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Tour of duty in Afghanistan left military vet haunted
Local man part of class action suit against Ottawa on behalf of soldiers
Kevin Berry knew something wasn’t quite right in his head when he began having dreams of starting his jeep by smashing babies against the fender.
His colleagues in the 3rd Battalion on tour in Kabul, Afghanistan were experiencing similar disturbing imagery in their sleep, the side effect of anti-malarial drugs they had to ingest for six months and the stress and strain of running patrols in a country where many didn’t welcome their presence, and buried bombs in their path.
Sometimes they shared their tales of terror with each other. Often they snuffed them with alcohol. But never did they dare tell their superior officers.
That, they all feared, would be viewed as weakness, malingering.
It’s a stigma that follows soldiers even after they leave the battlefield, says Berry, who grew up in Burnaby.
When he returned to his base in Petawawa, Ont., from Afghanistan in February 2004, his mental health debrief consisted of a lecture in a hall filled with 300 fellow soldiers. After the psychologist asked if anyone had experienced nightmares or other mental issues nobody put up their hand.
Nobody, says Berry, wanted to be put on the “bus of shame” to Ottawa for further counseling.
Berry’s military career ended that September.
The dark, disturbing dreams didn’t.
Upon his return to British Columbia he started working as a guard for an armoured car company, hoping to eventually parlay that into a career as a police officer.
But he couldn’t move forward in his civilian life as his military experience continued to haunt him. He couldn’t focus.
He couldn’t sustain relationships. He couldn’t understand what had gone so terribly wrong.
Berry had embarked on his military career with the best intentions. A big, strapping kid who played on both the offensive and defensive lines for the St. Thomas More football team, he hoped to continue his family’s history of public service to their country; he had relatives who had gone into politics and attained high positions in the civil service.
Berry signed his military papers on his 17th birthday, turning his back on opportunities to play football at UBC or SFU. A few months after graduating from STM in 2001, he was on his way two CFB Petawawa for training. His second day of boot camp was Sept. 11.
That day’s terror attacks changed the direction of Canada’s military instantly. The era of blue helmets and keeping the peace was over.
Berry wasn’t phased.
“I was excited,” he says. “We’re not going to be suntanning in Bosnia anymore.”
From boot camp he was dispatched to battle school in Meaford, Ont. where he learned the basics of armed combat, field tactics and survival.
Alas, coping wasn’t on the curriculum.
Berry served in Afghanistan for six months, running “presence patrols” from a jeep in Kabul, providing security to engineering crews digging wells, and building schools. It was, he says, “just like the wild west.
“There was no easing into the situation.”
One memorable day, the city was rocked by 18 suicide bombings. During the course of his tour, three fellow Canadian soldiers were killed.
“It’s part of the job,” says Berry. “You prepare for it, but you’re not really prepared for it until it happens.”
On those tough days, Berry says the canteen would be particularly liberal putting out balms of the bottled variety, a solace that followed him and many other veterans into their civilian lives.
When his aspirations for a policing career careened off course, Berry got work as a doorman at nightclubs, hoping to progress his way into bar management. The job gave him easy access to alcohol.
For six years he took full advantage, often drinking himself into unconsciousness to turn off the nightly terrors.
“That’s the go-to self medication for a lot of guys,” says Berry. “I didn’t ask for help. I didn’t want that hanging over my head.”
It’s only when he found himself acting out a dream of hand-to-hand combat on his girlfriend lying next to him in bed that he realized he was bottoming out.
“I couldn’t pretend everything was okay anymore,” says Berry, who was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2010. “I caved. I went to Veterans Affairs.”
He wanted help. What he got instead was a cheque.
The New Veterans Charter that had been enacted by Parliament in 2006 did away with long term pension and support programs for disabled veterans. Instead, they’d get a one-time payment, leaving it to the disabled veterans to use that money to get the help they needed. For most, that money was considerably less than they’d earn with a pension.
“I felt abandoned, betrayed, hopeless, gutted,” says Berry, who used his money to pay off some debts instead of getting counseling. “I lost the will to live a lot of days.”
Hurt and angered, he started to focus his energy on righting that wrong. He reached out in online support networks. He wrote letters and articles. He advocated for veterans in similar situations. He joined the Equitas Society, a B.C. based group fighting for better disability benefits for injured soldiers.
On Tuesday, the group filed a class action law suit in B.C. Supreme Court alleging the Canadian government discriminates against its soldiers financially, violating their constitutional rights.
It’s a fight that last week received some unexpected support from Canada’s Auditor-General, who criticized the Canadian Forces and Veterans Affairs for failing to ensure all former military personnel receive proper follow-up and care after their careers.
Sober now for 18 months, Berry is on the long road to changing the system from the inside. He’s studying history part time at Simon Fraser University with a long term hope to perhaps some day enter politics.
“I’m always going to be a soldier,” he says. “But to be told there’s no help. I’ve already made sacrifices; how much more do you want me to give?”
Kevin Berry will be telling his story, and sharing his thoughts about Canada’s support for its disabled veterans at a public talk Nov. 6, 7:30 p.m. at St. Theresa Parish, 5146 Laurel St. in Burnaby. The presentation will be followed by an open discussion and refreshments.