Thank you, Mr. Chair.
My thanks also go to all the committee members for inviting me to appear as part of this important study.
My name is Hélène Le Scelleur; I am a retired captain. I joined the Canadian Armed Forces at the age of 17. Belonging to something bigger than myself was what motivated that decision. Basically, I saw myself meeting the challenges shown in the recruiting advertisements.
I started out as a member of the first cohort of women in the infantry reserve, then I joined the regular forces. I committed myself heart and soul. I took my place, and achieved success, in a predominantly male environment. As a soldier, I was always one of the elite and I was rewarded in many ways. During my career, which extended over 26 years, I served in a number of units: twice in the former Yugoslavia and then, in 2007, in Afghanistan. I was also an aide-de-camp to the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, the Governor General of Canada.
My career was full of rich and rewarding moments, both in the ranks and as a commissioned officer.
However, in April 2016, I was discharged from the forces on medical grounds, after a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress.
From the time I was put into a permanent medical category until my discharge from the forces, two years and three months went by. The transition period was difficult and marked by times of intense suffering. I had suicidal thoughts. Like a number of my comrades, I went through episodes of suicidal thoughts and, had it not been for my husband and my children, I would not be here to testify before you.
I would like to make it clear to you that the problem is not related to my vocational transition because I have been able to pursue doctoral studies in social work. Nor is the problem because of a lack of health care, which would have made my symptoms worse. I was actually looked after very well by health professionals: the psychiatrists, the psychologists, my psychotherapist and my family doctor.
In my case, as in the cases of all the other veterans I know, and there are hundreds of them, it is the social aspect of the transition that has been completely eliminated from the process.
The 2014 Senate report entitled “The Transition to Civilian Life of Veterans” significantly echoes that discourse. The current trend is to maintain a focus on the vocational aspect of the transition but without considering another aspect inherent to it, namely, the adjustments to one’s identity and interpersonal relationships.
In addition, throughout the work of the Standing Committee on National Defence, despite the many research projects on mental injuries being conducted in the public sector and in universities, the statement is that it remains key to be critical of the medical profession, which is desperately trying to find a biological reason to explain mental conditions. With that in mind, approaches other than medical ones must be considered in the treatment of operational stress injuries, specifically the question of identity in the process.
In the Senate report I mentioned previously, the Standing Committee on National Defence also pointed out that, despite significant efforts at awareness and the range of mental health services in the Canadian Armed Forces, the feeling of lost identity is likely to make itself felt upon leaving the forces, which increases the psychological distress that is already present.
The Canadian Armed Forces have adopted clear policies for the reintegration of soldiers with their families, and with their organizations when they return to their bases after an operational mission. However, their reintegration in other aspects, such as their personal and social identity, after fighting a war, seems to be missing from the current process of transition.
In addition, little research has been done into the subjective experiences of current and former members of the military, into evaluating their process of transition towards their discharge from the Canadian Armed Forces in terms of how their well-being increases or decreases, and into expressing their needs outside the constraints of the prevailing discourse.
Currently, there is no Canadian literature on interpersonal rehabilitation with veterans and their families as they make the transition to civilian life. In his 2012 report, Pierre Daigle, the Ombudsman for the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces, points out that the simple use of the expression “return to civilian life” could in fact be a factor in the suffering.
Finally, the term “return to civilian life” is sometimes employed by CF leaders and administrators. It completely misrepresents the reality facing most members afflicted with OSIs and no longer fit to serve. Though demographics are shifting, a preponderance of CF members still joined the military in early adulthood and know only what it is to be a sailor, soldier or airman/woman. Not only has their military career been the only one they have ever had, but it is a major part of their identity. As a result, the notion of “returning to civilian life” is invariably more complex and cathartic than the term suggests. More often than not it is an arrival to adult civilian life rather than a return, with all the uncertainty and trepidation that such entails.
I fully support that statement. The shaping of a soldier, from the oath of allegiance ceremony, through basic training — which is designed to get the civilian out and put the military unit in — and becoming a trained military member, forms the foundation on which a military identity is built. That identity remains ingrained for the rest of our careers.
We put a lot of effort into training our military, but we forget that we have to detrain them when they leave. The detraining cannot take the form of current transition programs, because they are not designed to consider that aspect. We should invest in training to return to civilian life that would focus on helping us to rediscover ourselves as individuals. It should establish our own values and our own needs, something members of the military have never done, because we think and act as a team in which individualism has no place. We have to learn how to build our own individuality once more.
However, that is not easy when you are going through the transition in isolation, as is the case for all those who are discharged for medical reasons. As soon as the diagnosis is given, a label follows, and a kind of rejection is experienced immediately. We are slowly moved aside, or even transferred to the Joint Personnel Support Team. From that point, the entire process is individual. In a way, we are isolated from and forgotten by the system that shaped us. We feel the burden of our suffering in addition to the burden of this rejection.
We go through the discharge process ourselves, with no social support, no comrades or peers to help. We wear our equipment, an important symbol of identity, and our identity cards, with no thanks, no honours, and no acknowledgement of what we have given. We have to beg to leave with dignity; there are no parades to recognize our service and our sacrifice.
So ask yourselves, when you add all that up, whether it may be normal for a person to have suicidal thoughts.
I would have liked to leave with honour. The current process leaves us with a bitter taste that implies that, because we are wounded, we are no longer worthy enough to be mentioned or respected for what we gave to the fight. Believe you me, that is enough to lead a person who is suffering to suicide.
Once again, Mr. Chair and members of the committee, I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to testify today. I sincerely believe that changes can be made to support our veterans in an honourable and respectful transition that could, I am convinced, avoid a descent into hell and a fatal act.
I will be pleased to answer your questions about my situation, and I gladly welcome your comments.