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Researchers explore the post-deployment life of Canada’s veterans

The transition from the military to the civilian world can be a tricky one.

Illustration by Noma Bar.
Illustration by Noma Bar.

“The way some veterans have spoken about it reminds me of when I first came to Canada,” says Maya Eichler, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Social Innovation and Community Engagement at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. “I spoke the language – people could speak to me, I could speak to them – but we didn’t quite understand each other.”

Dr. Eichler is alluding to the “cross-cultural experience” faced by former soldiers embarking on civilian life. An assistant professor in the departments of political and Canadian studies as well as women’s studies at MSVU, Dr. Eichler has recently trained her eye on the new generation of Canadian veterans. For her study, “Veterans Policy and the Transition from Military to Civilian Life,” Dr. Eichler will conduct in-depth interviews with up to 100 veterans who’ve served in Canada’s most recent military engagements, including Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan.

Dr. Eichler will compare male and female soldiers’ transition experiences, and will also interview family members, veterans’ service providers and veteran activists. Her lens on gender, and her inclusion of broader familial and community perspectives, make Dr. Eichler’s study notable. “As a political scientist I’m very interested in the struggle over veterans’ policy,” she says. “I’m thinking about transition in terms of these interlocking social, economic, psychological and gender issues and how they interact with policy.”

Dr. Eichler is 25 interviews in and encounters “new insights” with each one. One veteran described requesting leave from work – “leave” to a soldier means simply “vacation” – only to be asked by an alarmed boss why she had to go on leave: had there been a crisis? Others talk of steep learning curves, especially those who’ve never lived off base or in their own homes. “They don’t know how to go shopping. They don’t know how to rent an apartment.” Dr. Eichler says she’ll conduct a deeper analysis once patterns emerge. Meanwhile, two key lessons are already apparent. One: there is no typical veteran’s story. And two: the term “transition” is inadequate. “ ‘Transition’ implies going from one to the other,” says Dr. Eichler. “But people never ‘transition’ fully. They leave things behind, they take things with them. It’s about legacies – some positive, some negative.”

At the other end of the country at the University of Victoria, Tim Black, associate professor and department chair in education psychology and leadership studies, puts it another way. “The military way of life changes you fundamentally,” says Dr. Black, who has devoted much of his clinical work and scholarship over two decades to veterans, including co-developing the Veterans Transition Network with colleagues at the University of British Columbia in 1998. “You come back to the civilian world as a veteran, which could be viewed as a nebulous, politically charged label. Negotiating that identity is tricky for many people.”

Dr. Black says veterans’ common struggles are not necessarily what the wider public would expect. For example, instead of “what happened to them” while on deployment, many say their main problem is friendship, a different ball game outside the military’s group-based social environment. “I’ve been one of the more vocal voices in the research community to switch the focus from post-traumatic stress disorder to transition,” says Dr. Black. “Transition encompasses PTSD, not the other way around. PTSD doesn’t necessarily take away your whole identity. But some people literally don’t know who they are now that they’re out of the military.”

In 2010, Dr. Black published the results of an online survey of 216 veterans. One striking fact reported by some of the veterans was that they typically withheld their military experience in the civilian world because they felt it would be perceived negatively. That finding led to a current study by one of Dr. Black’s master’s students, supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant, on public perceptions of the military. “As a society we don’t pay much attention to what the military does,” says Dr. Black. “People tend to be critical of the military, be down on the military. That cultural piece is for me why transition issues matter.”

A decade ago, the kinds of inquiries Drs. Eichler and Black are conducting would have popped up as their own isolated islands in a sea of academic study. Now, the plight and well-being of veterans, and simply their growing presence in society since the war in Afghanistan, is attracting critical study across a broad spectrum of disciplines nationwide, from health and sciences to arts and humanities.

“It’s been a real growth area of research,” says Alice Aiken, associate director of the School of Rehabilitation Therapy at Queen’s University and scientific director of the Canadian Institute for Military and Veterans’ Health Research, or CIMVHR. “We have 36 Canadian universities in our network and we have researchers at them all doing work on veterans and veterans’ health. This is not only professors in the health sciences; we have professors from literature, drama, history and even music doing related research. We take ‘health’ in the broadest sense of the World Health Organization definition: a complete state of mental, physical and social well-being.”

Founded in 2010, CIMVHR has played no small part in putting veterans-related research on the academic radar. Canada is home to between 600,000 and 700,000 veterans, nearly 40,000 of whom served in Afghanistan, and Dr. Aiken says Canadian academia is late to the game in seeking to understand their issues and needs. “Before we started,” she says, “things were done ad hoc, this here and that there, and the results weren’t going anywhere. We’ve captured the Canadian landscape; we’ve become the essential knowledge broker.”

