Lest we remember

Trent Ernst, Editor

This week we remember the people who paid the ultimate sacrifice who died in the line of duty.

In Canada, the date is also to remember the men and women “who have served, and continue to serve our country during times of war, conflict and peace.”

This year is marks one hundred years since the second battle of Ypres in Belgium, which is famous for being the first time that poison gas was used in battle effectively.

Earlier that year, in February, the Germans deployed poison gas at the Battle of Bolimow, but it was January, and the cold weather caused it to freeze.

This time though, the gas proved to be much more effective. 6,000 French troops died and many more were blinded by the gas.

The move punched a 4 km wide hole in the front lines, which was filled by Canadian troops, who tried to negate the effect of the chlorine gas by urinating on cloth and holding it over their faces. (The ammonia in the urine neutralized, at least in part, the chlorine gas.) That was on April 22, 1915.

While the trick may or may not have helped in the dispersing gas of the initial attack, it was ineffective against a second gas attack two days later and hundreds upon hundreds of Canadians died that day, and by the end of May, Canada had lost 5,975 men.

The same year, the term “shell shock” was used to describe soldiers who exhibited symptoms similar to those who had received physical head injuries, but had received no actual damage. It was, says Wikipedia, “A reaction to the intensity of the bombardment and fighting that produced a helplessness appearing variously as panic and being scared, or flight, an inability to reason, sleep, walk or talk”

By World War II, the term had been replaced by the phrase Combat Stress Reaction, or, as the Canadian Army called it, “Battle Exhaustion.”

In the 1970s, American Soldiers returning from Vietnam were diagnosed with “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”, or PTSD, and that is the term that is still in use today.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that comes from being exposed to a violently traumatic event.

PTSD, is typically marked by the sufferer persistently avoiding all thoughts and emotions and discussion of the stressor event. They may experience amnesia from it.

However, the event is commonly relived by the individual through intrusive, recurrent recollections, flashbacks, and nightmares, says Wikipedia.

After Afghanistan, PTSD and other related conditions accounted for 3,424 disability claims.

To put that in context, 158 soldiers died while serving in Afghanistan.

A 2013 report says that 17 percent of Canadian Soldiers deal with or have dealt with mental disorders, including alcoholism, while an earlier report puts the number of PTSD sufferers at around eight percent.

Many soldiers have turned to suicide rather than face the horrors in their own minds.

Between 2004 and 2014, More than 160 soldiers committed suicide. That’s more than the total number killed in action in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2014, when Canada’s mission there ended.

So as we remember those killed, we must remember also those who were not. We must remember those men and women trying to forget, who don’t want to remember the horrors of what they have seen. We must remember that sometimes, those who died are considered the lucky ones by those who survived.

And more than that, we must do something about it as a country. To watch our soldiers die in battle is horrible enough, but to watch them lose their battle to the ghosts that still haunt them is nearly unbearable.

We forget that soldiers don’t just die, they kill. And they sometimes have to watch their friends and colleagues get killed. They are asked to bear witness to death at its most horrific, and, once they return, they are asked to bear the weight of what they have seen. We must come alongside them and do what we can to help them carry the burden of their experiences.