CALGARY – A loud whir is followed by a deep rumbling roar as the engine of a decommissioned Canadian Forces armoured recovery vehicle comes to life. A big cloud of black smoke belches out of the rear exhaust port.
“You see that?” asks John Senior, thumping his chest. “That’s why people are here. When that starts up you should see the smile on the guys’ faces and their glow. Their aura just amplifies.
“We veterans are keeping that running and it is keeping us running. You see that connection. The happiness. The joy.”
Senior is the leader of the Ghost Squadron at The Military Museums in Calgary. He works for the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada as an operational stress injury social support co-ordinator.
The Ghost Squadron consists of volunteers who keep decommissioned military vehicles running. Between nine and 20 of them get together every week to do some mechanical work but, more importantly, to bond in some informal group therapy. Most of the participants are suffering from occupational stress injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
David, who suffers from PTSD and didn’t want his last name used, started coming a year ago after leaving the military filled with anger and resentment.
“A lot of us when we got out of the army … didn’t want to have anything to do with the army. I didn’t want to see stuff on TV. I still don’t watch war movies,” he said. “It’s done me a world of good. These guys, they’ve seen the vulnerability and they still treat me like I never said a thing.”
David said everyone has had difficulties reintegrating into civilian life. “This group, it reminds me of how … the legions started – misfits all getting together and going, ‘Hey, no one gets it but us,’ and that’s what this group has become,” he said. “This drags guys out of the basement who are drinking themselves to death and has given them a purpose.”
Senior said that, in his day job, he has a list of about 200 veterans he has reached out to in southern Alberta. Most have all their limbs but struggle with mental health. He said the success of the informal therapy comes down to shared experience.
“You’re there with people who have the same mission mindset, same feelings.”
Scott Vanderveer and his wife, Heather, served in the military and both were diagnosed with occupational stress injuries. Vanderveer, a former corporal, said his problems came gradually. They started with anxiety and unexplained anger. He still only sleeps an hour or two a night. Connecting with fellow veterans has made a world of difference.
“When any one of us are having a bad day, the other guys are there. You know your brothers care for you when they’re razzing the hell out of you.”
Heather Vanderveer, who was also a corporal, said she left the Canadian Forces because of constant harassment from co-workers and superiors.
“I kind of tease everybody that I’m the president of the angry corporals club. That’s what we call it in our house,” she said. “I wanted to fulfil my duty as a soldier and my trade. I feel that was taken from me so the minute I left I was angry.
“I knew, for me, something wasn’t right. I suffered from anxiety, lack of self-esteem, nightmares.”
She doesn’t tinker with engines but said she’s included in all group activities. Brian McGregor retired as a corporal 24 years ago and nobody has to pretend.
“My wife laughs at me because I’ll be cranky and miserable when I leave, because I’m job hunting and nobody’s talking to me. I will come back from one of these nights – greasy and dirty and smelling remarkably like I stood in a diesel fire – with a big smile on my face.”
Senior makes sure he keeps his day job and his volunteer gig separate but has noticed the benefits, especially for veterans who have retreated from society and haven’t sought help.
“I’ve seen that just a little bit of contact here goes a long way,” he said. “From here I can say, ‘Hey, you might want to look at getting some outside source help.”’