Formed in collaboration with, but at arms’ length from, the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada, CIMVHR distributes a handful of graduate scholarships and runs a graduate webinar course with, this year, 36 participants nationwide. CIMVHR’s annual conference on military and veterans’ health, now in its fifth year, has become a focal point. “It’s the one place every year where government, the military, clinicians, social workers and veterans all come together,” says Dr. Black. “The information that gets shared and the connections made are huge. … David Pedlar [director of research for VAC] is there. I see him once a year. We compare notes, we talk about collaboration.”

Kip Pegley, an associate professor of musicology at Queen’s University, is likewise enthusiastic about CIMVHR. “You have a network of researchers really committed to improving the lives of military personnel. That’s powerful. I’ve heard vets speak to those conferences and say ‘This is unbelievable. We feel like we’re on the radar.’”

Dr. Pegley, a Halifax native whose father was a veteran of the Korean War, is part of that network. Co-editor of the 2012 essay collection, Music, Violence and Politics, she’s in the midst of a multi-year research program funded by SSHRC on the relationship between music, war and Canadian identity. In addition to studying the use of music in Canadian War Museum exhibits, Dr. Pegley has conducted qualitative interviews – “We often meet in a Tim Horton’s” – with 20 Canadian army veterans who served in Bosnia, Cyprus and Afghanistan. Dr. Pegley doesn’t ask these men and women about PTSD or transition issues per se. She asks them about their use of music, both during and after deployment, which has often led to them talking about PTSD and how music has helped them cope. “I have found the vets incredibly generous in telling me about their struggles and difficulties, especially if it might help future soldiers,” says Dr. Pegley.

In a paper slated for the second edition of CIMVHR’s new publication, the Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health, Dr. Pegley argues that in the face of growing neurological science proving music’s measurable effect on the body and the brain – from heart rate and blood pressure to muscle tension and hormone levels – music’s potential to aid in PTSD prevention and management should be studied more deeply. She writes, “If soldiers wearing headsets appeared as though they were simply ‘tuning out,’ they were in fact, consciously or not, gaining more control of their environment and their responses to it – from the inside out.”

Dr. Pegley describes how veterans she spoke with had used music to “focus, go inside, as an incredibly important mode of preparation” before going out on patrols or into potential combat situations, or conversely “to come back down” after returning to camp. Singing along with crewmates in the back of a light armoured vehicle was, for some, grounding and bonding. Others related sharing iPods while on duty. One female driver of a LAV sang hymns she’d learned from her grandmother while driving her crew across the Afghan desert. In effect, Dr. Pegley explains, they were using music “to protect and maintain their mental health.”

Back home, soldiers use music to help themselves “manage, and remember, the experience of war.” Some veterans only listen to music they knew before they were deployed – a lost time of stability. For others, particular songs trigger excruciating memories. Bagpipes, associated for many with ramp ceremonies for fallen soldiers, can be potent. “Hearing them … can unleash feelings of loneliness or rage, often when they least expect it.” Dr. Pegley wants to investigate how personalized playlists could be used in neurofeedback treatments to help sufferers of PTSD “reset” their brains.

Before the launch in early 2015 of CIMVHR’s new journal, Dr. Pegley may have sent her paper to a musicology journal, far from the eyes of those with a stake in veterans’ well-being. “We still encourage researchers to publish diversely,” says Dr. Aiken, whose serves as co-editor-in-chief of JMVFH. “But we really needed a go-to spot for military, veterans and family health research. My own PhD is in health services and health policy. If I wanted to influence government policy makers, I’d publish in our journal. We know they’re paying attention.”

Illustration by Noma Bar.
Illustration by Noma Bar.

Ibolja Cernak, professor and chair of Canadian Military and Veterans’ Rehabilitation Research at the University of Alberta, certainly hopes so.

A physician with a PhD in neuroscience and master’s degrees in biomedical engineering and homeland security and public health preparedness, Dr. Cernak has devoted her more than 25-year career to military and veterans’ issues. She is senior author of a paper published in JMVFH’s first issue, which discusses results from her current, groundbreaking research, for which she became the first North American scholar to embed with soldiers during deployment in combat zones. (The first phase of Dr. Cernak’s research was reported in the March 2014 issue of University Affairs.) The findings outlined in that paper, how soldiers’ cognition improves during deployment, form one piece of what Dr. Cernak says will ultimately be a more accurate and complete understanding of soldiers’ and veterans’ resilience against, and susceptibility to, mental health problems in different operational-stress environments.

