“Better Off Dead: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Canadian Armed Forces” is amazing and shocking, but not for the reasons you would expect.
Fred Doucette was a soldier in the Army for 34 years and a peer supporter with OSISS for ten years. He developed PTSD over a series of deployments spanning his career, including a rotation in Bosnia, where Serbs committed genocide on the majority Muslim population. He previously wrote about these experiences and his PTSD. “Better Off Dead” is his second book and is on his time as a peer supporter.
The book is part memoir and part essay. In addition to amazing anecdotes about peers who met with Fred, it provides facts and information about how missions and deployments that have led to PTSD, symptoms of PTSD, treatment options in the Forces, rates of suicide, and the impact on families.
The amazing parts of the book are the stories that Doucette tells about vets with PTSD. Some of them he was able to help and others weren’t interested in the help that he could provide. He wrote about Bob the Warrant Officer who came to a crashing halt in retirement, about Jerry who served in Rwanda, about Roger who struggled with alcohol for over a decade and resisted treatment, about Tom who kept going back to Afghanistan until he was finally killed, about Jim who lost his son in the line of duty, and about Jacques the RCMP constable. I’ve been studying military OSI for some time, and “Better Off Dead” was eye-opening because it provided concrete and specific details about the peer support relationship that I have not found elsewhere.
The shocking parts of the book is how poorly the DND and VAC treats soldiers and veterans. Over and over again, denial, stigma, inadequate personnel, lack of procedures, and myopic policies meant that veterans did not get the help that they need. Here are a few examples.
A soldier on sick leave for his OSI. He had insomnia and nightmares, which led to paranoia and anxiety. He was suicidal, so he went to the medical clinic at the base. At the clinic, he was told to take a number and wait. After several hours of waiting, he wrote on his chit, “I’m going to kill myself,” turned it in and left. In the end, he didn’t suicide, but it was due to a phone call coming from his wife at precisely the right moment.
A sergeant returned from Afghanistan in August 2007 and knew that he needed help. Between November and May, he saw four different physicians, had been prescribed a variety of medications, attended approximately twenty medical appointments, and he was no further ahead. In fact, his condition was worsening due lack of treatment.
Soldiers who experienced military sexual trauma often have to live and work with their attackers. The chain of command does not discipline the offenders and there is a lot of victim blaming. Doucette wrote,
During my time as a peer support coordinator for the Canadian Armed Forces I met with twelve women who were struggling with an OSI as a direct result of having been sexually assaulted by a peer or superior. Their stories are tragic. I was naive to think that such things never happened. …The women I met with looked and sounded empty. There wasn’t a spark or even a glimmer of hope in their eyes.
These stories were so dismal, that I kept checking the publication date of the book (which was 2015). I had been told by vets that things were getting better. They probably are, but there’s a long way to go yet.
So these are the light and the dark sides of military PTSD and peer support. The light comes from talking to a peer, who provides hope. The dark comes from the system. These sides together are why Doucette spent ten years as a peer supporter.
I can summarize my ten years with OSISS by saying that dealing with the soldiers and veterans was the easy part of the job. Dealing the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs was extremely frustrating and demoralizing. Those veterans and soldiers who stepped forward were the pioneers who blazed a trail which has brought OSIs from the darkness into the light where it is accepted by most that these are injuries related to military service.
“Better Off Dead” is a must-read for a anyone who wants to learn about PTSD and the Canadian Armed Forces.
Read the preface to the book, which has been reprinted in The Walrus.
Better Off Dead: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Canadian Armed Forces
by Fred Doucette
Nimbus Publishing, 2015
377 pages, $19.95