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Prof. Westwood initiated the Veterans Transition Program, designed to help soldeirs transition back to civilian life - photo by Martin Dee
Prof. Westwood initiated the Veterans Transition Program, designed to help soldeirs transition back to civilian life - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 11 | Nov. 6, 2008

Lest We Forget...Those Who Do Return

By Marvin Westwood
Professor, Deptartment of Educational and Counselling Psychology and Special Education

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, Canadians will pause for two minutes of silent tribute to remember the thousands of men and women who lost their lives in wars in Europe, Korea, and more recently in Afghanistan.

We should also take the time to remember and care for our soldiers who do return from war. These are the soldiers that carry the lifelong physical and mental scars of war. It is estimated that 30 per cent of returning soldiers are traumatized in active combat and experience symptoms such as nightmares, sleeplessness, confusion, an inability to concentrate, isolation and overuse of alcohol and drugs. Veteran soldiers are twice as likely to commit suicide as non-veteran civilians. We have a responsibility as members of a civil society to help soldiers transition successfully back into civilian life.

How can we do we do this? Ten years ago, in my role as a counselling psychologist at the Faculty of Education at UBC, I brought together veterans from the Korean and Second World Wars to talk to other soldiers about their experiences. These older veterans reported benefits from sharing their experiences with one another for the first time in their lives. They recommended that similar programs needed to be offered soon after veterans return from war.  This provided the impetus for initiating the Veterans Transition Program (VTP), a group-based program designed to assist former members of the Canadian military in their transition back to civilian life. The program is supported by funds from the Royal Canadian Legion and has been running over the past nine years. More than 160 people have completed the program. This is the only program of its kind in Canada.

The VTP groups are co-facilitated by professionally trained group leaders who have extensive experience and understanding working within a military context. In this supportive and confidential group environment, the VTP provides information, skill acquisition and counseling interventions to help participants better understand their military experience and its impact on their lives. It also provides participants with the opportunity to re-enact critical events they experienced on the battlefield as a way dealing with and letting go of the trauma reactions they carry arising from their tours of duty and their readjustment to civilian life. Soldiers refer to this process as “dropping baggage’ so that they can get on with their lives more successfully.

I remember the case of a soldier who was able to tell the group about his feelings of guilt after he had decided not to go in the field because he had a bad hangover.  His buddy covered for him. That day his buddy was killed in a landmine explosion.  By expressing his intense feelings of remorse and guilt he released the haunted memories and regrets that followed him home from the former Yugoslavia.

My research demonstrates that participants in the VTP have fewer trauma symptoms, gain personal confidence and have improved relationships with spouses, partners, children and families.  Additionally, they develop a close working relationship with other soldiers in the group.  This results in a strong and enduring sense of community and serves as a network of support among the participants following the program.

But you don’t have to be a counseling psychologist to show support for these soldiers. There are three key ways we can all do our part for these returning soldiers. First of all, if you meet a soldier let him or her know that you appreciate what he or she did for this country. Second, try to be informed about the invisible wounds that occur, and how they are manifested, in order to be sensitive to how these returning veterans may be struggling. In particular, support them if they are considering seeking professional help by suggesting it is a normal part of recovery from the exposure of serving in the war. Finally, lobby your member of Parliament for more support and resources for those soldiers who return from war.

As we take the time to remember the many lives that were lost during the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War, let us not forget our commitment to our modern day soldiers who return traumatized by their hidden wounds. 

In March 2008, Prof. Marvin Westwood was awarded the Royal Canadian Legion’s Highest Service Merit Award for a Civilian for Development of the Canadian Military and Veterans’ Transition Program. This is the highest recognition award given to a non-military person. In June, the UBC Department of Counselling Psychology and Special Education received an award from the Royal Canadian Foundation in recognition of their support and contribution towards veterans through Prof. Westwood’s Veteran’s Transition Program.

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Annual UBC Remembrance Day Ceremony Nov. 11

UBC’s annual Remembrance Day ceremony will be held on Tuesday, November 11, in the War Memorial Gym. With doors open at 10 a.m., all are welcome to attend to honour and remember all those who served in times of war, military conflict and peace. This year’s event will commemorate in particular the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War and the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The ceremony, which often draws more than 1,000 people, will include music provided by the UBC School of Music, short readings and remarks. UBC Vice President, External, Legal and Community Relations, Stephen Owen, AMS  President, Michael Duncan and Dr. John Blatherwick, former Chief Medical Health Officer for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority and Honorary Colonel with the Canadian Forces Reserves, will be among this year’s speakers.

For more information, visit the UBC Ceremonies website.


Last reviewed 06-Nov-2008

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