As part of my role as an ambassador for the Théâtre des Petites Lanternes’ Monarques Project, I was offered the opportunity to be paired with a veteran who has developed post-traumatic stress disorder and is in recovery. In looking for her name on the web and I found several articles and interviews about her.
At first glance, I was fascinated by what I read about her and I looked forward to meeting her to learn more about her experience of military life, something about which I know very little. What I could not have foreseen was that creating a song would contribute to her recovery! I am amazed by this discovery, but not surprised because I have always believed that the arts, in all its forms of expression, can improve the physical and mental health of people who are suffering.
My first meeting with Hélène, who has been a veteran for five years, was very stimulating for a "young retiree" coming out of 45 years as a manager for the health network. I gradually got to know this soldier and officer in the Canadian Armed Forces as someone who was, herself, a manager of health services. This was the first link that connected us, but we discovered many more similarities that brought us closer and closer throughout our exchanges.
We are both committed, passionate about "serving" for the improvement of our society. We are women on a "mission" who have fought in a world of men; managers with participatory leadership styles who aim for team performance. I quickly found that I had a great deal of interest in better understanding her personal journey as a soldier and her inspiring and overwhelming return, her transition, to another stage in her life as a woman and as a citizen after 26 years in her armed forces family.
Her commitment to the cause
At the age of 17 Hélène decided to join this new family because of how well it suited her need for structure. She put her uniform on with pride and felt privileged with the new status it gave her.
Serving first as an infantryman and then as an administrative clerk, her first mission took her to the former Yugoslavia. As a non-commissioned officer in a second peacekeeping mission, she gradually learned about countries at war and how to live in this very different context. She became an officer at the age of 30 after "having worked much more than her brothers in arms, and having to be more male than the men," in her own words.
She prepared, though intensive training with the first French-speaking rotation at Val Cartier, for a mission to confront the Taliban in Afghanistan. She felt proud and energetic about going to defend her country, but in order to be ready for any possibility, she also bid farewell to her 9-year-old son and her family before she left.
I admire her courage and her composure, but at the same time I wonder about the impact of this farewell on those close to her.
Her mission in Afghanistan
In Kandahar, she led a large health services team in collaboration with a doctor, to coordinate the medical services required by the injured. She worked hard to gain acceptance and integration of her resources on the ground with the infantry so that they could better do their jobs. When one of her subordinates, whom she chose specifically for his ability to integrate well, died on August 22 in an accident that ended up highly publicized given the presence of journalist Patrice Roy and his cameraman, it was a very heavy burden to bear.
She felt responsible for the assignment and the death of the soldier in the accident. She mourned him during his ramp ceremony and thought of her family and her friends… but life goes on and, as she put it, "after many other ramp ceremonies, you end up not crying anymore." She also lost another subordinate during this mission, another heavy weight to carry.
Feeling responsible is characteristic of anyone in authority who is called upon to make decisions and guilt is a feeling that I share with Hélène.
On August 22nd
When you passed away
Forever this day will be
My remembrance day
My remembrance day
A second trauma
A few weeks later, she experienced another powerful event that would also take a personal toll when she returned from her mission. While accompanying a commander and his team on a visit from a politician who wanted to distribute “Jos Louis” cakes. On the way back from the visit, her tank was attacked with a remotely triggered bomb and she was the only one member of the team who was not seriously injured.
Like a good soldier, she worked to guard the tank by herself through four long hours of darkness on that moonless night. Machine gun in hand, she was ready to fire on the enemy at any point until help could arrive.
Hélène was recognized for this gesture of bravery, but nothing more because she was just doing her duty. I, however, am dazzled by this feat.
I consider Hélène the fighter to be heroic!
A legacy before her departure
While she is proud of this exceptional action, Hélène said she is even more proud of the comprehensive acute care clinics for Afghans that she organized before leaving the country. She holds on to precious memories of the women and children who were able to benefit from local care in their communities. She had to convince her superiors as well as CIDA and the NGOs to make this beautiful project possible; a positive achievement in a country at war.
I admire Hélène for what she left as a legacy and I, too, tried to leave one of my own in a different but similarly complex context of professional bureaucracy.
The dread of returning home
The return from her mission proved to be difficult. Separated from her team, her second family, with whom she had lived intense moments over the past seven months, she was transferred to an administrative function. At home, she found herself constantly looking for her weapon because, "without it, we are vulnerable.” Night sweats, nightmares, intolerance of other people's difficulties, and emotional disconnection surrounded her on all sides.
