Landmine in a Rucksack

Alberta soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder face an uphill battle.

By Tadzio Richards

“In downtown Calgary I’d be instinctively looking for land mines,” says retired corporal Christian McEachern. “I’d look for snipers on rooftops and trip wires.” He leans forward in his chair, fingers gripping the armrests. We’re sitting in the living room of his home, a few kilometres up a winding gravel road in the foothills near Priddis. Stocky, with a square-jawed, youthful face and short hair gone almost completely grey, McEachern, 39, is talking about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “It can be a real challenge,” he says. “When you’re standing in Safeway in the cereal aisle, and you’ve got to take a knee ’cause you’re having a severe panic attack, it starts to mess up your confidence. Eventually you don’t even leave the house.”

McEachern is a former member of 1 Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, based in Edmonton. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 1997 after serving in peacekeeping missions in Croatia and Uganda. He left the military in July 2001. Shortly afterward, he enrolled in the eco-tourism and outdoor leadership program at Mount Royal College. In 2006, he was inspired to create a non-profit charity, the Canadian Veteran Adventure Foundation (CVAF), to help traumatized veterans regain a “lust for life” by rafting, hiking and riding horses in the Alberta foothills and Rocky Mountains. 

“We’re just getting started,” he says of the foundation. “It’s been four years of hard work and obstacles, government bureaucracy, that kind of crap. But we had our first program last summer, a raft trip, and a couple of guys came up to me in tears after that. They said ‘thanks, man, that’s the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time.’ ” 

He stares out the window. Three horses forage near a wooden fence at the edge of the ten-acre property. “The guys that I’m going for are probably slipping through the cracks of the system,” he says. “A lot of the guys, they don’t trust anybody anymore. I want to give them a second chance, convince them they’re good people still, that yeah, you can have nightmares, intimacy issues, but you can still have a good time.” 

“Like with me,” he adds, “the PTSD hasn’t gone away. But I’m doing way better than I was. I don’t think about blowing my head off. It’s nothing like that now.” A thin, dark-haired woman appears at the living room door: Monica Culic, McEachern’s partner and the communications director for CVAF. She says the foundation is vital. “If we come out of Afghanistan in the next couple of years,” she says, “we’ll see a vast increase in the number of veterans with psychological injuries.” 

McEachern nods. In the past decade, the Canadian Forces have made great strides in treating PTSD. But, as a federal standing committee noted in 2009, the treatment and prevention of the illness is a work in progress. There’s a lot of room for improvement, and charitable programs such as the CVAF could fill a gap, helping to ease the symptoms of what can be a lifelong disorder. “When you come back from a mission it can be hard to reintegrate into civilian life,” says McEachern. “If you don’t get any support, it’s like someone helped push you over the edge.” He shakes his head, his voice trailing off. “If I can make somebody’s life worth living again…”

“When you’re standing in the cereal aisle, having a severe panic attack, it starts to mess with your confidence.”

PTSD is a complex brain disorder caused by exposure to extreme stress and trauma. Simply put, traumatic images, sights and smells are “burned into” the brain. Weeks, months, even years later, the trauma can reappear in nightmares and flashbacks. A person can become hypervigilant and view harmless situations as threatening. They can suffer insomnia and a lack of focus, and avoid situations that trigger further symptoms and traumatic memories. If not treated, PTSD can lead to major depression, substance abuse, even suicide. While anyone can get the disorder—the Canadian Mental Health Association says PTSD will affect nearly 1 in 10 Canadians in their lifetime—members of the military are significantly more likely to develop the disorder. And they are developing it: in 2003, Veterans Affairs had 1,800 clients diagnosed with PTSD. Today they have 9,000. PTSD is now the number one pensioned psychiatric disorder in the military.

Historically, the disorder has been easier to diagnose than treat. And even the diagnosis took a long time to emerge. Amid the carnage of the First World War, traumatized soldiers were said to have “shell shock.” Afflicted soldiers were often accused of cowardice. Treatment included solitary confinement and electric shock. In the Second World War, doctors recognized “combat trauma,” but little treatment was offered to veterans suffering psychological stress after the war. As a diagnosis, PTSD did not officially exist until 1980, when the American Psychiatric Association recognized it as a combat-related illness.  

