Vimy Ridge tour gives hope to Canadian veterans suffering from PTSD
Sean Stadnisky, a veteran of the Royal Canadian Navy, takes a personal moment on to reflect at the wall of names representing the thousands of soldiers killed at Vimy Ridge in 1917 at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France on Sunday, May 26, 2013. (Murray Brewster / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, May 26, 2013 3:32PM EDT
VIMY RIDGE, FRANCE -- A group of Canadian soldiers, struggling with post traumatic stress, paid a moving visit to Vimy Ridge on Sunday, in the hope the carnage from one of the country's most horrific battles will help bring comfort.
With an authentic First World War officer's trench watch in his pocket, Capt. Andrew Richardson says the journey to the site of the historic engagement helps make sense of his time in Afghanistan.
Carved on the walls of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial are the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were killed in France in the First World World and whose final resting place was not known as the memorial was completed in the 1930s.
The names include many killed in the April 9, 1917, Battle of Vimy Ridge, but Richardson says he thinks about the ones who went home and picked up the pieces of their shattered lives.
"Just standing here, I can't believe the number of shell craters," he said, surveying the landscape still rumpled and possibly stitched with unexploded bombs. "It's a hell of a feeling."
The scale of the devastation, even with the passage of almost 100 years, is breathtaking, and it made the young artillery officer wonder where the survivors found the strength not only to carry on, but flourish.
"I know how my war experiences shaped me, but to have literally gone through hell; to have lived with rats; the constant threat of being blown up; the constant shelling; the raids; I can't even begin to imagine what those guys went through," said Richardson, who served in Kandahar in 2011.
The fact the majority of them resumed their lives, without doubt suffering from post traumatic stress, gives him hope for his future.
"When you look at the contributions of the soldiers who had fought here throughout Canadian society, once they got home; these men came back weaker in some ways, but strengthened and resolved," he said.
"It is that kind of dedication that has led to where we are now" as a nation.
Richardson was one of handful of soldiers, both serving and retired, who visited the monument on Sunday in northeastern France, through the support of Wounded Warriors Canada, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of mental health in the military.
The group's aim has been to help cover the gaps in government services with innovative programs activities.
The founder, Capt. Wayne Johnston, said trips like the one to Vimy have helped soldiers "complete the circle" and come away with a new sense of purpose.
"A good argument can be made that a lot of the veterans who helped make (our) country suffered from PTSD," he said, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder.
"You can suffer from an operational stress injury and still be a high functioning person."
Soldiers taking part in the group's cycling tour through northern France and southern England, in support of the British-based Help for Heroes charity, will get more chances to connect with the past. As many as 300 riders -- British and Canadian -- will stop at various old battlefields and monuments, many of them from the First World War.
The Canadian military estimates there are as many as 3,900 soldiers, out of the nearly 40,000 who served in Afghanistan, suffering from what it calls an operational stress injury.
The statistic, released last year as part of a larger study, does not attempt to calculate how many cases may emerge in future, nor does it take into account soldiers and veterans who served on previous high-risk deployments, such as the low-grade war in the Balkans and the disastrously peacekeeping mission to Rwanda.
The cycling tour comes just days after a young British soldier, Lee Rigby, was hacked to death in London by two men making terrorist claims, and following a reported attack Saturday on a French soldier in Paris.
Johnston said they are dramatic demonstrations of how troops are faced with a different kind of war today. He said there are no plans to cancel or scale back the ride.
"On the contrary, I hope Fusilier Rigby will be up there looking down on us with a bit of pride, knowing this ride didn't stop and we carried on," he said.