Last December, Canada reached a tipping point: for the first time ever, the number of since-retired soldiers who served in Afghanistan outnumbers those still serving in the military. Veterans’ advocates are concerned this will shift a significant mental-health care burden from the military to overtaxed provinces and Veterans Affairs.

With the number of soldiers suffering from combat-related PTSD on the rise and suicide rates soon to rival actual combat deaths, it’s hard to imagine that there could be any good news to come out of this story. But a new initiative could be changing the paradigm for beleaguered veterans: an art and drama therapy program, recognized by mental health advocate Prince Harry via an invitation to the upcoming Invictus Games.

The international, Paralympic-style sporting event for wounded and ill veterans — named after the latin word for “undefeated” — was initiated by Prince Harry in 2014 and the latest edition will take place in Toronto this month.

Sport and theatre

This year, amidst the wheelchair basketball and indoor rowing activities, there will also be performances of Contact! Unload, an original piece of theatre produced by the Veterans Transition Network and the Men’s Health Research project.

With a simple set consisting of a mural project conceived by artistic director Foster Eastman, in collaboration with the soldiers, and singer-songwriter Jon Ochendorf performing his simple yet moving guitar ballads, Contact! Unload gives voice to veterans’ experiences.

“Afghanistan was real,” shouts veteran/actor Corporal Timothy Garthside at one point during the play, “and I’m here!”

Garthside was one of six comrades-in-arms who workshopped their stories with UBC theatre professor George Belliveau and therapeutic reenactment specialist Marv Westwood and his cri du coeur is one of many in the powerful, 40-minute play that captures the visceral reality of the war zone and its aftermath.

With scenarios ranging from dealing with the deaths of colleagues to the challenges of returning to “normality,” it’s a vehicle for both education and transformation.

From isolation to community

VTN Clinical Coordinator Carson Kivari has had the pleasure of personally watching soldiers change through the program. “We see them move from a place of isolation, shut down, self-medication, to springing back into life, purpose, family and community. It’s a place where the soul is repaired,” he said.

“It about unloading the baggage of their experiences and theatre in many ways can do that,” said Belliveau. It’s also a way to educate the public about the veterans’ experiences, according to the director. “We can take the audience to Afghanistan — to a place where they are breathing the same air as the performers.”

The catharsis for both audience and actors involves a journey through heart-wrenching stories, like Corporal Garthside’s tale of accidentally ordering the killing of a man who turned out to be an informant for the Canadians.

“For seven years I was frozen on that day. I moved through life like a robot. It took me four months before I could stand in a grocery store lineup without going into a seething rage.”

“Our men were dying painfully on the ground,” he relates to a fellow soldier in the play. “I was denying them hope of survival, and then I killed our only hope.”

“This is exactly what I deserve,” he said, referring to his crippling PTSD.

“This theatre piece is representative of how long I spent suffering alone and in darkness,” said Garthside. “For seven years I was frozen on that day. I moved through life like a robot. It took me four months before I could stand in a grocery store lineup without going into a seething rage.”

“There’s people all around me. But it’s not real,” he recounts on stage. “None of this is real: Going fucking shopping for $100 shoes, $1000 purses… But Afghanistan was real. And when I was there I was something. I was alive.”

Garthside credits the therapeutic reenactment of the play as being a key to his healing process. “Because people made space for me when I was hurting,” he said, “I’m comfortable now sitting in the pain.”

Fellow participant Corporal Tim Laidler CD (Ret’d) from The British Columbia Regiment, lost some of his men in Afghanistan. “When I perform the play now, I still feel some of those old emotions coming back,” he said, “but now they don’t take control of me.”

The VTN program, he says, has very practical as well as emotional results.

“I think it’s important to educate employers and job creators,” he said, “on what it might be like to hire veterans and see how emotionally competent veterans can be after going through a program like VTN.”

Suicide and PTSD

Participant Major Chuck MacKinnon of The Royal Westminster Regiment served in Afghanistan from 2009-2010. “I am a Reservist and like most of the Reservists we volunteered to go to these places,” he said “We wanted to do our part, but the transition back here didn’t go so well. Some of us are haunted by our experiences.”

Therapeutic re-enactment was not an easy process, according to MacKinnon. “Occupational stress injury is cumulative,” he said. “Life events like loss of a loved one, plus the difficult experiences during a tour of duty, it all adds up, and reliving these things can be painful.”

The catalyst for Mackinnon’s involvement in the VTN program was the suicide of a young soldier in his unit who had been on the same tour of duty in Afghanistan.

“He was a bright young man with a new lady in his life and a new career on the horizon,” said Mackinnon. “But his pain was so deep that he couldn’t share [the effects of his PTSD] with friends and loved ones. He didn’t want to burden them with it. So he made a permanent decision.”

Mackinnon’s motivation for joining the program was to educate veterans and their families, along with counsellors and the Canadian public, that help is available. “The program worked for me and I wanted other veterans to know there were options for them,” he said.

Mackinnon remains sanguine but realistic about his situation. “Did the performance work help me? Yes. Did it cure me? No. My [occupational stress injury] is part of the fabric of who I am. But now I have learned how to cope,” he said.

While Prince Harry is a fan of the program the current challenge is to raise the $100,000 needed to fly eight veterans and six support staff to the Invictus Games.

Prince Harry

To that end, Foster Eastman, the artist who first became involved in working with veterans in 2014 when he produced a collaborative mural/art therapy project, has a new scheme afoot.

Donors are given the opportunity to participate in a fundraising art project where they can shoot paint-filled, military-grade waste disposal bags nailed to canvasses with superimposed images of Canadian soldiers, and then insert personalized notes describing their feelings about Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan.

As multicoloured paints bleed down the canvasses, the artworks, like the veterans’ therapeutic re-enactment theatre, aim straight for the heart.

Contact! Unload will be performed this Wednesday and Thursday night in Vancouver.