Mental health 'more worthy' cause than war: soldier
Afghanistan war veteran Steve Stoesz survived multiple combat injuries, but his biggest fight was a psychological one -- and it was waiting for him when he returned home.
The Canadian soldier who has been battling anxiety and depression continues to defy what he said was a direct order from the Department of National Defence not to talk publicly about proposed cuts to mental health services for soldiers.
Three days after he spoke to CTV News about his own struggle with mental health issues and obstacles veterans face when looking for treatment, Stoesz appeared on CTV's Question Period Sunday, despite being under investigation for talking to the media.
"I was ordered not to do this interview," he told Question Period. "But at the end of the day, I have to live with myself, and I couldn't live with myself not getting this info out there and making a difference."
"This cause is more worthy than the cause in Afghanistan, and I was willing to die for the cause in Afghanistan to me, so it goes to show how much this means to me," Stoesz said.
He is critical of proposed National Defence job cuts and the proposed closure of a mental health facility in Ottawa, which opposition MPs say will make it harder for soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder to get help.
While Stoesz hasn't been diagnosed with PTSD himself, he said fighting in Afghanistan took an emotional and mental toll on him. Things only got worse when he completed his tour of duty and returned to Canada, Stoesz said.
"Most of my psychological injuries are coming from not getting the proper physical care," Stoesz said. "Since I've been home I've been fighting non-stop for my own kind of deal, and that's just brought such a psychological toll on me that it's been devastating to my whole life and my whole mental state. I have a battle with the medical system, and then as well one with Veterans Affairs."
Stoesz said he didn't meet the full criteria for a PTSD diagnosis even though he has "14 out of 15" symptoms of the disorder.
"I don't have flashbacks from Afghanistan, or the dreams I have, I don't particularly mind. Most of my psychological stuff comes from the fight after. I suffer depression, anxiety, paranoia, that kind of stuff, so almost everything is there for PTSD," he said.
Stoesz told CTV News on Friday that he could face two charges for defying the order not to speak to the media -- conduct unbecoming, or disobeying lawful command. The penalties range from a fine up to $800, time in a military jail, or both.
Meanwhile, National Defence has backpedalled on its plans to eliminate some jobs and services, with officials saying the cuts are only being considered for now.
The union representing military medical professionals has said the cuts will mean closing the Deployment Health Unit, charged with monitoring the mental health of soldiers.
A host of civilian jobs, including cooks, secretaries, weapons technicians and mechanics, could also be on the chopping block.
Peter Stoffer, the NDP Veterans Affairs critic, said Stoesz is not alone in his struggles. The fact that 20 Canadian military personnel -- 19 men and one woman -- took their lives last year underscores the need for more mental health care workers and better services, Stoffer told Question Period.
Chris Alexander, the parliamentary secretary to Defence Minister Peter MacKay, defended his government's record, saying there have been "huge increases" in the service levels provided to veterans and soldiers since 2006, when the Conservatives took power.
"There are dozens of primary care clinics. There are mental health clinics that weren't there before across the country. And we've come close to doubling the number of mental health professionals who are serving the Canadian Forces," he told Question Period. "And we're absolutely committed to making sure that those numbers of frontline workers do not go down."
Still, Alexander said the DND has to find savings somewhere in the system.