Aurora Alumni Veterans in Remembrance

Another November 11 is upon us. The sombre sounds of pipes and drums. Cenotaphs. Poppies.

For anyone in recovery, Remembrance Day is a day to pay attention, says Aurora’s clinical director, Anthony Cafik. For those still in uniform, and for those who once wore one, it is especially time to be aware of where your feelings are.

“Things come up that may have been numbed in addiction. It is okay to step into those feelings, to honour them. As a vet, you know bravery.”

Cafik has worked in treatment with veterans and non-veterans for nearly 20 years. He says the whole concept of going to treatment, of asking for and accepting help, is all about bravery.

“Bravery in treatment is allowing yourself to face the fear and allowing yourself to feel. To remember and to be supported,” he says.

In other words, feel your feelings, and let others in to share theirs.

Stephen B. is a 22-year member of the Canadian Armed Forces, a Warrant Officer in rank, and one of many Aurora alumni veterans. As an army corps veteran, and a man with two deployments to Bosnia and one to Afghanistan, he learned how to power through the intensity of Remembrance Day. With booze.

“For me Remembrance Day was always a wake. A chance to get together with the boys. You swap stories with the World War Two vets who would show up at the Legion,” he recalls. “That was the official day to get shit-faced, cry, have your emotional purge and just be done with it.”

Alcohol gave him the ability to express suppressed emotions, he says, and, unfortunately, the liquor also gave him black outs and accompanying trouble – almost every time. In his mind, he was damned if he did, damned if he didn’t drink.

“Why couldn’t I get drunk and just fall asleep like I used to when I was younger?” he asks.

“It was while I was in Afghanistan (in 2006) that I had accepted my fate and locked out all emotions. We had a job to do and didn’t have time to mourn our friends. So, there was that feeling of being stuck. That’s how things went for the next bunch of years. Drinking was the only way I knew how to feel an emotion.”

Recovery and remembrance are difficult partners.

Geri Laurence is an experienced trauma therapist, one who has won the trust and accolades from military members for her 30 years in the field, especially in the area of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Now working with Aurora as a key clinician in its New Dawn family program, she says she is always in awe of the sacrifices military members make.

“If we just reflect for a moment, how many of us choose a career where in our duty we may lose our life? In active duty, many of our military undergo extreme conditions that are overwhelming to their nervous system and this is what causes the symptoms of PTSD,” she says. “Military duty in active combat is not a normal condition and produces severe changes to the nervous system and the brain. As a society we need to understand this so we can offer help, support and compassionate understanding to support these precious members of our society.”

Last year was Stephen’s first Remembrance Day sober. He soldiered up, powered through it, went to the cenotaph “and by quarter to 12 I was already back home, out of my uniform and done for the day. I couldn’t wait to get home.”

For Aurora alumni veterans, learning to deal with emotional moments in recovery takes time and repetition.

“I really didn’t know how to be that day. My last 20 Remembrance Days were just that – a wake.”

Stephen is still attending the Aurora continuing care group every week, and still sticks his head into the odd meeting. The familiarity, the fellowship. The acceptance and understanding is needed sometimes.

Not The Only Aurora Alumni Veterans in Remembrance

Another Aurora alumni veteran working his way through his first few sober Remembrance Days is Jonny M.

He, too, served in Afghanistan, as a proud member of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in September 2009.

The military teaches its troops well. To not be emotional. To rely on your training, of which you get plenty. On the battlefield, at least.

“The first fire fight I got into, I ran towards the fire. I saw people react differently. But I remember I got up over the wall and I’m shooting back. I’m fully exposed and I’m engaging. Then … my drill is kicking in. My mind is going “Hey’ Johnny, get down! Move! Oh yeah. Alright. I can do this.”

“A lot of people always ask me, ‘Were you scared?’ I’m always like no, no I wasn’t. Maybe in the beginning. But after a week, I was kind of in the groove…”

Remembrance Day, however, is an emotional deal. Most people with substance use issues struggle with emotional moments. But being in the moment in a warzone is not the time to be emotional.

By the time Jonny returned from Afghanistan, life was hitting him square in the face.

“After my deployment, I was obsessed. I wanted to go back. My drinking would lead to problems. When life would stress me out I would remember, hey, it wasn’t so bad over there.”

He wanted to return. To a warzone. To find simplicity.

“Everything is in front of you over there. You’re in the now. You’re focused on just surviving. Protecting the guy beside you. It’s just so easy. Here, you got all this shit on your plate. The world is falling apart and you’re trying and you’re just not feeling like you’re doing enough for those that you love. I was just obsessed with going back. I was losing sleep. I had insomnia.”

That depression accelerated after he left the military in 2012.

“Life got really hard fast.”

Eventually, he would bounce across the bottom enough to ask for help. He found it first in Veterans Affairs which got him to Aurora November 2017.

The world of recovery, as it often does, began to lead him to others who wanted to help. He went back to school, first to complete high school, and then on to post-secondary. Most importantly, he began to learn about, and reconnect with his indigenous roots. Raised in Norway House Cree Nation, Jonny has begun to think differently about just how he came to be in the military, and what his purpose is in life.

“When I got back from Afghanistan, and when I got out of the service, I walked around like people owed me something. It was like, if you knew what I’ve gone through for you,” he says quietly. “I walked around in that way and I had this idea of what a warrior was. That has changed with embracing my indigenous culture. In our language there is a word which translates to warrior. But it actually means people of the heart. People that connect with others and are there for community. When I think about my time over there, I was oblivious to what was going on in my community.”

Aurora introduced him to recovery, which in turn changed his attitude about virtually everything in his life. Like other Aurora alumni veterans, in his recovery, Jonny has made the changes necessary to be there for his community.

In Winnipeg, he volunteers with the Bear Clan. He has also founded an organization called Strength in The Circle, a “movement towards collective healing for the indigenous people who have suffered through the prevalence of untreated trauma that is the result of historically discriminative policies of successive Canadian governments,” says Jonny.

Print, television and radio media have interviewed him about his path many times. He is quick to credit recovery as the starting point.

“It wasn’t until I found recovery that I started to learn about all these things that I should have been taught growing up,” he says.

Remembrance Day brings up a lot of feelings. Memories. He has to focus on how he is trying to be helpful to his community going forward.

“When I think about my service it is very … I have mixed emotions. I am working on these resentments that I have towards Canada and our government as a whole.”

“It isn’t so much against Canada’s interest over there, or what was going on over there. I signed up to serve Canada and its interests. But not really knowing the transgressions that Canada has had and has yet to account for with indigenous people.”

“I’m proud of the time I served, and there’s guys that I call brothers today, but there’s a lot of guys there that I never want to see again. I forgave them, but they don’t need to know I forgave them. So, there’s a lot of mixed emotions.”

As Remembrance Day 2020 arrives, Aurora continues to advocate for Aurora alumni veterans who have served.

“For any of our military that are in early recovery, I invite you to connect and receive compassionate support,” says Laurence. “We know that in healthy connection and relationships of understanding and care that we can heal. In support and care, we now know from neuroscience that we can start to heal the impact of trauma. In our safe therapeutic connection with one another we are changing the neuropathways of the traumatic responses and fostering more care and compassion.”

“To those in uniform serving today and to those who have served in the past, we will hold sacred space for you always in our hearts as we come to understand your sacrifices, which were many. Our prayers, compassion and understanding are here to walk by your side and provide comfort, compassion and healing.”