After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Shanon Fenske, now 41, was moved to join the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and serve overseas. The lengthy application process began in 2003, and by 2009 he was on the ground in Afghanistan. There, he lost a friend, saw many more dead, came under fire, and had a very close call under so-called “friendly fire.” He was assigned a piece of equipment—classified—that detected improvised explosive devices (IEDs). It was heavy and made him an easy target for insurgents. “It was a risky yet inglorious job. But I was potentially saving people’s lives,” he says. The device was carried in a backpack, but “I could feel it through my body.” He experienced nausea, headaches, neck pain, as well as a buzzing sound in his head. Others using the same device reported similar effects.
On his return home in 2010, he says, “I felt good, I’d survived, I was in excellent physical shape. There were emotional aftershocks but they weren’t overtly debilitating.” After several weeks “on leave” at home, he developed pain in his groin. After seeing a doctor he was immediately admitted to hospital and operated on within days. Fenske was diagnosed with cancer and has spent the last four years coping with treatment and its side effects, some of them permanent. There is no doubt in his mind that the device he worked with in Afghanistan caused his cancer, something the military has uncategorically denied.
Unable to work due to nerve damage and mobility issues, Fenske’s attempts to navigate the Joint Personnel Support Unit (JPSU) and access disability compensation payments, among other services, was the epitome of bureaucratic inefficiency and red tape. They denied that there was a connection between his service in Afghanistan and his cancer. (Veteran’s Affairs later admitted that there was, but failed to notify other branches of the Department of National Defense [DND]). Later, his file was accidently shredded by a clerk. “There’s no accountability for incompetence in the military,” he says. Only after moving to Nanaimo and transferring his file from the Jericho Beach branch to the Esquimalt JPSU office did Fenske eventually begin receiving the support payments he was entitled to. “I felt that the military is set up in a way that people can’t find their way through the system, especially when they’re too ill or weak to fight,” he says. In the summer of 2011, Fenske’s cancer returned and spread, resulting in aggressive chemotherapy treatment and further side effects. His battles with the JPSU continued. “A nurse or a 7-Eleven employee would be better taken care of,” he says.
Fenske’s story is not unique; many others in the military have shared similar experiences with blockades and disappointment in their search for supports after returning home. It creates a culture of helplessness and despondence, he says. “Of the people I served with, I’ve lost more to suicide, here at home, than on the ground in Afghanistan,” he says.
Between 2004 and this March, the DND reports that 160 personnel committed suicide, numbers that include regular forces and reservists, but not retired soldiers, or those who have left for health reasons. Suicides related to CAF service are extremely underreported. By comparison, 138 solders were killed in combat between 2002 and 2014, the end of Canada’s formal mission in Afghanistan.
And the death of veterans—most in obscurity—continue in 2014. At the end of their tours overseas, many soldiers find it challenging to adapt to life at home. They look to the DND for support, but many, like Fenske, are left feeling as if the military is eager to cast them aside. Sick, in pain, and tormented by the sights, smells, and sounds of war, they are left to stumble alone. Most suffer in silence. Many kill themselves.
A triathlete who served in Bosnia and Afghanistan, Stuart Langridge was a model Canadian soldier decorated with two commander’s coins. But after returning home his life deteriorated, a result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression, and he fell into alcoholism and drug addiction. In 2008, at the Canadian Forces Base in Edmonton, he hanged himself. It was his seventh, and final, attempt to end his life.
After 15 years of service in Bosnia, Greg Matters left the CAF in 2009 and returned to his home in BC. After a long delay, he began receiving treatment for PTSD, but it came too late. On September 8, the RCMP were called to a rural property in Prince George where, after an exchange, Matters was fatally shot. He was 40 years old.
Defense Minister Rob Nicholson has defended the Harper government’s record, pointing out that the mental health budget has been increased by $11 million a year to a total of $50 million. Yet the soldiers continue to die, largely in obscurity, out of the media eye.
Recently, one soldier’s death, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, drew the national media spotlight. Part of the honour guard at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, Cirillo was shot and killed on October 22. A reservist serving in Hamilton from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada regiment who happened to return from Kandahar intact enough to continue serving, this soldier was shot dead. He was 24 years old. The country went into a tailspin. It was a tragedy, a cold-blooded premeditated murder that dominated the news cycle for days. Six of his fellow servicemen also died in 2014. They died by their own hands after failing to receive the supports they needed from the military they had all served. The media barely noticed.
“I kept waiting for someone to kick down the wall and tell me that I’d been Punk’d.” -Shanon Fenske
The opening essay on the October 24 edition of CBC Radio’s Q, after the Ottawa incident, addressed the country’s servicemen and women: “A nation is grateful. A nation is thinking of you.” The nation, yes, but the politicians, policy makers, and military leaders who set and execute the DND budget need to translate those thoughts into action.
The DND is funded by the Canadian government and takes its direction from Parliament, our Commander in Chief the Prime Minister and his cabinet. It’s given priorities and must execute their work with the budget it’s given.
In the management of budgets for military activity—the so-called “boots on the ground” operations—there is no budgetary restraint, just spending. A soldier on the front line isn’t expected to requisition additional ammunition in the middle of a firefight with insurgents.
Here at home the picture is different. The bureaucrats look at the DND budget, look at what’s left after those boots on the ground are taken care of, and try to make the remaining funds fit the needs of the sneakers on home soil.
According to Wounded Warrios, 8026 Canadian Forces members, like Fenske, were released from the military because of an injury or illness that ended their military career between 2006 and 2011. Ill and injured members and veterans of the CAF have access to a variety of services, programs, and financial benefits to support their transition from military to civilian life. Support services and benefits, including those available under the New Veterans Charter, are provided, coordinated, and managed primarily by the DND, the CAF, and Veterans Affairs Canada. They appear to be falling short in their work.
Canadian Armed Forces Veterans deserve equal access to resources home and away. The budgets that accommodate unlimited ammunition aren’t so generous with medical and mental health supports on home soil.
One of the only programs in Canada to offer group therapy to soldiers, the Veterans Transition Program, operates out of the University of BC. It serves soldiers suffering from Operational Stress Injury (OSI), a broad category that includes PTSD, anxiety disorders, and depression. It also addresses substance abuse issues. The program’s services are in heavy demand. It receives no funding from the DND.
According to Rabble news group, the gap between “support our troops” rhetoric and the miserable reality of many veterans’ lives has widened under the Harper government. This includes high rates of untreated PTSD (a condition suffered by one in four veterans of Afghanistan), homelessness, the claw-back of benefits, failure to cover funeral expenses, as well as rampant alcoholism and substance abuse among veterans.
Today, Fenske attends VIU where he’s studying creative writing. He maintains a website about paranormal activity and folklore (under the name Shanon Sinn), and is writing a memoir about his experiences. His health has improved, as has his outlook. After years of navigating the JPSU programs, he is close to transitioning out of the military and continuing to move on with his life. Unfortunately, many of his colleagues never had that opportunity.