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Home for good: We must honour living veterans

Tim Black is director of the Department of Educational Psychology and Leadership Studies at the University of Victoria.

In Canada, veterans' issues have become almost exclusively focused on post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide as a result of military service in conflict zones. Because of this narrow focus, we've learned a tremendous amount in the last 25 years about how to treat PTSD and other mental-health disorders. But there's a down side. While we've been paying such close attention to these more clinical issues, we may be missing the bigger picture of struggles that military members face as they make the transition to civilian life.

As a trauma counsellor working with Canadian veterans for almost 20 years, and as a researcher at the University of Victoria, I've witnessed firsthand the tremendous gifts that military service can bestow upon its members. I've also seen the devastating costs it can exact not only on veterans but on their families and friends as well.

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A few years ago, I conducted a study asking veterans what would have helped them make a more successful transition out of the military. One of veterans' most common responses, and what really stuck with me, was that it would have helped if civilians understood more about the military way of life.

Men and women who wear the uniform sign a contract agreeing to die for their country, as part of their job, if required. Based on what veterans have shared with me, I've come to understand that this changes a person's perspective of the world. Combat, killing, and witnessing death changes a person, as does service and sacrifice.

All those changes take hold and then, one day, the military member leaves the place where everything makes sense. (Or they are asked to leave because they can no longer meet "universality of service" requirements.) They arrive back in the civilian world and find themselves to be a stranger in a strange land.

Issues of identity loom large for many veterans as they attempt to rejoin a society that often fails to help veterans reconstruct a sense of who they are that helps them find their way in postmilitary life. They suffer with feelings of loneliness, shame, isolation and fear. Reservists are often the hardest hit. I've learned that leaving the military doesn't ensure the veteran will join the world again.

Despite the fact that I grew up in the nation's capital beside a military family, I knew virtually nothing about their lives. While in Canada, we honour those who died in their service every Nov. 11, I worry that we have yet to find a meaningful way to honour the living, ill and injured veterans who may live in the house right beside us.

Perhaps it is time for we civilians to examine how to help the veteran community return people to their full and rightful place in society and bring them home for good.

I propose that we as a nation establish a day in the spring to honour all living veterans, including those who are ill and injured, for their service.

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Tim Black is co-founder of and lead researcher for Couples Overcoming PTSD Everyday, a national program helping veterans and their families learn to manage PTSD in the home.

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