Mike MacKinnon: ‘The Veteran Helps the Veteran’

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Mike MacKinnon (Photo by Charlie Morrison)

Mike MacKinnon of Sydney Mines remembers the First Gulf War (where he served with the 1st Canadian Field Hospital) and Bosnia (where he served with Quebec’s Royale 22nd Regiment, the Van Doos) like they were yesterday.

Ask him what happened last Saturday, though, and he may struggle to respond, his short-term memory damaged irreparably by the electro-shock therapy that was supposed to help him forget those wars.

The former Master Corporal’s tidy apartment with its view over the water (and ducks that tap their bills on his sliding glass doors, looking for food) is a world away from the battlefields of the former Yugoslavia and the Persian Gulf, but the effects of his time in those hotspots are obvious, even at this remove. His hands tremble, he uses a scooter to get around, and he has a shelf full of medications to keep his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) under control.

 

Land Mines

PTSD is defined as “a lasting consequence of traumatic ordeals that cause intense fear, helplessness, or horror.” MacKinnon’s time in the Gulf and Bosnia was marked by a number of such ordeals—like living with the fear of gas and bacteria attacks in Saudi Arabia, where “every two hours the alarm would sound and we’d have to get into our gear…gas masks, gloves, boots, the whole suit.” At night, he said, he and his colleagues would be constantly up and down, gearing up then undressing, until finally they decided it would easier just to sleep in full protective gear.

In Bosnia, he remembers leaving camp for a week’s break and being stopped just outside the main gates by soldiers (he can’t remember whether they were Serbs or Muslims) who placed land mines behind the wheels of their “deuce-and-a-half” (two-and-a-half ton truck):

The driver had to be pretty calm, cool and collected because if he let the truck roll back a little bit—boom. We were waiting there for quite a while, while they negotiated and finally convinced them that we were just going out on leave.

MacKinnon, who was an electrical generating systems (EGS) technician, was on the road a lot in Bosnia, maintaining what he calls his “APUs” (auxiliary power units). Wherever he went, he wore full combat gear and carried a rifle. He remembers being stationed in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, near a hospital where patients were often brought in by medivac:

[E]very time the hospital got a call that there was incoming patients, they would give us a call, the Sergeant and myself, and we would take our vehicle and go over to the hospital, just to be there in case something happened to the generator, [so] we could get it back on line quick.

“We’d get up in the morning and we’d do our daily routine…[U]sually everything was done around supper hour and you’d have from supper hour to the next morning just to yourself. But when we got the call there was incoming, then we’d take the truck and we’d head right over to the hospital. Didn’t matter what time of day, night. And we’d be there until the operations or whatever was going on were all finished.

…I can remember there was one day, we did our daily shift and at 5 o’clock, just after supper, we got a call, ‘Medivac coming in,’ and we were there until seven the next morning. And then [we] start[ed] the whole day again, no sleep. And then there’d be another medivac coming in…I think it was adrenaline that kept us going half the time.

 

By LT. STACEY WYZKOWSKI (www.dodmedia.osd.mil) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sarajevo neighborhood of Grbavica (Photo by Lt. Stacey Wyzkowski, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

And as though the dangers weren’t clear and present enough, MacKinnon said the Canadian military calculates that on any given mission, 10% of those deployed will not come back—and so it sends its troops abroad accompanied by the appropriate number of coffins.

I don’t think the Canadian people realize that. If there’s a thousand went over, 10% of a thousand would be 100…100 coffins went over with you.

 

Diagnosis

Despite his experiences abroad, MacKinnon returned to Canada thinking “everything was all right.” But in 1995, his wife asked him for a separation (she would finally ask for a divorce in 2010):

Trying to carry that and carry everything else, I finally had a breakdown. That’s when they diagnosed me with PTSD.

MacKinnon says he was among the first to receive the PTSD diagnosis:

[B]ack then…they had no treatment or anything for PTSD, they didn’t even know what to call …what we were going through…We were like the first guinea pigs.

We were put in the National Defence Medical Centre in Ottawa. We were put up on a floor at the hospital, the floor was completely empty, it had beds and that there, but we were the only ones there. It was the group of us and every once in a while a doctor would come up and…he’d be talking and he’d be right out to lunch with what he was talking about.

The only good that we got out of being there for two weeks was, we’d go down, we’d have a coffee and we’d start to talk amongst ourselves. We got more out of that than talking with the doctors because…they didn’t know how to treat us.

MacKinnon was in and out of hospitals until 1997, when his army service officially ended. Back in Cape Breton at that point, he says he hit the bottle pretty hard until he realized that “it helped when you were drinking” but ultimately made things worse. Now, he says, he confines his drinking to the odd “sociable drink,” when his sons (he has two) visit or on Remembrance Day, “but other than that I can take it or leave it.”

He also began to see a psychiatrist, something he does to this day. The doctor, he said, knew how to treat PTSD, prescribing the cocktail of medications he takes daily.

 

Veterans Affairs

He also availed himself of the services of the Veterans Affairs Canada. He had a caseworker in the Sydney office who knew him and could help him with his problems:

It was great. I could call up and she’d say, ‘No problem, Mike. I’ll fill out the paperwork for you.’

 

Cape Breton veterans at the announcement of the reopening of the Sydney VAO. (Photo courtesy Veterans Affairs Canada)

Cape Breton veterans at the announcement of the reopening of the Sydney VAO. (Photo courtesy Veterans Affairs Canada)

When the Sydney office closed and he had to use the toll-free number found on his veteran’s card to contact Veterans Affairs, MacKinnon said the results were ludicrous:

I was looking to get in touch with my caseworker so I’d get a new scooter. That was a case and a half, right there. I called…and I got ahold of Halifax. I was talking to Halifax because everything was supposed to be on the central computer system. So, the next time I called, I got someone in Dartmouth. So then I called back again, I got someone in Edmonton. Then I got someone in Toronto. Then I got someone in New Brunswick…And you’d have to explain your case to everyone, although they had everyone, supposedly, on the central computer. But now that it’s going to be in Sydney, I just have to call Sydney…and that’s it. Which makes things a lot easier for the veteran.

MacKinnon is appreciative of the help he’s received from Canada’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs but he says Veterans Affairs needs to get better at informing vets about the services and assistance they’re entitled to:

I had a representative from Veterans Affairs come and see me there in September and she wanted to know if I would like to be a member of the rehabilitation organization…I said, ‘What do you mean, the rehabilitation organization?’ And she said, ‘Well, they get you acclimated back into civilian life and how to cope and things like that.’

‘Look dear,’ I said, “If they had of came to me in 1997 when I came out and wanted me to go into rehabilitation, I would have jumped at the chance…But I didn’t even know anything about a rehabilitation program and…talking to me now.. is kind of late.”

MacKinnon would like to see a Veterans Affairs representative sit down with members about to leave the armed forces (and their spouses) and inform them of the assistance to which they’re entitled. He’d like to see it done, “not on the last day” of service but “a couple of months” prior to that. According to the Veterans Affairs website, such a service may now be offered. Called a “transition interview,” it sounds a lot like the kind of assistance MacKinnon wishes he’d had in 1997:

Don’t get me wrong, Veterans Affairs Canada is a great organization, but…it’s mainly talking to other vets that you find out what you can do for this and what you can do for that and you’re entitled to this you’re entitled to that…That’s how I found out a lot of the stuff that I was entitled to.

The veteran takes care of the veteran

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