Chris Linford can identify two incidents where his involvement in war-torn parts of the world definitely had a deep and lasting effect on his mental health and wellbeing.
Linford, who recently retired from the Army with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for almost 10 years before admitting it even existed to his wife, children and superiors. It recurred with a suddenness when he was stationed in Kandahar.
Linford was a nurse and worked in field hospitals in a number of war zones — the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Rwanda in 1994 and Afghanistan in 2007.
He says he did get help while in the military and he encourages soldiers who are struggling with PTSD to ask for help while still a part of the Canadian Forces. But he acknowledges that it is very difficult to ask for that help.
He and his wife Kathryn, who has been a key part of his recovery, are the national ambassadors for Wounded Warriors Canada. They spoke to the Langley Rotary Club on Thursday, March 6. The club will be raising funds for their organization throughout 2014. The Linfords are residents of Sooke.
“This is an uncomfortable subject,” he said. “PTSD is a very complex injury, which often leads to misinformation and stereotyping.”
He believes it first struck him when he was sent to Rwanda, as the genocide which took one million lives was taking place. He was one of about 200 Canadian military members sent on very short notice to set up clinics to help treat cholera among refugees.
“I know for sure that is where I got PTSD,” he said. “Two incidents hurt me to my core.”
One involved a man lying in the middle of a road, who had been run over and was severely injured. As medics tried to help lift him off the road, he died. Two more badly-injured people were lying in the grass, but the Canadians were unable to do anything for them.
The other involved a baby, who died during a test he was conducting in the field hospital. Babies and children were routinely abandoned there, by parents whop hoped the children might have a better chance of survival.
“I harboured feelings of failure for a long time. It hurt me deeply.”
He did not discuss his distress with anyone, but his wife and family knew that something was eating at him.
“His anger would rise and I avoided these situations as best as I could,” his wife Kathryn said.
By 2004, he was unable to sleep at night and he finally saw the base surgeon, and got help the first time he asked.
“I did not lose my career,” as he had feared.
Within a year, he felt much better. But then he was sent to Afghanistan, to eventually run a hospital in Kandahar. The PTSD returned. He again hid it from his fellow military members, because he wanted to finish his tour of duty.
“I knew I would ask for help as soon as I got home.”
This time, Kathryn was even more involved and also received help for her exposure to Chris’ PTSD.
He took part in many programs to help him deal with it, and was introduced to Wounded Warriors Canada. He also wrote a book, Warrior Rising, which was a significant part of his therapy.
“It is possible to get better and live a normal life,” he said. “I believe I am actually a better person. I am much more aware of who I am and how I fit into this world. I am fearful of nothing now.”
Chris acknowledges that PTSD can take a fearful toll, with many veterans losing their families, and some committing suicide. He is grateful his wife and children stuck by him as he struggled.
“I have seen him come a long way,” Kathryn said. “Gone are the day of nightmares. He still gets triggered at times — stressed-out and anxious. He now knows how to manage it.
“Veterans with stress injuries are not a population to be pitied. They might just be the Canadians who are prepared to take on our challenges and lead the way.”
Wounded Warriors Canada offers a variety of programs to help veterans get better. It will spend $1 million this year on a variety of programs. It trains service dogs for veterans, under a program called Courageous Companion. It is involved in a veterans’ transition program, based at UBC. And in September, it will host a weekend retreat on Vancouver Island for 50 veterans and their spouses, at no cost to them.
More details about Wounded Warriors Canada can be found on its website, www.woundedwarriors.ca.