What Veterans have taught me about love

It has been said that soldiers fight mostly for love of their comrades in arms. As both a civilian and military physician, over the last 34 years I have heard hundreds of stories from the people who serve our country. The following is an attempt to give a voice to those whom I have had the privilege to serve and to showcase the valuable lessons they have taught me on the subject of love.

Dr. Markus Besemann just retired as Head of Rehabilitation Medicine for the Canadian Armed Forces. He is one of our Project Trauma Support physicians. This is an article he had published in the Atlas Journal. The “Atlas” was previously known as the “Centre for Excellence for PTSD”

In October 1991, I was posted to the National Defence Medical Centre (NDMC) in Ottawa. We were told to stand by for the admission of some of the survivors of the ill-fated Hercules 130322 Boxtop 22 crash, just kilometres away from Canadian Forces Station Alert. As those requiring medical care were admitted, we heard stories of the courageous pilot Captain John Couch, who gave up his own cold-weather clothing so that others would live. This selfless gesture led to his own death from exposure just hours before the search and rescue team reached the scene. This moment marked the beginning of my understanding of the depth of self-sacrifice that military personnel and Veterans are no strangers to. In my young officer’s mind, this was nothing short of Biblical love.

Several years later, I was walking alongside a senior submariner who, with tears in his eyes, told me all about the Chicoutimi submarine disaster and how with few exceptions, those who saved the day were some of the less polished “bad apples.” Their rough and ready backgrounds had inadvertently prepared them for the unexpected. In other words, what caused them and others distress in peacetime served them very well when catastrophe hit. Another lesson on love: Don’t judge a book by its cover. It is what is hidden inside a man or woman that really counts, no matter how this strength of character is acquired.

Another story that deeply affected me came from a combat medic in Afghanistan who was tasked with carrying a casualty on his shoulders during an ambush in the darkness of night. Given the load he was carrying, he lost sight of his platoon. Bewildered and lost, he searched for direction, until he eventually saw another brother in arms at the end of the road pointing the way home. He successfully reunited with his unit, only to find out later that the brother pointing the way had been killed earlier that evening in a firefight in another village. Soldiers do not desert their comrades, even after they die.

“And though they did hurt me so bad…You did not desert me My brothers in arms.”

Brothers in Arms, Dire Straits

Stories such as these are not uncommon in the context of war. They have been well described in the diaries of soldiers from previous conflicts. They help illustrate the extreme paradox that is present on the battlefields of life. Despite the horrific destruction and death, love persists and rises above it all.  As a medical doctor, I have personally heard countless such stories over the years and I have been drawn to ask myself, who am I to question these lived experiences and the messages they convey?

Many military personnel appear to know from a very young age that they wish to serve. This may be the result of a dream passed on by military Families or one borne out of a sense of somehow feeling that they were called to be the protectors of society. The dedication with which service personnel pursue this life calling never ceases to amaze me.  It is the deepest form of love. The conflicting tragedy and beauty of this incarnation, which benefits many of the more privileged in society, is that it comes at a tremendous cost to the Veteran. Many Veterans elected to put on the uniform and swear an oath to make the world a better place. This however can often leave them with many unanswered questions and harsh self-judgment for choices made or not made.

Veterans have taught me that self-love is one of the hardest “missions” they have ever undertaken and that this can be a long soul-searching and sometimes gut-wrenching journey. Given that the definition of mission success is expressed in extraordinary acts of bravery, it is often difficult for Veterans to put themselves first and love themselves unconditionally because of the morally conflicting decisions they have had to make in the line of duty. The challenge over the long term for the Veteran is to realize that this acquired identity does not define them. One of the greatest obstacles for Veterans in their healing journey is to learn to embrace their authentic self despite the possibility that this process might lead to a completely different narrative about who they are and how others might view them. Only when they can reconcile their identity as a soldier and their true essence as a human being can they begin the journey towards forgiveness. It has been said that true forgiveness occurs when you finally realize that there was nothing to forgive in the first place.

Love is often difficult for Veterans to demonstrate. Sometimes their love is shown when they volunteer to take another’s place on patrol or lay out a comrade’s air mattress at 3 a.m. because their fire team partner is still on sentry duty. Veterans’ expressions of love can be rough around the edges and displayed in brutal honesty and dark humour. The tough love they express for their comrades and their steadfast commitment to their core beliefs and values often goes unrecognized by many civilians and is often misunderstood. It is the deepest form of love I have ever had the privilege to witness. In its sheer rawness, it shaves away all the fluff we so often mistakenly take for signs of love, but that in reality is so far removed from what love actually is. Ultimately, what unites us all —whether civilian or military — are our individual struggles with loving and forgiving ourselves unconditionally, understanding that we all at some point in our lives fall short of our idealistic expectations, but that we restore balance by expressing compassion to ourselves and to others.

