Nov. 9, 2018

Nursing researcher hopes veterans' PTSD stories will help reduce stigma

20 Canadian combat veterans share their experience with PhD candidate Lorraine Smith-MacDonald
University of Calgary PhD candidate Lorraine Smith-MacDonald is researching post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for her thesis.
University of Calgary PhD candidate Lorraine Smith-MacDonald is researching PTSD for her thesis. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

During the Canadian peacekeeping mission in Croatia in 1994, as the region was wracked with a bloody civil war and the genocide of thousands of Croats and Muslims, Mark Meincke was there on the ground. “You’re moving around in a white vehicle with a blue helmet, constantly exposed,” says the former soldier. “We were sniper bait all day, every day for six months.”

Yet years after coming across Croatian towns destroyed, their inhabitants murdered, Meincke was dismissive when he heard of a buddy diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. “I was so flippant about it,” he says. “I didn’t take it all that seriously and I didn’t understand that I had it myself. With PTSD, there’s very little self-awareness. You think everyone else is the problem, not you.”

  • Above: University of Calgary PhD candidate Lorraine Smith-MacDonald is researching post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for her thesis.

Later, with the help of his wife, he realized his temper was indeed a problem and he started getting therapy.

Meincke is one of 20 Canadian combat veterans who told his story to researcher Lorraine Smith-MacDonald in the Faculty of Nursing. The PhD candidate is writing her thesis about the “lived experience” of veterans with the disorder (known in the military as operational stress injury) that causes disturbing thoughts, crippling sadness, fear or anger, and may bring on nightmares or flashbacks.

While there is a better medical understanding of PTSD now, society has far less “cultural understanding” than before. “In World War Two, the whole generation deeply understood the cost of war — everybody was affected,” says Smith-MacDonald. “Even though they didn’t have the language of PTSD, everyone knew when someone would say ‘He’s having a bad day.’ You wouldn’t hear them say he’s hyper-aroused, he’s very angry and expressing triggered outburst.’ But everyone knew they weren’t the same person coming home.”

Smith-MacDonald’s research initially set out to identify further symptoms of the disorder but she changed her focus to capture veterans' perspectives of PTSD and fill a gap in the literature. “They were eager to tell their stories,” she says. The veterans told of their struggles with a fractured sense of self, difficult or unsuccessful transitions to civilian life, a loss of military identity and relationships, and deep spiritual and existential wounds stemming from their deployments."

Meincke, who does a podcast for veterans, spent hours talking with Smith-MacDonald about his experiences in Croatia and back home in Calgary. “When I heard about Lorraine’s research I thought if I can help, I’m going to help,” he says.

He’s also hopeful other civilians will support veterans with PTSD, as suicide and homelessness are not uncommon. "PTSD wrecks lives,” he says. “If it doesn’t kill you, it wrecks you, and if doesn’t wreck you it dampens your life significantly.”

Yet Smith-MacDonald’s research shows that with appropriate therapy and support, it’s possible to overcome and manage PTSD and lead productive and meaningful lives. And the more we hear from veterans, the more we understand and the less stigma around the disorder.

“I think there is a tendency to remember veterans with PTSD on Nov. 11 and then forget,” she says, “because it’s not our norm in our society to think about soldiers or war.”