Her life was turned upside down when the commandant asked her to accompany him to the bereaved families' supper. She broke down in front of him because her life had become an emotional time bomb. Working up the courage to ask for help, this officer climbed the stairs of the medical centre in Valcartier, known among soldiers as "the staircase of shame".
After a little rest, medical and psychological care she moved on to a new role with the Governor General at Rideau Hall as an aide-de-camp. She still suffered from insomnia, she drank more and more but she still managed to make six state visits abroad with the Governor General. Looking back on it, she told me she "was running on borrowed time."
On her return, she was exhausted and left Rideau Hall asking for sick leave. Her new assignment and the lack of supervised medical support did not help her get back on her feet. She needed the support of her family but was not allowed the transfer needed to get closer to them.
It was not until she found a new position, serving under a woman who believed in her and who, like her, had to fight for promotions, that she was able to get the medical treatments she needed. With that helping hand, she was able to work on her mental health and soon aspired to be a major.
I admire Hélène for her tenacity, her perseverance and her desire to continue advancing her military career, despite the difficulties of the transition she experienced upon returning from her mission.
The end of her military career
With her renewed enthusiasm, the armed forces allowed her to enroll for a master's degree in social sciences. She met a new partner with whom she had a second child. Everything seemed to be looking up and she considered herself well right up until the moment when she was informed that she would be released. The army no longer believed her fit to be redeployed over the next few years.
This news came out of the blue, and despite her arguments to the contrary she was invited to "make the outs” and return her uniform.
“With each piece I returned, a part of my soul disappeared," she told me in a tone both impersonal and cold. She was accompanied like a prisoner would be, but after 26 years of loyal service.
That is how, she became a retiree at 43; a veteran of the armed forces who will be able to wear her dress uniform, the only one she was allowed to keep, only on certain special occasions.
What a disaster to leave with so little gratitude and without any consideration. I am completely overwhelmed! My own retirement came after a lot of thought, and despite the many acknowledgments that helped me through this transition; I still found it very difficult. Imagine what Helene and many others like her may have experienced through this non-liberating liberation?
A new liberated life
Left to pick up the pieces, she obtained a scholarship on her own from the University to allow her to do her doctorate in social sciences despite the immense pain of having left this family that was so dear to her heart. For her doctoral thesis, she chooses to write about "Life in the Shadow of the Uniform" looking at the experiences of Canadian military personnel and their transition to civilian life and the rebuilding of their identities. They take on new roles as trainers, speakers, panelists, editors, workshop facilitators; all skills they acquire while both returning to civilian life and recovering from post-traumatic stress. Through her studies, she contributed to an important cause, namely that of testifying twice at the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs in order to help change the model of "disgusting transition" that she had to struggle through when she returned from her mission.
In May 2018, a success! “A SEAMLESS TRANSITION TO CIVILIAN LIFE FOR ALL VETERANS: IT’S TIME FOR ACTION,” the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs Report, was adopted by the House of Commons in Ottawa. Her name appears in this report and she said she is very proud of that fact.
Going from "letting oneself be taken care of in order to devote oneself to one's mission" to "being rehabilitated from all angles to be functional again during the transition,” she feels that she has helped change things. With these recent changes to the wording, Hélène probably could have secured accommodations that would have allowed her to continue the military career she loved but was forced to give up.
My remembrance day
In 2017 she decided to have 2 poppies tattooed on her arm to serve as mementos of her two subordinates who died in 2007. She also chose to go to the 10th anniversary memorial of the death of Christian Duchesne and met his family. She finally felt ready to ask for their forgiveness, even if she knew that she is not responsible for the tragic events that changed her life and that of this family. It took her ten years to consider herself fit to finish the mourning necessary to move on with her rehabilitation.
She had also previously written a song called "My Remembrance Day" which had its own part to play in healing the wounds related to her post-traumatic stress.
This contributed to the progress of her recovery and allowed her to regain her freedom:
I want to say goodbye
Tell me I’m not guilty
I want to say goodbye
To finally be free
Listening to this song and watching this video was intensely moving for me and allowed me to better understand the pain and guilt Hélène may have felt. I admire her authenticity.
Please join us on Remembrance Day, the 11th of November. The Théâtre des Petites Lanternes will publish on the Monarques Project Facebook page, a video of Hélène’s song, that she sings with Steve Jourdain, her friend and composer.
Hélène’s story has helped me to continue to believe in the power of words, lyrics, music or any form of artistic expression to help men and women in pain to find healing and to help improve their overall wellbeing.