This is amongst the most important lessons learned, that despite the suffering Veterans have endured and continue to endure, there is value and a purpose to all of it. If embraced, it can teach us all more about how to love and be loved. If I were to try and summarize as succinctly as possible the essence of what it is that I am trying to convey in the name of those who have sacrificed so much, it would be the notion of embracing the paradox of life. The world our Veterans have seen and experienced is as horrific as it is beautiful. At the end of the day, they have shown us and continue to show us that ALL of it is love in its various manifestations.

LCol (Ret’d) Markus Besemann CD, BSc, MD, FRCP(C), Dip. Sport Med. (CASEM)

Learn more about moral injury, the impact of events or acts that a person performs, witnesses or fails to prevent, which conflict with one’s own deeply held moral beliefs and values.

Dr. Markus Besemann just retired as Head of Rehabilitation Medicine for the Canadian Armed Forces. He is one of our Project Trauma Support physicians. This is an article he had published in the Atlas Journal. The “Atlas” was previously known as the “Centre for Excellence for PTSD”

You Cannot Heal From PTSD Alone

How does one regain peace of mind and joy for living when Post Traumatic Stress and Moral Injury have set in?

We cannot go back in time and rewrite our histories. We cannot wipe out the fact that we have seen horrific things and witnessed the unfolding of events that are just plain wrong. We cannot pretend that we didn’t do things that continue to give us a jolt of shame and guilt whenever the memory sneaks in.

The only way to return to a path of equanimity and hope is to reprocess the way we have judged ourselves, others and the world that has allowed atrocities to occur. We must find an attitude about our experiences, our observations, and our choices that we can live with, in peace.

This may sound simple, but it is far from being easy. This is generally not work we can do on our own.
When our most predominant emotions are fear, shame and disillusionment, our tendency is to isolate. But we need the companionship, support and love of our family and our comrades to restore order in our world. We also need to feel that we can reciprocate and show up and be useful in the lives of those we love.

When we are yearning for forgiveness, we need atonement.

We can try to convince ourselves that we can be absolved of guilt but the arguments ring hollow without the acknowledgement and support of others whose opinions we value.

We may be battle-scarred and battle-scared, but our new assignment is to gain wisdom from our experiences that can be shared with others. We are also called to find new meaning in our life stories, that can energize and direct us to more purposeful lives.

We can be the change we wish to see in the world.

We can direct or energies to making our world a safer place in both physical and emotional terms for those we love, and even perfect strangers.

The symptoms of PTSD are often devastating and crippling. We most likely need professional help to overcome them.

If we could gain command over intrusive, painful thoughts, the other symptoms would dissipate. We could calm our hyper-vigilance. We could sleep without our psyche being hijacked by senseless terrors. We could boldly step out of our homes to run errands or socialize. We would have lots of patience to be supportive of our friends and families. We could happily dream and plan for our futures and look forward to a fulfilling life of work and leisure.

How do we gain command of our thoughts? The evolving field of metacognition, or noticing what you’re noticing, guides us on this path. To gain mastery over our minds, we must become aware of the specific sorts of thoughts and thought patterns that tend to take up residence in our brains. Very often, they are strong enough to dictate how we live our very lives.

It can be useful to take a step back and become a witness to our exact thoughts, as a passive observer. With a detached curiosity, we can inspect what notions our troubled psyches are thrusting in the forefront of our awareness, without attaching any emotion or reacting to them. This is the practice of mindfulness and it does take practice.

When we recognize intrusive thought patterns, we can start to challenge them by replacing them with new attitudes we have decided to adopt through our reprocessing of our experiences. We can displace fears and limiting beliefs by taking on new challenges that are driven by the resolve that comes from new meaning we attach to our histories.

Sitting at the unintended crossroad imposed by PTSD, we have a choice.

We can become victims of our traumas and our automatic thoughts that come from them, or we can realize we did not go through all this for nothing and do the work to push through to new vistas of post traumatic growth.

The other dragons to slay on the path to recovery may include depression, loneliness and relationship issues, health considerations, financial and insurance concerns and general life challenges.

All of these can and should be addressed by a professional team along with peer support guides. As Joseph Campbell stated, there is a psychic unity of mankind. We heal from our traumas that are part of our human condition by tapping into this human connection.

Winter Blues, Blahs or Buoys?

My friend just sent me a poster saying “January was a tough year, but we got through it!” We know that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or the “Winter Blues” is a real thing causing feelings of depression for many people.

Shorter days and cold and inclement weather make travel or even just putting the garbage out less enjoyable. People already battling mental health issues can certainly find the winter to be something akin to a long, lonely sentence. If you are struggling with PTSD or another Operational Stress injury, we know that the worst thing you can do is to isolate. Yet the lethargy and decreased mood that comes with SAD and the cold weather can easily drive you to do just that.

For those of you who are lucky enough to be snow birds and can escape to the south for the winter, good on you! For the rest of us that have to stay here and slog out another Canadian winter, here are some things to contemplate.

