The Trauma and Attachment Report interviewed a young Canadian soldier who recently returned from serving in Afghanistan. The reality of war is revealed through his personal account of his experience overseas.
Q. How long did you spend in Afghanistan and which unit did you serve with?
A. I was in Afghanistan for 9 months and served with the 48th Highlanders (Scottish-Canadian brigade out of Moss Park)
Q. Can you describe the daily routine of your life in the military?
A. Daily routine in the military is very organized, very regimented, and very disciplined. We were constantly relocating to different areas, we didn’t stay in one place for too long. We slept in large tents which occupied over one hundred soldiers; It was very close quarters. The lack of privacy was difficult. Even though it was almost impossible to find some time to yourself, it was a very lonely experience. I missed my family and friends. The majority of my time was spent patrolling specific areas and buildings. This involved either monitoring specific checkpoints or entering certain buildings to ensure they were not being occupied. It was a very high stress environment, you must be prepared to react to any situation at any time.
Q. What were some of the challenges that you were faced with?
A. My experience in Afghanistan was both physically and mentally challenging. The weather was very hot and this was extremely difficult, especially because of the many layers of protective gear and equipment. One of my closest friends in the army suffered severe heat exhaustion and was airlifted for treatment during the third month. I am happy to report that he fully recovered and later returned to our camp. It was hard to see and hear about other soldiers who were sick or injured. It made it hard to ignore the “what ifs”. At one point I was assigned to a specific checkpoint for about a month where I checked the IDs of every individual who passed by. My position was later taken over by an American solider. After being relieved for only about an hour I was informed that a bomb had gone off near the checkpoint and the American solider who took over my position was killed. It is almost impossible not to question: “what if that was me?” It is hard to think that I came very close to never seeing my loved ones again.
Q. Was the experience what you expected?
A. Yes and no. I expected to leave this experience as a proud Canadian soldier and that is exactly how I felt when I stepped onto my return flight home. The army provided its soldiers with excellent training beforehand. However, even with the most intensive training, I don’t think anyone can know exactly what to expect. When I enlisted in the army I knew that I was risking my life. The reality of this decision did not become real until I was in an environment where I could actually lose my life at any second. I did not expect to feel as much as I did.
Q. While serving in the military how did you cope with the hardships you encountered?
A. While overseas there was not a lot of time to reflect. Soldiers must always be focused on the present and be planning for the future. You must accept events as they are and move on so you can be prepared for the next. It was not until I returned home that I had all this extra time to reflect on my experiences. It was very overwhelming at first. It felt as if my emotions had been bottled up for 9 months and had suddenly exploded inside of me.
Q. How did you adjust to the change of returning home to Canada?
A. It was hard. Perhaps the hardest part. I went from having no time to think and reflect, to having, what felt like too much time. I have gone over every moment of my experience repeatedly. When I was overseas I would have given anything for just a single moment to relax, and now that I have all the time I could ever want, my body just won’t let me. I used to be a very sound sleeper but I now awake suddenly to the smallest of noises. I am so used to being alert, focused, and prepared to react at all times, that it is going to take some time to unwind. The habits of military life seem to have followed me back home. Recently I was in downtown Toronto with my fiancé and fireworks started to explode in the sky. My heart started racing. It immediately felt like I was back patrolling the streets of Afghanistan.
Q. What services are available to soldiers upon their return?
A.Every soldier upon returning home from overseas has to be assessed for psychological disturbances. This involves 3 sessions with a therapist who discusses any issues you may have. For soldiers who need further support, additional counseling sessions are available.
Q. Do you have any future intentions of enlisting in the military again?
A.Currently I am still an active member of the 48th Highlanders, where I do still pay my dues and attend training sessions and exercises. I am currently working my way up to potentially train new recruits with hopes of going overseas, where I can share my stories and help them to decide whether or not it is something they may want to do in the future.
Q. What advice would you give to other young men and women looking to enlist or who are already out in the field?
A. I think any young man or woman looking to enlist in the army should consider starting off as a reservist. This way you can start training, listen to stories, and see if enlisting in the army is really something you want to do, with no obligation to go overseas. If it’s what you are interested in, then from there you can enlist in the army. It’s a big decision, because after you enlist you have to go wherever they need you.
Q. What three words would you use to describe your military experience?
A. Emotional, challenging, rewarding.
Over the next month, the Trauma and Attachment Report will be following up this interview with one focusing on this soldier’s sister, who will share her experience of having a close family member serving overseas.
–Kelsey Bick, Contributing Writer