Recognition a humbling experience for retired veterans

Sheridan Ellingson joined the army in 1989 because he wanted to serve.

Public recognition wasn’t a priority for the 20-year veteran, who served on two peacekeeping tours and spent five years as an instructor before retiring from the military in 2009. Nevertheless, he found himself in the spotlight on Saturday as one of six local veterans honoured with Quilts of Valour at Prince Albert’s third annual Walk for Veterans.

“It’s very comforting and heartwarming,” said Ellingson, who grew up in Moose Jaw, but moved to Tisdale with his family after retiring. “I’ve been following the Quilts of Valour for a couple of years now on their Facebook page and love reading the stories of other peoples’ careers—where they are and what they’ve done. It really excites me to see how they get it, so it’s an honour to get it as well.”

Ellingson was recognized for serving as a peacekeeper in Cyprus and the former Yugoslavia, while fellow veterans Carey Vandall, Marc Melynchuk, Todd Wilson and Chris McKeaveney were recognized for service in the Medak Pocket in 1993. Dean Blanchard also received a quilt for serving a rotation with the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) Croatia.

Retired veterans Dave Bona and Mike Rude were on hand to present the quilts. Rude has travelled across Canada advocating for veterans as part of an educational tour. Ellingson said it was important to have him up in Prince Albert.

“It makes it even more special,” Ellingson said. “I’ve known him for many years. We served together, and he’s on his own journey now with his Rude Awakening Tour. Seeing him and having him give it to me, it’s even more honouring.”

While most communities held virtual veterans walks this year, organizers in Prince Albert decided to host a socially distanced version too. Proceeds from the event went towards Courageous Companions, an organization that provides service dogs to military veterans and first responders.

Ellingson said he hoped the event would help veterans and first responder realize they don’t have to battle the stresses of the job by themselves. If they have any mental health concerns, he explained, help is there.

“We do our best to help support each other,” he said. “I like to spend my time helping people—either personally or from a far—who need a helping hand. That’s the type of attitude we try to give each other.

“We always say, ‘it’s teamwork with the military.’ You might not be in uniform anymore, but we consider ourselves part of the team, and we want to work that way. That’s what we learned in the military—you’ve got to work as a team.”

Some of those lessons have been difficult. The Rude Awakening Tour, for example started as a way to advocate for veterans suffering from side-effects caused by mefloquine, an anti-malaria drug used by the Canadians military up until 2017. Mental health concerns like post-traumatic stress and operational stress injuries are also a concern.

Ellingson said the military is a great career, and some days he wishes he could go back. However, he also said there are problems, especially as soldiers retire and leave the Canadian Forces.

“It’s really stressful on people retiring from the military because of the complications, the bureaucracy and the time it takes for them to process their (claims),” he explained. “I have friends now who are just getting out of the military who I’ve known for years, and I hear their stories and it’s adding more stress to their releasing. There’s not much you can do about it. It’s easy to point fingers at different aspects of who and why and where, but the reality is they’re struggling with that.”

Supporters who gathered at Saturday’s walk are grateful for the contributions veterans made on and off the battlefield.

Nathan Phillips spent more than a decade as a firefighter with the Tisdale Fire Department. He said first responders are starting to identify similar mental health concerns in their profession. He’s thankful so many veterans are willing to talk about the issue openly.

“I’m noticed in the last five years where the awareness around mental health has come a long way and I think a lot of that awareness came from the Canadian military’s experiences in Afghanistan,” he said. “There started being a lot of mental health issues with soldiers returning from that war, so there’s been a lot learned, and of course now some of that knowledge is being applied towards first responders—police, fire, EMS, and all of that. There’s been some tough lessons learned, but I think we have come a long way.”

Despite the positives, Phillips said there is still a long way to go. He was one of the firefighters who responded to the Humboldt Bronco’s bus crash in 2018, and left the department shortly thereafter. He said not everyone understands how severe mental health trauma can be, and first responders have had to look to veterans for help. Nevertheless, he’s confident things are getting better.

“I would like to believe that as new generations come along they’ll be a lot better educated as far as the effects that words can have on other people,” he said. “I think there’s much more awareness about helping others, and of course looking out for your own mental well-being at the same time.”

Members from local mental health peer support group What’s Important Now (WIN) helped organize Saturday’s walk. Facilitator and group leader Michelle McKeaveney the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to make some changes, but didn’t deter them from hosting the event.

McKeaveney said the event not only honours veterans and first responders for their contributions, it also helps them realize they aren’t alone. Both groups have become more open about mental health challenges over the last four years, she explained, and that bodes well for the future.

“I think we’re going to be in a lot better shape as long as resources get built to help people who are now ready to tackle their demons,” she explained. “They need safe place to go to. That’s what our lack is right now. We need inpatient treatment and we need more services.”

Like Phillips, McKeaveney sees the next generation of first responders and veterans as a positive influence. She said they’re more comfortable talking about their experiences, and eager to do things differently than those who came before them.

“I am very proud that some of these younger people are taking the resources they can find,” she said. “They’re demanding answers for others. They’re asking for support so they can have a better quality of care than some of us who were diagnosed a long time ago and had nothing.”

McKeaveney said they’re hoping to help people who aren’t veterans or first responders too. They’ve created a support group called Face Everything and Rise (FEAR) to help anyone struggling with mental trauma. The group meets every Wednesday at 7 p.m. For more information, visit the group’s Facebook page, or send a text to 306-981-4371.

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