Soldier’s cry for help
When Samuel Smith developed post-traumatic stress syndrome overseas, the Canadian Forces threw him out. Now he has rebuilt his life on his own
By IAN ELLIOT Kingston Whig-Standard KINGSTON, Ont.
Tue. Apr 28 - 6:42 AM
Samuel Smith hugs his son Jaxxon outside their Kingston, Ont., home. Smith suffered a breakdown while serving in the Canadian Forces in the former Yugoslavia. He has struggled to rebuild his life since then, without the help of the army. (IAN MacALPINE / Kingston Whig-Standard)
WHEN SAMUEL SMITH was deployed to the former Yugoslavia in 1997, it marked the end of his military career, not the beginning of another chapter in it.
While serving on the peacekeeping mission, he developed sleeping disorders, nightmares about his infant daughter who died of a rare heart condition and a mysterious ailment that put him in a Sarajevo hospital for a month.
He was branded a malingerer within his unit and developed a cocaine habit after being medically returned to Canada in mid-tour. So haunted by what he had seen, Smith slept in his car and under bridges because he didn’t feel safe indoors.
He staged a suicide attempt to try to get the help that he knew he needed. He didn’t get it.
His once-promising army career ended with him being marched to the gates of CFB Petawawa by military police with his belongings in a garbage bag. He received one final order: "(Expletive) off and don’t come back."
These days, what Smith was suffering from is recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder. Smith has just won a lawsuit against the Canadian Forces, one of more than two dozen filed by a Quebec City lawyer who argued that the former soldiers were ignored, discriminated against and refused help for conditions they came down with while on active duty.
"Nobody wants to admit that they have PTSD — whether it’s shame or bravado, no one wants to admit that they have a mental disorder," said Smith during a recent interview in his Kingston home.
"All I wanted was for them to acknowledge what they did to mess up my life. I lost my career, I lost my marriage, I lost custody of my child — everything was taken away from me and I had to build it back up."
The terms of his settlement with the government are confidential, but Smith said the recognition that he was suffering from a medical disorder — and the government’s pledge to pay for further counselling if he requires it — means more to him than the small cash payout.
Since leaving the forces, Smith has undergone extensive psychological counselling and has rebuilt his life. He has regained partial custody of his young son, he is studying to go into the health-care field and he has been clean for years, but his tale is typical of others who served in the Balkans.
"Things were different back then," he said.
"We didn’t get any training. There was no place for us to turn. I don’t want to say I won this because that’s not how I feel. I just want to know that things are right and what’s supposed to be there is there for any other veterans who find themselves in my position."
His lawyer, Jacques Ferron, said the cases he is taking to court, including Smith’s, are an attempt to rectify a past wrong.
"These were peace tours, and they did not recognize PTSD, so the cases of these guys are different than the guys who are going to Afghanistan today," he said.
"They didn’t have the preparation before they left and they didn’t do anything when they came back, and while we suspect that they knew there were cases of PTSD, they didn’t do anything about it."
Following the high-profile case of Gen. Romeo Dallaire, who suffered from the syndrome after leading a mission in Rwanda, identification and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder has taken on a higher profile in the army. Troops learn about it in basic training and they are screened for it, even when they are in theatre.
The Forces has also established special post-traumatic stress disorder clinics at bases around the country, although in a report last year interim ombudsman Mary McFadyen said while the military has taken steps to address the issue, more remains to be done.
"Investigators found and the office is aware of a number of individual cases where military members and/or their families were not treated fairly by the Canadian Forces or, for a variety of reasons, did not get access to the care and treatment that they so desperately needed," her report last December found.
"Injured soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen who have served their country with courage and dedication are slipping through the cracks of an ad hoc system."
She also noted post-traumatic stress disorder still has a stigma and people are reluctant to seek help in case it is seen as weakness.
Smith, whose father was a non-commissioned officer, joined the army right out of high school, looking for some structure in his life.
A driver with a service battalion, he worked in Ottawa for several chiefs of staff before being deployed to the former Yugoslavia in 1997.
He was not in combat, but driving through the ruined country, seeing amputee children and the effects of the nation’s civil war started taking a toll on him.
"It was hard," he recalled. "I’ve always been a family man and I was driving around seeing the destruction, seeing the kids with no arms and no legs, and I started dreaming about my daughter. I dreamed she was in a cooler somewhere there with bandages around her head, and I’d never had dreams like that before."
He developed nightmares, irritability, sleep disorders and, finally, a baffling medical condition that caused him to be hospitalized for a month as doctors speculated he had everything from tuberculosis to HIV. He dropped from 210 to 170 pounds during his hospitalization and when he was released from hospital — with a diagnosis of pneumonia — he returned to his unit only to find that he was seen as a slacker, or in military terms, an MIR commando, a disdainful term referring to soldiers who report to the medical inspection room with vague symptoms to get out of their duties.
"I didn’t understand what was happening," Smith said. "I was ashamed because I was being repatriated, and because I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me."
"I couldn’t understand how I could go from being a good soldier to someone who was seen as a disruptive influence on his unit."
The story he tells is a familiar one. The Bosnian conflict was seen as a peacekeeping exercise, and troops were expected to tough it out — the saying in the Forces was that a soldier would rather die than cry — and neither the troops nor the chain of command knew much about post-traumatic stress disorder, let alone how to deal with it.
The prevailing ethos was "suck it up or get out," and Smith remembers adopting that ethos.
Upon his return to his unit, he says his symptoms continued and he was increasingly ostracized by his superiors. What little psychological help he was offered was of no use.
"I’d go see them, and the only thing they wanted to know was if I was thinking of hurting myself, and I wasn’t."
"Of course, I was sleeping under a bridge in below-zero weather, so maybe I wasn’t trying to kill myself, but it might happen anyway."
He finally took a handful of pills and walked over to a friend’s shack to tell him what he had done in hopes that he would get help.
When he came to in hospital, he confessed to his drug use and the army put him into a rehab program, first insisting that he sign his own release papers in addition to the rest of the paperwork.
He completed the program and, when he returned to his unit, found himself medically discharged with a 5F classification — disgraceful discharge — and escorted off the base. He is still trying to get that classification changed to an honourable release.
Smith cleaned himself up. He spent months in in-patient psychological facilities — with pride, he said he did it himself — although he still feels the army let him down.
"When you’re in the army, they’re supposed to be like your mom and dad," he reflected. That was what his late father, the career man, drilled into him and it was one of the reasons he enlisted. It was also one of the reasons he kept going because he felt his father wouldn’t have wanted him to quit.
"They always tell you the army will take care of you, and they didn’t," he said. "I didn’t want my kids to think that I was some unstable guy who was just mad at the army. I just wanted what was right."
"You shouldn’t be ashamed or punished for saying you need some help, and I hope what I’ve been through helps someone else who needs it."
Smith says he’s just glad to be getting well again.
"It’s nice to hear my family say that they like to see me smile again and say, ‘It’s nice to have you back.’ "
‘All I wanted was for them to acknowledge what they did to mess up my life. I lost my career, I lost my marriage, I lost custody of my child — everything was taken away from me and I had to build it back up.’
SAMUEL SMITHFormer member Canadian Forces
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Soldier’s cry for help