "This generation in particular is not content to accept the old idea, 'now you're out of the army, go sit in the Legion and drink yourself to death.' "
Berry is lobbying for better mental healthcare for serving military members and veterans, better benefits for those with PTSD and better training for police and other agencies who have to deal with veterans suffering from PTSD in the community.
For active members, one of the challenges the military faces is attracting top level psychologists and psychiatrists to base camps in remote parts of the country. That means the clinicians either need to be shipped in or the soldiers need to be loaded on to buses for treatment in larger centres. Berry said the later option discourages members from getting treatment because they have to ride on the "bus of shame."
"There's a silent culture of judgment that exists and permeates through every level, from private all the way up to senior leadership," Berry said. "That's not to say everyone feels this way, but PTSD is traditionally regarded as weakness."
That culture makes it difficult for people to come forward.
Although things are getting better, he said more work still needs to be done to support veterans who want to get treatment. Berry is proof that given the right treatment options, people can learn to live with PTSD.
After years of struggling with the disease, which alienated him from family and friends and drove him to abuse alcohol, Berry finally got the treatment he needed. He spent 90 days at an inpatient facility in Powell River and along with both professional and peer counseling, he's now sober and able to live his life.
"You're looking a product of some of these treatments," Berry said. "Here I am in Prince George, where I couldn't leave my own apartment two years ago. I'd leave to go to the liquor store and go back, that was it and I had a whole plan of what road I would take - like I was going on an op."
Not everyone gets that chance.
In the case of Matters, it took lobbying by his sister Tracey to get him connected with Vancouver psychiatrist Dr. Greg Passey. Although he was making progress in his treatment in the time leading up to his death, Matters was unable to conquer all of his symptoms before he died.
"For every guy like me there's a guy in either Greg's boat or Alex's boat," Berry said, referring to Alex Hogan, a veteran who committed suicide in New Brunswick last month. "They didn't get the help in time."
Berry is also critical of the federal government for changing how benefits are awarded to veterans with PTSD and their families after the new veterans charter was adopted in 2006. He said it not only reduced the amount of money PTSD survivors received after leaving the service, it also cut back on their medical support.
"That's a moral injury, your government has said, 'your lifetime problem, that's worth this much, here's your money, see you later,' " he said. "It's a lifetime sentence dealing with PTSD."