March 1, 2015 - Milton Canadian Champion
Milton resident and army veteran Fred Smith has fought many battles in his life, in war zones both figurative and real. A survivor of alcoholism, drug addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder, Smith has returned to the front line as both advocate and activist for veterans suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues.
For the past 10 years, he has worked with more than 3,000 people — most of them veterans — in dire need of intervention in their lives with his organization Veterans Helping Veterans.
“When I sleep at night, I still dream about dead bodies,” says Smith, seated in uniform on the sofa at his modest Milton home — the first real home he has had since living on the streets across Canada for close to 25 years.
The walls in his home are covered with military memorabilia, frame next to frame filled with paintings, posters, and photographs of his relatives, his heroes, and himself with other armed forces personnel.
Nearby is Smith’s scrapbook, which he has filled with journal entries, photos and clippings — reminders of the distance he has travelled on his journey to health.
In his pocket is his Royal Canadian Regiment commemorative coin, its full circumference marked by handmade notches, each symbolizing a year of sobriety.
Smith was raised in a military family in Nova Scotia. He wanted to do noble things in his life and chose to be a soldier like his father, his uncles and his four brothers.
He joined the army cadets, then the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment.
At just 24 years of age, Corporal Frederick Smith was recruited to serve as a United Nations peacekeeper in the disputed territory between Syria and Israel.
Part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights in 1979 through 1980, Smith says he saw things during his deployment in the Middle East that he still can’t talk about. The bodies he sees in his dreams were piled near the Syrian border at Al Quinatra. The streets in Syria were especially dangerous at that time. “I saw people killed. When I was in Damascus at night, alone on the street, I was like a young child. I would whistle in the dark to feel less afraid.”
He can’t help but think about the innocent people in war zones, especially children.
Smith says the distress he felt while deployed in the Golan intensified with every terrifying experience and like many soldiers, he self-medicated using readily-available and inexpensive alcohol to salve his pain. His trauma became acute, and he was urgently repatriated to his unit in 1980 and sent home to counselling and probation at CFB Gagetown.
But Smith says he feels he didn’t receive the help he needed.
He says he was broken, felt confused and he was drinking.
He says after he learned that he wouldn’t be reposted, he was so despondent that he told his superiors to get him out of the military.
Smith had been filled with pride when he joined the army, interested in being an exceptional soldier, yet within three months of leaving the military at the age of 27, he was homeless.
He says he moved repeatedly across Canada over the course of the next 25 years, never managing to go more than five days without drinking and never managing to maintain relationships or his health.
He turned to mitigating the nightmares, the memories and the suffering with hard drugs. He had marriages, children, and more failed relationships. He was in and out of 11 treatment centres. Never was mental illness recognized, he says.
At one point while in recovery, Smith was sponsoring 17 inmates in two correctional facilities located in Saskatchewan.
Somehow through it all, Smith set out to help others, and he managed to maintain some distant connections with his children. His own mental and physical health continued to decline. Smith says he lived on the streets of Vancouver, Halifax and Toronto. Then he found himself living in and out of men’s shelters and support groups in Oakville and Hamilton.
Tragedy found him a number of times. His brother died, then his father died and Smith says he attempted suicide. “I tried to kill myself three times. I couldn’t live and I couldn’t die.”
He says the breaking point was in 2006, the day one of his sons committed suicide. Smith drove himself to Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington. He was wracked with pain, with the memories of his mistakes, his shame, and the notion that he was a loser.
Smith says he was seen by a psychiatrist, who recognized that he was significantly injured due to the violence he witnessed and the stress he endured in the Golan.
It was the first time the stigma was removed, the mental illness named. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Over the course of the next two years, Smith started learning to live his life one day at a time. He sought support at Homewood Health Centre in Guelph where he connected with a team of healthcare professionals. There he says he began his work helping other veterans with mental health, alcohol, and addiction issues in a meaningful and effective manner. The support and camaraderie was instant, and in turn Smith had a moment of clarity, as he calls it — a sense of hope, purpose and worth.
He made a deal with his God, repeating the phrase, “I’ll help you if you help me.” It was a fleeting moment, a flimsy reed that he grabbed on to. The fear, shame and stigma seemed to melt away. He would be freed by helping others to find their way in what can be a terrifying world for veterans facing mental health diagnoses, dealing with PTSD, homelessness, addiction and alcohol-related issues.
Smith founded his organization, Veterans Helping Veterans. He funded his work with the money he received from his own disability claims. He has kept his promises to himself over the last decade. Each day is punctuated by an imperative routine that includes an affirmation, self-checks, a support meeting or appointment and fitness training. Smith is also mandated to reach out to at least one veteran every single day. He believes his workflow to be simple; he directly connects veterans to resources available to them, resources he says veterans are largely unaware they’re entitled to — no bureaucracy, very little politics, no judgment.
If a veteran needs help, he or she needs simply to contact Fred to get the ball rolling. How does he find veterans in need? Legwork, lots and lots of legwork.
Smith spends his days visiting shelters, legions, treatment centres and soup kitchens. He walks the streets of Halton and Hamilton where many suffering veterans are homeless, faced with a myriad of service-related issues and in need of intervention. Then he speaks to them, about himself. Generously and honestly he shares his pain and his experience. “They’d know if I was lying and then they’d never trust me.”
So Smith tells them the truth about his struggles. He shows them that there’s help and hope after darkness, because he’s the proof. He gives them his contact information. They call, sometimes just to talk, other times to be connected with immediate help.
At first, Smith helps to identify their most immediate need — food, shelter, healthcare. Then he connects them with Veterans Affairs Canada.
Smith doesn’t always know what happens once the people he helps move through the process. He speaks modestly of those who have reconnected with him about their progress — at least 120 people whose lives are greatly improved thanks to his help.
Smith states that local Legions must empower their members to reach out to other veterans in crisis. He believes Legions must start holding regular service workshops for veterans to create grassroots outreach programs by region.
He says he also believes Legion members should to be armed with information and the means to reach other local veterans in need.
Smith works closely with veterans of the police services too, and he speaks fondly of the camaraderie that exists between police and the armed forces.
Smith says he’s grateful for the support his work has received from across Canada. “I’ve had support from so many people like Lieutenant-General David Millar, Rick Hansen, Julian Fantino, Pinball Clemens, Ron Maclean, Major Jay Feyko — just some of the people who encourage me to continue the work I am doing.”
Smith says he also receives tremendous support locally, especially from Mayor Gord Krantz and Halton MP Lisa Raitt.
But, there’s much more work to be done. In 2014, there was a record number of suicides in the Canadian Armed Forces and Smith surmises that many more attempted suicides, mental health and substance abuse problems exist that aren’t reported among veterans.
Often burdened by trauma or physical injury, many returning veterans have major difficulties navigating life back at home, says Smith.
But people are taking notice, he says. “Films like Unbroken and American Sniper, that’s PTSD.”
Smith says he doesn’t know what recovery looks like entirely. He’s still sensitive to loud noises, yelling and to smells that are triggers for him. When he’s triggered, he knows what he needs to do and he turns to his tools to work through the pain. He’s still seeking peace. “I don’t suffer anymore, I struggle. Big difference.”
When Smith visits the Victoria Park cenotaph in Milton, he’s usually alone. It’s at the cenotaph where he reflects on his life, pays respect to his uncles, and where he mourns. He prays for the future and for all the veterans who are still suffering one way or another. “I got a call yesterday from a soldier I met. Those are the moments where I’ve made a difference.”