Shrouded under darkness, it travels on the breeze, steady on its deadly journey towards unsuspecting soldiers huddled
in their trenches. An unseen enemy invades their world, blanketing them, choking out life. These statements offer a
description of the first chlorine gas attacks on Canadian soldiers during the First World War. This invisible enemy, this
deadly poltergeist, is also a fitting description of our modern day enemy - mental illness. It too, threatens to invade our
Canadian military, having already ended the careers and the lives of soldiers and veterans prematurely forcing the
leadership to take it seriously. This new enemy comes by various names – depression, panic, addiction and suicide –
but it is PTSD that stirs the same fear and confusion created by that other 100 year-old foe. Many members sneer in
feigned bravado to ward off this invader, even as it moves through steel walls and body armour to infect their senses
directly. It has been called insidious; leaving no trace of its approach as it settles in the brains of unsuspecting victims.
It may lay dormant for years, growing, festering, infecting thoughts and perceptions of reality and then erupting without
warning. It requires members to become vigilant of themselves and others for any signs of affliction. Its origins tantalize
observers; maybe this germ, this infection was there all along to be activated on the battlefield or maybe it crept in during
the time away from home only to be fertilized on familiar soil. It is a foe to be taken on and the CAF has done exactly this
in the form of overlapping programs and a complex mental health network to shed light on this intruder and to root it out.
Like a wielded cutlass, operational stress injuries have sliced across the heart of our military institution, cutting into men
and women of all ranks across the three service elements. The past 25 years has seen the CAF on the ground, on the
oceans, and in the air over many troubled places. It has navigated the eras of downsizing, right sizing, realizing
efficiencies, and the preoccupation with information control demanded by its civil leaders. But in the background, many
of these foreign spots have produced pockets of quietly suffering members. Our recent decade of war has produced
many more of them, ranging from privates to generals who also quietly seek out help. We have preoccupied ourselves
with efforts to solve individual cases but absent from discussion are meaningful conversations to understand this newly
recognized phenomenon. Alongside the many efforts to address concerns about mental health within the military, there
is also a deafening silence. There are no venues, either in the public sphere or privately for the institution to understand
how it has been changed by the full impact of recent wars. Many veterans tell me that the institution has become tougher
and more bureaucratic even as it labours to be more accepting of mental health concerns. It can be confusing to
unravel their concerns and the challenges they face as mentally wounded military veterans.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.