Nature, working with the physics and chemistry of life, constructs the seasons. Spring is the season of new growth and expansion, summer the season of vibrancy and brilliance, fall the season of reaping and storing, and winter the season of rest and submission. There are other cycles of life as well. A mighty oak grows with oxygen, sunlight and nutrients, but when its life cycle is over, it returns to the earth
Although it may look like things are at a standstill in the winter, there is actually much going on in preparation for the new growth season, which is only (How many weeks away? What happened to the groundhog this year, anyone know?) The apparent dormancy we see over the winter in nature is much more than a period of suspended animation. Seeds in the ground are still metabolizing, but at a slower rate. After a period of time, hormones trigger initiation of new growth, which can happen if the conditions are favourable (ie enough water around). And this time of year, all the gardeners are starting to plant seeds indoors, looking forwards to spring.

As many of you have probably figured out, we are always either growing and expanding or retreating ourselves. We are never staying at a standstill. You can feel like you are getting into better physical shape or deconditioning. You can be learning new skills and keeping up in your field, or falling behind. You can be improving mentally, or isolating more and becoming more anxious and despondent. If you pay attention to your thoughts and energy levels and where you place them, you may become more aware of what is actually going on with you.

When you are expanding, you feel excited, optimistic and energized. You feel focussed and driven. Creative ideas abound. When you are in a contracting, retreating state, you feel listless and more depressed and anxious. You may sleep too much or not enough. You feel hopeless and too often you will tend to use your thoughts and the energies you have to mentally punish yourself.

But what if you use this quiet winter time like seeds underground, to build yourself up to get ready to spring? What if you put your energies into winter sports to improve physical fitness and the time you invest in your family? What if you go into hibernation to do some serious research on courses you might want to take, projects you might want to tackle, a new business you might want to look into?
And if you are seriously in a place where you are finding yourself spiralling down, gather your energy to pull yourself up. Call your doctor and ask for an extra appointment to talk about how you are feeling and what you can do about it. Or read some good books on improving your mental state.

Call a friend and go for coffee. Go to a peer support group. Maybe there are others who are also struggling and could use your support. Maybe feeling compassion and caring for others is just the distraction and boost you need.

Winter is a great time to meditate on what is truly important. It is a time to nurture yourself and your loved ones. It is a time to be optimistic about the future and to plant those spring seeds.

Vision by Ryan O’Meara


By: Ryan O’Meara, Advanced Care Paramedic

Paramedicine is an amazing profession, and is always changing. You can have incredibly rewarding experiences that leave a lasting sense of positive energy one minute, only to end up humbled and emotionally trashed the next. I sit here writing this having just had one of the latter.

I’ve just watched the life drain unexpectedly out of a patient’s face knowing that things would never be the same for them ever again. And I was the only one present to observe it. Not a loving partner, adoring children, caring parents, or their cherished friend, only me… a stranger, in a strange environment, who’s trying to do what I can to help but I’m failing. All I can do is prop them up on the stretcher and try to keep their airway clear of the vomit recently expelled.

I’ve just seen a great deal of care, concern, and hard work, by a professional health care team to bring life back into that face. Some life, any life, would be considered a victory. But instead, despite the marvels of modern medical science, there was no life to return.

I’ve just spied the looks on the faces of that caring team as news of the defeat is delivered and processed. It’s hard to accept the result. We train and prepare with victory always in mind. Optimistically we assume every situation will end in victory, otherwise the weight of constantly expecting defeat would crush us. Someone has just become overwhelmed with emotion at the gravity of the proclamation and can no longer restrain their tears.

I’ve just witnessed the sadness that follows when the family is present in the room. There’s a look on the faces of family when they first enter the room. Before laying eyes on their loved one their faces hold an expression of unwanted trepidation that will shortly shatter into raw emotion. As they visit, weep, and console one another, their grief amplifies the weight of failure hanging about the room. This is when I must leave, for I fear if I am here any longer that weight might crush me.

I’ve just looked back on the events of the previous hours and seek to engage my partner ensuring there is nothing we missed, nothing we overlooked, nothing in which we find fault… nothing. Nothing is precisely what I now feel we accomplished. We should have been able to do something. All of our training, all of our experience, all of our gear, medication, and equipment, amounted to nothing. At least that is what I believe after we leave the hospital. Time passes and thankfully I’ve now seen through the fog of emotion and realize that we did accomplish something after all. We were there in those first moments of sheer panic, lending reassurance. We gave them the best possible chance. We helped to give the family time to gather together and wish their loved one swift travel to the next life. We did make a difference, even if we can’t see it at the time.

Scenes like this will play out over and over again in our Paramedic careers. They have the potential to break us, but also the potential to help us grow and become better. If we dwell only on the dark we can get lost in it. It can consume us if we allow. Try not to let yourself become mired in the dark. Seek out people who care and are willing to help and listen. Take the time to TALK. TALK to your partner. TALK to someone on the peer support list. TALK to family. TALK to a counselor. TALK to a support group. IT DOESN’T MATTER WHO YOU TALK TO, JUST TALK! Speak up and you’ll soon realize this is something you don’t have to go through alone.