Every year I try to do something, a small gesture of gratitude, for those who have given all for their country, for others. This is a particularly significant time of the year for me; it often cripples me such that I find it hard to communicate much for the week after, this year was no different and in some ways, worse.
My idea this year was to change the narrative on trauma and survival. Rather than asking others to tell their stories of horror and trauma, I asked to hear stories of survival and reconnecting.
Isolation and alienation are the two most dangerous feelings in the world.
They are, I believe, at the root of mass shootings, suicides, a lot of mental health issues and auto-immune challenges.
I was going to have one “winner”. The stories of courage, strength, survival I received left me floored, literally: I may have fainted a few times reading some of them. Here are TEN powerful stories of quiet heroes (including American, Canadian Veterans but also a Dutch Cop and a Canadian Fire Fighter) who have suffered, survived and fought back with all they have. There is no way to “choose”, there is no measuring stick when it comes to trauma nor is there one that can measure the sheer power of those who rise from the darkness to reconnect, live again and re-invent themselves after who they were was taken from them.
I am briefly going to outline their stories here using nicknames. I hope that each of them will allow me to share our journey together in working on their Art piece. I believe their stories are incredibly powerful, healing and inspirational.
American Afghanistan Veteran
Ambushed by 80 taliban in Kapisa Province had his team leader killed by sniper, he took a bullet in his leg whilst he saved the life of a young medic. As the team’s NCOIC it was survivors guilt that crushed him. His friend had died in front of him: many will understand the endless torment of the “would have”, “should have” and even when that is gone the endless fear of forgetting, being told that he had to “leave it behind” and “I understand BUT …”. Three years of surgeries left him in a dark place that many of us are familiar with, when a hand came towards him to pull him up. He was invited to play for a US lacrosse team in the Australian Men’s National Championship Games. From there? He grew wings and pulled others out of the darkness. It is this story of incredible strength, perseverance and finding his “team” again that I wish to tell. What will his art piece look like? I do not know, but I know I shall enjoy every minute of working on it for him.
Cold War Strategic Bomber
Too often we ignore the men and women who served during the so-called Cold War from Germany. We forget what that actually meant. They were there as the giant threat that stopped WWIII. They were the deadly threat. Nuclear weapons mission ready with live launch orders coming through which they had no way of knowing was a training exercise. I wonder that we don’t realize the immense trauma setting lock and load on a nuclear missile that will destroy hundreds of thousands of people if not the world we know. Firing it.
I have many friends from the Korean War, Vietnam and some who served in Germany during the Cold War. Until I received his message on FaceBook it had never occurred to me what that actually meant. It floored me when I realized. How does a man who has gone through that, likely signed all manner of secrecy documents, come home and be, normal? Reconnect? I have found that the Canadian Legion is awful, my apologies but, absolutely awful at actually supporting Veterans that are younger than WWII. I’ve heard (civilian) Canadian Legion Presidents call on WWII vets as being “real” veterans as opposed to … It infuriates me, yet, how much worse for a Cold War German veteran who can not point to a battle, nor an “event”? This is a story I hope I will be able to tell and I hope that it in someway will go towards healing a few wounds out there, some who perhaps have no idea where the source of that wound is or was.
How many traffic accidents is too many? 50? Is there one final incident that crushes a human brain tasked with helping, policing and controlling the carnage? Or is it the accumulation of years, incidents, faces, bodies, repeated over and over again? This man has a supportive wife and a service dog. This is a story I want to tell as I know so many out there living a life of quiet desperation; his story of survival and reconnecting is I think one more step towards changing the narrative on Police PTSD from one of injury to one of hope, inspiration and moving forward. I suspect I may be doing a canine portrait, but I may be wrong!
My Friend is a Hero
This was a new one for me. A friend wrote in on behalf of her pal who is not doing so great right now. A US Veteran who has had his share of trauma: PTSD, TBI and fibromyalgia. Throughout this? He assisted in, fought for and successfully created forward movement in Crisis Lines, Veteran MH and Suicide issues. A message from a friend who wants to give a Veteran a lift who has lifted others as he fought his own demons and overwhelming health issues. Powerful.
Canadian Fire Fighter
Reading his story made my vision blur and my ass hit the floor. It is one that is still being told. We are going to work on his piece together, with likely many sketches and discussions as to how it works or does not. I have found that art can heal in remarkable ways, for one fire fighter (and friend) that I worked with, putting his trauma on a giant canvas that he understands and can point to, allowed him to move forward with his journey. I am hoping that working together we can come up with something that allows this incredible human to move forward with his story, with his healing and his reconnecting with the world.
Chris of #PTSDChat
I know he will be okay with my sharing his name as anybody who follows #PTSDChat will know his kind, gentle reassuring voice. This is a man who has battled more in his life than I think is humanly possible, yet here is smiling and picking others up along the way. This one will be gut wrenching for me personally, as anybody who ever listened to our radio podcast will know and understand. Love this man, respect him and admire him. An honour to create a piece for him. His email to me was as self-deprecating as is his style; short with few details now I get to tell his story in detail and it is a great honour.
Desert Storm Vet & Founder of Dog Rescue/Vet Therapy Dog (name to be disclosed once permission granted)
The title pretty much says it all. I have a few Desert Storm friends who never stop blowing my mind with the incredible things they do for others. From the guys in Colorado who take other vets fishing, mentor them and push them to standing to my friend Julian Pope who advocates for those suffering from Gulf War Syndrome, I am humbled each and every time. This man is no different. These men are made of iron with hearts of pure gold, I am not exaggerating.
Submarine Vet (US)
Another story that had me on the floor. I was once invited to “check out” a British sub. I didn’t get very far. One look at it and I lost my ability to stand. The idea of stepping into that hatch? No. I literally lost consciousness. Submarine veterans suffer incredible stress and trauma, it is a unique environment and one I don’t think we fully appreciate or understand. This is a story I am honoured to share, to do a piece of art for him and to know that his words, his story may reach others out there who might see in it a path out of the darkness.
Submarine Vet (US) My Friend
Well, I get to nominate somebody too don’t I? He already owns a piece of mine which he understood instantly. This one will be for him and will tell his story. From what I now know about the world of submariners these are stories that need to be told and shared. More needs to be done for this group of veterans and I want to show the world why. Whilst the Give Away was on he vanished from my personal FaceBook; he had literally had a bellyful of the negativity on social media. He instead got a self-help book and focused on that instead. I was relieved when he reconnected (mostly because I asked a mutual friend to poke him for me), and realized just how important it is that his story is told.
“Sometimes Kate, I forget that you are proficient in both English and Jackass”, my all time favourite quote of 2017 from a friend. Anybody who knows me for very long knows I insert both my feet in my mouth ahead of any discussion. If I lose my temper all hell breaks lose and I must look like a demented fool typing. This is how I met this Canadian Veteran. We had a “debate” on one of the Military / Veteran groups we both follow. I’d like to say I was gracious, but we know me better. He, however, was. He messaged me afterwards with an incredibly powerful message about his service, what he did to bring awareness to the issue we were discussing and ended it in such a way that impacted me greatly. I hope that he will allow me to share his story and that a piece of art will hang on his wall to remind him of just how much his sacrifices matter to Canada and Canadians.
Note on the painting below and used in the title:
This piece is called Anniversaries and was done for Afghanistan Veterans. When I am able I will write about it but for now it will have to communicate its message without my narrative. It is to be given to a group who supports Afghanistan Veterans or an Afghanistan veteran who connects with it. It is not for sale, although I will happily provide copies at cost. I am very grateful to those who helped me with photos, stories and descriptions. I can only hope I captured one day in Afghanistan.