When Students become Veterans
Jul 15, 2013

Combat deployment brings with it a variety of experiences. In Afghanistan, young student reservists were exposed to the worst possible experiences and harsh realities of a war zone and became battle hardened veterans alongside their regular force counterparts. In interviews with returning reservists, they consistently spoke of the relentless display of startling and disturbing atrocities that, despite their best efforts, linger in their memories.

The system had worked hard – at both Fort Irwin in the U.S. and at CFB Wainwright in Alberta – to make the training as effective as possible.
However, it can do little to prepare the soldiers for the intensity of live fire and realizing the wadi (stream bed or gully) you just dove into has saved your life. Nor can their Canadian consciences truly be prepared for walking through villages with starving children staring at them with an emptiness that was palpable. Watching the immediate impact of IEDs on one’s platoon also had catastrophic effects on many a young soldier.

The constant pressure of life and death vigilance created a black humour that helped desensitize the soldiers to the realities they faced every day. The vacillation between combat tension and being witness to human misery affected each soldier ­differently, their difficulties made bearable by the camaraderie of their units, the quality of the training, and an emerging desensitization. Train hard, work hard, drink hard. This becomes an unspoken mantra of soldiers in hard combat as the differences between Regular and Reserve become even more blurred.

Members of 56th Field Artillery Regiment, a Reserve Unit in Brantford, Ontario, stand on parade. (Photo: Cpl Kevin McMillan, CF Combat Camera)

Falling Between the Cracks
Despite the effectiveness and integration of the training of the units for deployment, there are vast differences in the levels of support post deployment. There is a quiet unorganized alarm being raised across Reserve units as suicide attempts are on the rise, and calls for help become more vocal with their growing understanding of the need to reach out.

In interviewing reservists, certain key and consistent challenges were noted. While it was evident that they were well briefed to recognize common signs and symptoms of PTSD, others endured unexpected consequences including:

  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
  • Inability to enter into or sustain healthy relationships.
  • Easily irritated by issues that seem irrelevant in contrast to combat pressures.
  • Distancing themselves from friends and loved ones, except with comrades they had served with.
  • Difficulty completing school studies.
  • Difficulty finding employment outside the military milieu.

Although the post-deployment counselling experience is the same for both Regulars and Reserves, there are some key and almost tragic differences between the support received post-deployment by full time and reserve members.

A reservist’s need for support extends beyond the medical issues that are now so well supported. Unlike regular force soldiers, they need to be able to function fully in a total civilian environment. They need the tools and training to explain to the public their experiences and role, without hurtling themselves back into dark memories, or anxious responses. For those who suffer, there is no reprieve from the discussion except in maintaining a level of isolation.

Despite having been embedded in the regular force environment for the training and deployment, as soon as they land in Canada they are detached from those regular force units and returned to their reserve units – separating them from an important support group.

Another key difference is employment and integration back into Canadian society. As their regular force compatriots spend additional months continuing within the command structure of the teams, there is no planned or authorized post-deployment integration of the reserve citizen soldier.
Once a soldier returns, he is rewarded with a shortened and dwindling contract, and left to serve out his post-deployment leave for about another month or so (depending on how long he was overseas and how much leave he was still owed). No structure, no team. Suddenly and abruptly, after two years of intense cohesion, the reservist is left alone to integrate into what is now a new society.

Post-deployment, there is no structure or involvement beyond any outstanding contract payouts. Once back in Canada, a reservist is expected to work three half-days at his home armoury on the days immediately following return and then go on leave, alone. After the Class C contract leave period expires, he could re-commence part-time Class A service at his armoury. Rarely is funding put aside for this Class A service and, more often than not, the reservist is now alone and often unemployed.

According to the CF medical care coordinators, the reserves have had “very specific challenges” in the last number of years. Like their regular force counterparts, “they all come back through Cyprus” where they take part in the decompression and spend two days talking about signs and symptoms of mental health. “We spend some time putting closure to the deployment experience and really highlighting the importance of staying in touch after they get back.”

CAF Medical Services has provided additional education to the reserve units, and their chains of command, to ensure they keep an eye on their people. This is important because it is too easy for a reservist to withdraw from those who can help – as a volunteer, if you don’t show up, nobody is going to call, nor will you be charged or disciplined.

Nine hundred reservists from the 35th Canadian Brigade Group took part in Exercise Franchissement Audacieux, in the Charlevoix region of Québec.

Rear Admiral Andrew Smith, retired Chief of Military Personnel, readily admits that “getting them to reach out and ask for help, and self identify, is the hardest part of treating the reserves. They can be so isolated, which of course is a difficulty when you have a reserve force that is volunteer.”
Recognizing that not all reservists will be coming to a classroom on a base or taking part in the various career courses, online and other initiatives have been put in place to provide the best possible service to reservists.

However, there is still work to do in that area, and the Chief of Military Personnel and the Chief of the Defence Staff have both put a huge priority on that.
Mental Health Resources
The issues that are raised are plentiful and, despite current budget cuts, the CAF has attempted to make as many of the programs, services, and health professionals available to those in need. There is specialized training for the leadership, and there are multiple Mental Health Resources available that, for the most part, reservists can access for support and attention. They are briefed regularly but so many still fall through the cracks; more must be done.

Whether they are still in various contracts with the reserve or regular force, parading at their local units, or are now retired, reservists clearly need highly specialized  programs that can assist their re-integration into a civilian society that is unlike the structure of the regular force. A track and trace effort would be key to ensuring all the reservists are accounted for and not forgotten.

