Veteran’s book chronicles Afghan war’s toll on mental health
Cpl. Jamie MacWhirter survived a dangerous tour of duty in Afghanistan only to battle a different nightmare back in Canada.
ST. JOHN’S, NLFD.—Cpl. Jamie MacWhirter survived seven months in Afghanistan in 2006 but found that, once safely back in Canada, a dark battle within himself escalated out of control.
It started during his single tour of Afghanistan’s most volatile war zones as the driver of a refuelling truck loaded with 10,000 litres of diesel. His nickname was “Fireball” for the most obvious related hazards.
Near misses included rocket attacks, the horror of a suicide bombing that killed several children, firefights, roadside bombs and long weeks outside the relative safe zone of the Kandahar Airfield.
Sleep became elusive and fraught with nightmares. MacWhirter, 37, chronicles them along with the tedium punctuated by terror of a grunt’s existence in his newly published memoir A Soldier’s Tale: A Newfoundland Soldier in Afghanistan.
“It was over a year (after returning to Edmonton) before I realized something was different,” he said. “What threw me over the edge was, even today, I get angry for no reason. There are times when I’m really angry at the world and I sit down and try to figure out why I’m angry. And I can’t.”
Nearly seven years since his return, MacWhirter is still seeing a psychiatrist regularly and figures he probably will for life. He got clearance from the military to publish his recollections, which grew out of a journal he kept while overseas. He wanted to convey what troops and their families go through on volunteer missions and the steep toll it takes, both during and after deployment.
“Every soldier that I have talked to from my tour has something, whether it’s nightmares (or) they’re still on medication,” he said.
Many of his buddies quit the military. “Others got kicked out because they turned to drugs or alcohol. Every soldier from my tour changed a little.”
The war continues when that soldier comes home.
Cpl. Jamie MacWhirter
Canadian war vet
MacWhirter’s wife Vanessa was his girlfriend at the time. She said military spouses who juggle household duties while trying to keep thoughts of the worst at bay are often baffled by the haunted soldiers who return home.
“What he went through I could never imagine,” she said during an interview at their home in Goulds, outside St. John’s.
“You never quite get the understanding of the feelings that he gets when it comes to the post-traumatic stress disorder or the nightmares that he goes through. … A lot of people try to hide it and they think they don’t need it, but support can really do a family wonders.”
MacWhirter has high praise for military efforts such as the Operational Stress Injury Social Support program in which fellow soldiers help each other. But his book documents his frustration with rotating psychiatric staff and the reliance on prescription drugs.
“When I get a new head doctor I have to start all over again,” he writes. “When I leave an appointment, I find myself very tired or in a bad mood because I just spent the last hour reliving things I would just as soon forget.
“Why can’t we talk about what could cool me down when I get angry? No, they would rather talk about what makes me angry, then give me some pills.”
MacWhirter said it’s crucial that soldiers find something that truly gives them peace. For him, it was being posted back to Newfoundland in 2010. He was born in Corner Brook on the island’s west coast and now works as a station dispatcher in St. John’s. He is no longer on medication.
“My father has a cabin in Cormack and that is my safe zone,” he said.
Being able to share the joys of fishing, swimming and camp fires with sons Avery, 12, and Cody, 5, has helped more than counselling ever did, MacWhirter said.
A military staff report published last month in the Canadian Medical Association Journal concludes almost 14 per cent of soldiers who served in Afghanistan have related mental health disorders.
It found 8 per cent of personnel who were deployed between 2001 and 2008 had post-traumatic stress disorder. Another 5.5 per cent struggle with depression. The research based on about 2,000 randomly selected medical records out of those for 30,500 troops.
MacWhirter hopes his book will help other veterans and their families. “The war continues when that soldier comes home.”