In the Canadian Forces, the stigma around PTSD has been hard to shake. Dr. Greg Passey, a psychiatrist and veteran who spent 22 years in the Canadian military, much of it at CFB Edmonton, did the first large-scale study of PTSD rates among returning peacekeeping soldiers in 1993. “At the time, in the general population we had a baseline PTSD rate of about 2.7 per cent, because of car accidents, sexual assault, crime,” he says. “But when these guys came home the PTSD rate was 15.5 per cent. What we found is that one out of five people had PTSD or major depression or a combination of those coming home from the tours. The military at that time thought that was ridiculous. They said my statistics were flawed.”

In the 1990s, Canadian forces served in multiple crisis zones, including Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. In 1994, corporal Christian McEachern deployed from Edmonton to Croatia. He had no idea the UN peacekeeping mission was the beginning of a journey that would lead through the Canadian courts and trigger a national review of PTSD in the military. At the time he was simply gung-ho for the mission. It was what he’d always wanted to do. “I joined the cadets when I was 12,” he says. “The helicopters and the armoured vehicles, it was like playing guns. I just took to it. I had no aspirations of doing anything else.”

In the Balkans, the former Yugoslavia was torn apart by warring factions. UN forces had no mandate to intervene. “We had to stand there and watch things happen and we had no power to prevent it,” says McEachern. As he tells stories from the war, he speaks faster, energetically waving his hands to punctuate the tales. “One night we were playing cards, Go Fish, the Serbs and Croats were fighting, and we were in the middle, with rounds screaming around us.” He saw a Canadian engineer blown up by a landmine. A sniper shot his friend, “a good buddy.” One evening a Serbian soldier led McEachern and others into a minefield. They wore night-vision goggles, but an electrical storm short-circuited the goggles, and McEachern stood blind in the middle of a minefield in a bombed-out part of town. 

On a second mission, to Uganda, McEachern saw a woman raped and a man beaten to death, but was ordered not to intervene. He saw birds pecking at a dead child. “It’s like a negative image that’s permanently imprinted into your brain,” he says. “You remember smells, colours. You’ll never forget those situations.” 

Back in Alberta in 1996, though still in peak physical shape—a high-end infantryman—he began to withdraw, and felt headed for a breakdown. “I started getting panic attacks,” he says. “I’d wake up completely soaked, freaked out, I didn’t know where I was. I had crying spells where I didn’t know why I was crying. I didn’t know what was going on.”

At CFB Edmonton, Dr. Passey diagnosed McEachern with PTSD. McEachern went on sick leave. He was treated with medications and therapy, but his symptoms got worse and he felt stigmatized by his peers. “I probably stared at the noose in the garage 10–15 times,” he says. “I wanted to die.” At a cadet base, he chanced upon a picture of himself on a wall. “I was 16 years old, all done up in dress uniform,” he says. “And here I was now, a vet of 14 years, a couple of tours [behind me], and at that moment I knew I was done.”

On March 14, 2001, McEachern was told that due to a policy change, in which sick leave would be counted as holiday time, some $25,000 of his paid leave would be revoked. That same day, he received a service medal in the mail rather than with his unit. He felt humiliated, and went home to drink beer. The next thing McEachern remembers is a knock on the door of his Nissan Xterra, which was now inside the garrison headquarters at CFB Edmonton. In the early morning hours he had rammed his SUV through the front doors of the garrison and driven around an empty office, toppling desks and computers. But, as he says, “most of what happened that night I heard for the first time in the courtroom.” 

Before his trial, McEachern filed a complaint with the military ombudsman, André Marin, about the Canadian Forces’ lack of support, training and treatment for soldiers afflicted with PTSD. Marin found the complaints justified. His 229-page report was blunt. “Post-traumatic stress disorders in the Canadian military are pervasive and system-wide,” wrote Marin. “We found a disturbingly high incidence of soldiers returning from missions who were burnt out and broken. Those who reported their illness felt stigmatized and abandoned while many others had not disclosed their symptoms for fear of being ostracized by their leadership and peers.”