Of great benefit would be programs to help them manage how they interact with a civilian community who questions or challenges their involvement. Such ­inter­actions often result in revisiting their ­traumatic experiences without the tools or training to do so in a healthy and constructive manner.
In addition to social interaction, reservists need support for re-integrating into the work force. Many leave jobs or studies to volunteer for deployment and return to a community that has moved on and is ill-prepared to absorb the new combat-experienced veteran.

Why do so many still fall through the cracks when there are multiple Mental Health Resources available? The response begs for specialized programs for the reservists – ones that address their specific requirements, not just the regular force options made available to reservists, who have none of the institutional support of the regular force members.

Some measures are being taken to address this growing concern. The Ombudsman’s office is conducting a systemic review into reservists and operational stress injuries. It will be worth keeping close watch if it results in programs being developed specifically for the reserves.
Make Your Voice Heard
The Ombudsman’s office is conducting a systemic review into reservists and Operational Stress Injuries. More specifically they will be looking into the availability and awareness of care and social support ­entitlements, and the CF’s capacity to ­provide service and support, as well as the potential impediments to seeking care and support.

The investigation team will be visiting units in Newfoundland, Montreal and the Ottawa and Calgary/Edmonton areas. They will also be speaking with senior leaders, commanders, caregivers, and of course, Reservists.

Our Responsibility
In the end, as voiced by Minister Pratt in his discussion paper, “if we expect the Reserve to honour its commitment to serve when called upon, then it is our responsibility as a society to ensure that they are able to do so. The responsibility is mutual. If we consider the Reserve to be an important national institution, then its long term well-being cannot be left to a few individuals in the Reserve leadership, the senior command of the CAF, a few pundits and a select group of senior bureaucrats. More effectively, it should be decided by open and public debate that involves outreach to the public and important stakeholders.” The first step in providing support to the reserves is awareness.

Integrated Experiences of Regular & Reserve ForcesWith the Regular and Reserve forces arguably at their highest level of integration, the Canadian Army, in particular, has worked at embracing the mantra “One Army, One Team, One Vision”. This ethos has created a level of integration that is by all accounts “the envy of other nations”. As Canada pulls out of its combat mission in Afghanistan the spotlight is being beamed on returning soldiers and issues related to health and welfare. Since 2001, the single largest cultural shift in the military resides in its effort to acknowledge, accept and treat mental health problems among its serving regular and reserve forces – which is a welcome reassurance.


The role and strength of the reserves is on the rise, and their care should be equally important. As of May 2013, the Army Reserve Force was 19,144 strong, representing almost half of the total Army strength of 40,729. Recently, in a well circulated letter, LGen Devlin (who has just retired from his position as Commander of the Army), stated “the Army Reserves have provided, and will continue to provide, a critical force generation base for both domestic and expeditionary operations.”


During the height of the Afghanistan conflict, more than 20% of the deployed forces were reservists who had volunteered for combat service from the 130 units located in 110 cities and towns from coast to coast across Canada. They were embedded as needed and as required within regular force units.

Drawn from all walks of life, many of the volunteers for the operational deployment were young men and women who, before volunteering for combat operations, were students engaged in the early parts of their post-secondary education.

Motivated by adventure, money, patriotism, or any combination thereof, the reservists were fit, well educated, and had never been witness to real human tragedy. They believed in the objectives of the deployment, and in the direction provided by their leadership. Older volunteers were drawn from ex-regular force that had become reservists, and believed that their experience and leadership could contribute to the campaign.

It is important to remember that every rotation to Afghanistan had at least 300 Reservists, and some as many as 500. According to David Pratt’s 2011 Strategic Studies Working Group discussion paper, the Reserves comprised 20% of the Canadian contingent in Kandahar and were able to back up the Regulars, allowing for rapid deployments elsewhere such as Haiti. In general observations, the discussion paper quoted a Globe and Mail editorial that described Reserve units as a “critical strategic asset, both operationally and ­culturally.”

When deployed, Reservists do the same jobs and take the same risks as their full time counterparts. This is particularly true of infanteers, explosive ordinance experts and armoured personnel. The Globe editorial also mentioned that one of their most important roles is to connect the general citizenry to the military “both as the military’s presence in the community and in making sure that the military is reflective of society.” It added that “the Reserves are ethnically diverse and have a higher percentage of women than the ­Regular Force,” and further commented that “What hurts the Reserves hurts the Army.”

Once accepted for deployment, volunteers trained with the regular force. Those being deployed in an operational theatre were embedded with infantry regiments, including a full year of integrated training, where reservists trained to a professional level with the regular force, living, training, and absorbing lessons learned.

According to Pratt’s 2011 discussion paper, Canada’s Citizen Soldiers: the Reserve Force, and the Army Reserve in particular, has continually proven itself as an indispensable component of Canada’s defence capability. The following table ­provides data on the growing importance of Reservists to Canada’s overseas deployments.

With this substantive dependency on Reserve Forces, the importance of their contribution is critical to the understanding of and the responsibility to care for and support our ­citizen soldiers pre and post deployment.

Reservist Deployments on Operations
(as a Percentage of Total Deployments)

% of Total  
2000 597 5,465 11 %  
2001 646 7,183 9 %  
2002 748 7,013 11 %  
2003 942 8,550 11 %  
2004 835 7,649 11 %  
2005 603 6,232 10 %  
2006 694 6,617 10 %  
2007 1,300 9,442 14 %  
2008 1,569 9,910 16 %  
2009 1,651 1,156 15 %  
2010* 3,631 17,636 21 %  

* The Strategic Studies Working Group Paper, David Pratt 2011.

Louise Mercier-Johnson, President of FMJ Solutions, and Senior Defence Associate with Hill+Knowlton Strategies, is the mother of a Combat Veteran.
© FrontLine Defence 2013 issue 4