Her plan was to track 200 soldiers at five time points: during training, during service and deployment, during early readjustment (six to nine months post-deployment), and then two and five years later. The study combines questionnaires with objective data: computerized cognitive testing (measuring memory function, spatial memory, focus, attention switching, emotion and impulse control, among others) and stress-hormone measurement through saliva and urine samples. “As we repeat these baselines at multiple time points, in different stress situations,” says Dr. Cernak, “we can sense pre-emptively when a person moves from a functional stage to a dysfunctional stage. We can identify people at risk and intervene on time.”

However, with the first three stages of testing complete (training, deployment and readjustment), Dr. Cernak’s funding from the Royal Canadian Legion has run its course, so the study has closed early. She’s not alone in pointing out that funding in this area can be challenging to come by through the traditional “tri-council” of scholarly research funding bodies: SSHRC, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. “Currently, when you send a funding proposal that includes ‘military,’ it is seen as too specific. You are advised to apply for support from DND,” says Dr. Cernak. “Health problems military personnel acquire due to their service are complex and long term, and as such they represent a health care challenge for the entire country. This should be recognized by every research funding agency.”

Veterans Affairs does conduct its own research on veterans, chiefly via the Life After Service Survey administered by Statistics Canada. The survey consists of telephone interviews of veterans: in 2010, StatsCan interviewed 3,154 regular force veterans released from duty between 1998 and 2007; and in 2013, it interviewed about 3,450 regular and reserve force veterans released between 1998 and 2012. (VAC researchers could not be interviewed for this article, which was being compiled during the recent federal election campaign: University Affairs was told no VAC staff could be interviewed while the campaign was ongoing.)

“Their job is to research veterans, and they do,” says UVic’s Dr. Black, referring to Veterans Affairs Canada. “But why shouldn’t we also have independent academic research, to have something to compare to the government statistics? Since not all veterans are clients of Veterans Affairs, independent researchers could potentially capture experiences not covered by government sources. I can pursue whatever line of questioning I choose through academic freedom.”

Dr Cernak’s research, though incomplete, offers evidence supporting Dr. Black’s argument. “Our study covers three essential operational environments in a military career, which provides unique insight into the effects of operational stressors,” says Dr. Cernak. “We’re performing quite a complex statistical analysis, looking at the patterns that would identify those at risk of developing mental health problems, compared to the patterns of those with high resilience.”

So far, her study reveals a higher incidence of depressive behaviour, anxiety and pre-PTSD behaviour among those serving in the military than the official statistics show: 15 percent pre-deployment, 28 to 30 percent during deployment and about 25 percent post-deployment. (The most recent official statistic of “cumulative incidence of PTSD” in the military population, from government data collected between 2001 and 2011, is 8 per cent, with other Afghanistan-related mental disorders affecting 5.2 percent of personnel.) Dr. Cernak’s team will also break down data in ways the government studies don’t.

“What is the percentage [of mental health problems] among artillery versus support staff? What about operational experience, number of deployments, combat versus peacekeeping deployment? We’re building these databases. In our data analysis, the stress-coping of every individual is compared to his or her own previous baselines. This allows us to identify subtle changes in an individual’s health.”

Despite having to close her study early, Dr. Cernak is hopeful for veterans’ research – and, by extension, veterans’ improved well-being – down the road. “CIMVHR is still in a very first phase, trying to raise awareness and co-ordinate potential collaboration. But it will not solely depend on academic researchers,” she says. “It will depend on recognition of its importance through financial support.”

Anita Lahey
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  1. S. Logan / December 10, 2015 at 21:33

    It’s wonderful to hear about this being researched more. My husband had been out of the Canadian military for 5 years when I met him, but I regularly see the effects his service still has (e.g. nightmares, etc). His (military) psychiatrist had to go on stress leave after getting the proper clearance level and reading his file. I hope the research provides some useful insight into the long-term effects of such service.

  2. Amin / December 10, 2015 at 21:59

    There is a big difference between; when someone first comes to Canada, and when someone comes back after a military deployment. When one comes first, there is enthusiasm to make the life better, but it is quite different after a deployment.

  3. Steven W. / December 18, 2015 at 07:15

    The trick to this study would be not to let the government know that the soldiers and their experiences are being studied. Otherwise you run the chance of contamination. In other words, they could be treated with kid gloves their entire career and post retirement. getting promotions that they otherwise would not have received, or cushy postings. And if they get injured, they may not face the bureaucratic nightmare that VAC can be, getting claims approved that otherwise might have been denied, or approved at higher levels. All in attempt to portray an easy life for all soldiers, and that those who have had reported problems with DND/VAC, are the exceptions and not the norm.