The report did not affect the trial’s outcome. Charged with impaired driving, assaulting a peace officer, mischief and dangerous driving, McEachern was convicted on four charges and given a 14-month conditional sentence and a $2,000 fine. The decision in R. v. McEachern, according to lawyer Benjamin J. Kormos, hinged on whether or not McEachern was aware of his actions and knew right from wrong at the time of the incident. In a 2008 article on PTSD and Canadian law for Criminal Law Quarterly, Kormos noted that Dr. Passey testified McEachern had been in a PTSD-related dissociative state, in which he could perform complex actions but “would not be aware of thoughts, emotions, morals, ethics or even laws at that point.” Conversely, the prosecution’s expert, military psychiatrist Colonel Randy Boddam, testified McEachern had been aware of his actions. Yet Boddam admitted he had never interviewed McEachern or read his medical files. Kormos wrote that since Colonel Boddam had “barely a scintilla of foundation for his opinion… it was unreasonable to prefer the Crown’s expert.” The case, Kormos concluded, was “wrongly decided.” 

The Canadian Veteran Adventure Foundation helps soldiers "reclaim their lust for life." Here, participants navigate the Kananaskis River.

The Canadian Veteran Adventure Foundation helps soldiers “reclaim their lust for life.” Here, participants navigate the Kananaskis River. (Christian McEachern)

“A slew of [PTSD-related] cases have been reported,” says Kormos, who I met in his 28th-floor office in downtown Calgary. “So there’s a bunch that you can safely assume are not in the case reports.” Out the window we can see people walking on the streets far below. In his article, Kormos wrote that until the military takes steps to treat and prevent PTSD, “soldiers will continue to bring home landmines in their rucksacks.” I ask what he meant. “By definition this disease can take years to appear,” he says. “It’s like a landmine because a landmine is sort of planted and forgotten about. If you don’t prevent this disease, if you don’t treat it, someone is going to step on that landmine and a lot of these cases are going to end up in court. This is an issue that needs to be dealt with.” 

CFB Edmonton, the home base for 6,600 Canadian Forces members, is situated on 2,550 hectares along the northeast border of the city. On a cloudy winter day, I drove north up Highway 28, past strip malls and gas stations, through a gate in the chain-link fence topped with razor wire that surrounds the base, and met Greg Prodaniuk, the western regional coordinator for the operational stress injury social support program. It’s a peer support network that connects soldiers, veterans and their families to treatment options for Operational Stress Injuries (OSI), a military term for post-deployment psychological difficulties such as anxiety, major depression, substance abuse and PTSD. 

“I really have a reaction to people that characterize the injured population as so unstable that they’re a risk to the security of their communities,” says Prodaniuk, who was himself diagnosed with PTSD after serving in Croatia. “That’s not the case. The vast majority of them suffer in silence and in their basements, and they don’t hurt people.” He leans forward in his chair, a tall, hefty man with an eye-to-eye gaze. “But they do destroy relationships,” he says. “They have difficulty controlling their emotions. They have reactions they’re not in control of. I tell them if you have PTSD, your life is simply not compatible with booze. It’s like throwing gasoline on the fire.” 

Prodaniuk’s clear and frank talk is part of an evolving culture within the military. Since the blunt Marin report in 2002, the Canadian Forces have worked to minimize stress injuries through screening and improved treatment. Education programs now train soldiers in the factors that cause OSIs, including trauma, fatigue, grief and moral injury, defined as “a disruption in trust in moral values.” New stress injury clinics have opened across the country. “Raising awareness and overcoming stigma about mental health is a top priority,” said general Walter Natynczyk a few months before the latest OSI clinic opened in Edmonton, in December 2009. 

The effort has paid dividends. Currently, the PTSD rate in Canadian soldiers returning from Afghanistan is about 5 per cent, down significantly from the high rates in the 1990s. Still, about 11,000 people in the military are believed to be suffering from a stress injury such as PTSD, and the exact numbers are unknown. In 2008, a follow-up ombudsman report on PTSD lamented that a database to track psychological injury levels within the military would not be online until 2011, the year the current commitment to Afghanistan is supposed to end. Even then, the data will likely be incomplete. With the delayed onset of many OSIs, veterans who develop symptoms after leaving the military may not be counted. 

