Afghanistan veterans battle mental health issues

By Meghan Potkins

Corporal Jayson Nickol knows better than most that when you return from war, the battle is only half over.

“I found it hard to come back because I did not want to leave [Afghanistan],” said Nickol.

“I wanted to get back to my friends overseas,” said the 25-year-old. “It was great to come back to see family and friends but I felt like I still had a job to do.”

Making the transition to civilian life is a difficult one for many war veterans who experience mental health crises, a fact that is often forgotten as Canadians prepare to mark Remembrance Day Wednesday.

“The transition from being military to civilian can be very hard, especially if leaving the forces wasn’t necessarily their choice but because of [a] condition, they are no longer able to serve,” said Anne Bailliu of the Ottawa Operational Stress Injury Clinic.

The clinic is one of nine administered by the Veterans Affairs Canada that operate across Canada. She says it is important that veterans and active members of the military receive specifically tailored care when it comes to mental health.
“[It is a] different reality for military…that doesn’t apply to the general public,” said Baillu.

According to a 2007 report compiled by Dr. Mark Zamorski of the Canadian military’s deployment health section, 28 per cent of the 2,700 Canadian soldiers screened right after their Afghan tours displayed symptoms of one or more mental health problems.

Nickol, a Winnipeg native, didn’t experience those symptoms after he was injured in battle while serving in Afghanistan. In June 2008, he was caught in a firefight where he was hit with a round from an AK 47 in his right leg.
After recovering at the U.S. Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, Nickol returned to Winnipeg but found it difficult to get used to being back home.

Nickol said he was able to talk to counselors and social workers provided by the Department of National Defense and Veterans Affairs when he returned home.

The issue of mental health in the military is front and centre following the shooting rampage on a Texas military base last Thursday.

Major Nidal Malik Hasan is the only suspect in a shooting at the Fort Hood army base where an individual opened fire in a room crowded with soldiers, killing 13 and injuring 29.

Currently, Canadian soldiers returning from tours in Afghanistan are sent to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus to spend a week in what the military calls “decompression”. During this week soldiers enjoy a bit of a holiday while focusing on the transition out of the physical and mental stresses of a war zone.

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