Lew Cocker (left) never drank alcohol before he went overseas.
When he returned home from Bosnia in 1995 after a second posting with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, “I knew I wasn’t the same,” the veteran told an audience at a forum on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Saturday in Cloverdale.
He had witnessed first-hand atrocities that gave him such nightmares that he couldn’t – and still can’t – get more than two or three hours of sleep each night.
The dreams are usually the same: he’s being chased in an environment of rubble.
Jolted wide awake, he rarely goes back to sleep.
More than a decade since his wife left him, Cocker, 52, who lives in alone in Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast, said that even though he has stopped drinking, he’ll never be normal.
“Normal would be going to sleep for eight hours.”
He had contemplated suicide, too, before he got help starting in 2010.
That’s not uncommon, said Dr. Greg Passey, a psychologist who works with PTSD patients in private practice and at the BC Operational Stress Injury Clinic in Vancouver.
Also speaking at the Surrey forum – hosted by the White Rock-based Equitas Society, formed in 2011 to help disabled soldiers, and South Surrey-White Rock and Cloverdale-Langley City Federal Liberal Riding Associations – Passey said in his studies going back to the early 1990s, he has found that 46 per cent of those with PTSD will consider suicide, and 19 per cent will make the attempt.
More Canadian veterans have died from suicide than as battle casualties in Afghanistan, and possibly the Korean War, Passey said.
Passey served with the CF for 22 years and was released on medical grounds (including PTSD) in 2000.
He described himself as “a psychiatrist and a veteran – what a combination.”
PTSD, he explained, is not a visible injury, but is still a serious, sometimes fatal condition that affects about 15 per cent of those deployed on military missions (and is also linked to physical injuries, some of which take place in training.)
Passey said 12-year Afghanistan mission produced 300-350 victims of PTSD each year.
Exposure to shocking or chronic events can trigger flashbacks or irrational fears when solders go back home.
Passey said he has encountered veterans at home in full-panic mode at the thought of something as seemingly mundane as grass, or others traumatized by certain sounds, colours, even the sight of children.
Many who witnessed events during peacekeeping missions in the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda were particularly hard-hit, as many of those events involved civilians.
There are other costs to all this, Passey said, involving broken families, depression, drug and alcohol addiction, and greatly increased utilization of health services for stress-related health issues, including doubling the rate of heart disease.
A life with PTSD can be shortened by 15 years.
Passey explained that the current view of PTSD by the Canadian Forces (CF) and Veterans Affairs (VA) are lamentable, as veterans are treated with bias, stigma and discrimination.
“The whole system needs to change.”
Much of his anger is geared towards the 2006 New Veterans Charter.
Passey said in recent years, there has been a protracted clawback of services to veterans who suffer from PTSD.
Front-line clinics and VA offices have closed, and the system has become increasingly adversarial, with reductions in long-term benefits for chronic physical and mental injuries.
Many veterans, he said, suffer the further indignity of rejection letters from the VA following claims and further appeals for aid.
A VA budget of $1.1 billion was recently reduced to $200 million.
PHOTO: Former combat engineer Aaron Bedard looks on as psychiatrist Dr. Greg Passey talks about PTSD at the forum.
Among those fighting for more recognition for veterans with PTSD is Aaron Bedard, who served as a combat engineer with the Canadian Forces from 2002 to 2010.
In 2006, he was wounded in Afghanistan, and suffers from PTSD, he told forum attendees.
Released from service in 2010, and after seeing the number of suicides among veterans, he became one of six plaintiffs in the Equitas case, a suit against the Canadian government before the BC Supreme Court to overturn the New Veterans Charter.
Bedard said few people are speaking about the subject, so “it keeps sliding back to me.”
Among Bedard’s efforts in recent years was helping to put pressure on MP Julian Fantino, Minister of Veterans Affairs, who was widely criticized by veterans for being insensitive to their needs.
On Jan. 5, Fantino was demoted demoted to the position of Associate Defence Minister.
Bedard, who lives in Chilliwack with his wife Iva and son James, added that he and 2,000 others online are beginning to put pressure on Fantino’s replacement, MP Erin O’Toole.
Assisting veterans pro bono through his law firm Miller Thompson LLP, lawyer Donald Sochoran said “The government is like a three-year-old,” doing what it wants. But he added that Canada is a constitutional democracy and laws can be changed – including the New Veterans Charter.
Cocker, who is getting more involved in advocating for other veterans, admitted at the forum he was nervous bringing his story out into the open.
It was his first-ever speech at a microphone.
“I’m not looking for your sympathy,” he told the crowd of 45. “I’m looking for your help.”