 “If you understand the soldiering culture,” says Prodaniuk, “if you understand the [nature] of these injuries, you’ll understand that the vast majority of people will not face them while still in uniform. The stigma still exists. There’s a lot of self-imposed stigma.” 

I ask if he thinks there’s a need for alternative treatment options, such as outdoor recreation. He nods. “I would like to see the government fund more outside-the-box therapies and care,” he says. “Maybe guys just need to get out of their home environment for a while to readjust. So yeah, places where they could go and engage in sports and enjoy the outdoors, I think there’s something incredibly therapeutic about that. Does it fit within the rigid treatment model the government may sign off on? Probably not.”

He walks me outside to my car. “There are a lot of soldiers here in Alberta,” he says. “A lot of veterans. Should they be treated special? I think they probably should. They’ve put themselves in harm’s way, and a lot of them suffer from mental health impacts that they would not have suffered if they had not volunteered to go over there on our behalf.” Prodaniuk points: the flags are at half-mast, honouring Canadian soldiers who recently died in Afghanistan. “Unfortunately,” he says, “that happens a lot these days.” 

Before driving to Priddis to see Christian McEachern again, I speak on the phone with Dr. Passey in his current office at a PTSD clinic in a Vancouver hospital. In a clinical setting, he says, PTSD patients are treated with medications and therapy. While the majority of cases settle down in the first year, “anywhere from 30 per cent to 47 per cent of people will continue to have significant symptoms even 10 years down the line.” In Canada, the Canadian Veteran Adventure Foundation was the first to offer free outdoor programs to help minimize the symptoms of PTSD. Passey went on the CVAF’s first raft trip, in August 2009. “The beauty of Christian’s program,” he says, “is it brings together people struggling with similar symptoms. It gives them a chance to be in nature without the danger and fear they may have been exposed to on their tour. It has a lot of potential.”

McEachern with Sozo, near Priddis, 2010.

McEachern with Sozo, near Priddis, 2010. (Tadzio Richards)

At McEachern’s place, the sky overhead is blue, blown clear by an incoming chinook, and the Rockies to the west shimmer in the sun. McEachern and Monica Culic are standing by the barn that holds their three horses. McEachern is unshaven, dark circles under his eyes. He says the CVAF is in trouble. It needs funding. Not only that, it has competition: Outward Bound, funded by the Royal Canadian Legion, is launching a similar program to help veterans readjust to civilian life. Their first expedition is in the spring, a one-week ice-climbing trip in the mountains west of Calgary. 

“I’m happy,” says McEachern. “More vets are going to get programming, and that’s what we wanted.” He shakes his head. “But by the same token we’ve let the opportunity slide away.” He looks at Culic. “I still think there’s a stigma attached to the garrison incident,” he says, talking about the slow trickle of donations to the CVAF. “I’m still ashamed by it. It wasn’t a conscious choice, but, boy, I wish I could take it back. I mean, it’s part of the story, but at what point can the story switch?”

“The clients are there,” says Culic. “They’re still hanging out in their basements, they’re still struggling. Maybe the story for you is that you got a second chance. That’s the story that the guys who came here in August liked. You said, ‘we don’t care what you look like, what kind of shape you’re in, what people are saying about you, we accept where you’re at, warts and all.’ We’re not looking for the guy that can climb Yamnuska; he’s not our client.” McEachern nods, and enters the barn. 

“He’s a pretty crusty hard dude on the outside,” says Culic. “But the care he has for those people and those horses is deeper than the average Joe.” We stroll into the barn. McEachern is in a stall, kneeling on straw beside his 17-year-old ex-racehorse. He and Culic rescued it from a slaughterhouse. When they got the thoroughbred, they were told its name was “Sozo,” which in Hebrew means “to heal.” Months ago, Sozo tried to leap a fence, and the gash on the horse’s foreleg has been slow to close. We watch as McEachern wraps gauze around the torn skin. 

Tadzio Richards is a two-time National Magazine Award winner. He lives in Calgary and, as much as possible, the mountains.


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