'Lost souls' who once wore Canadian Forces uniforms struggle to survive
By Randy Turner, Winnipeg Free Press March 10, 2012 4:35 PM
WINNIPEG — Kim Gribben stood outside the Salvation Army shelter just off Main Street last November. Night was falling.
She lit a cigarette while a photographer snapped pictures with other homeless people huddled around the shelter’s front door.
"I feel like a model," Gribben chuckled, quite aware of the irony of the grim surroundings.
Gribben is a tiny woman, in her early 40s although she could pass for 10 years younger.
She doesn’t look homeless. She doesn’t look like a Canadian Forces veteran, either.
Yet she is both.
Her story is complicated, not unlike the predicament of the faceless, anonymous veterans who can be found living lost lives across the country, largely on the periphery of society and help.
But only if you look for them. And that’s the rub: In most cases, no one is looking for them. And in most cases, neither do they care to be found.
Or they simply don’t know where or how — or are too proud — to seek assistance in a world where they are scattered like spent cartridges.
"She’s such a lost soul," said Lisa Cundal, who first met Gribben just over 23 years ago at boot camp at CFB Cornwallis, now a defunct training base in Deep Brook, N.S.
"She’s a good person. She has a kind heart. But that’s my fear, that she will be lost forever."
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the number of homeless veterans in Canada. In the U.S., where soldiers are returning from conflicts in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq to a nation burdened with double-digit inflation in many states, it’s estimated that a quarter of all homeless people are military veterans. In 2009, a report conducted by the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans concluded as many as 200,000 American veterans may be homeless on any given night and that every year twice as many veterans than average people experience homelessness (the U.S. Veterans Affairs department estimate was 131,000).
However, it’s equally apparent the problem exists with former members of the Canadian Armed Forces, who have served both combat and peacekeeping missions dating back to the Korean War. The only reported estimate, offered by the Niagara-based Canadian Veterans Advocacy group, is a figure of 3,000.
Or about 3,000 too many, according to veterans groups — most in their infancy — who are spearheading initiatives to deal with an issue they believe is only going to become more worrisome as troops return from Afghanistan in the wake of a 10-year insurgency.
"I wouldn’t call it an epidemic," Don Leonardo, CEO of veteransofcanada.ca, a grassroots organization founded to reach out to homeless veterans on the streets of Calgary. "I’d call it disgusting. If you can’t take care of the veterans, how can you take care of the homeless, period?"
In late 2010, as many as 100 veterans were believed to be living on the streets of Toronto. In response, a program involving Veterans Affairs Canada, the Royal Canadian Legion and a Good Ministries shelter called Leave the Streets Behind was established.
At the announcement, Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn told reporters: "Our servicemen and women have always stood up for Canada’s values. It is our responsibility to be there for them when they need us the most."
Blackburn said the program, which included installing a VA case manager to work full-time in the shelter to identify and assist veterans "will help us meet our sacred duty to those veterans who may desperately need our assistance during difficult times in their lives," he added.
Yet there’s mounting evidence there are squadrons of homeless veterans spread out across the country.
Another outreach project conducted in Vancouver’s notoriously poverty-stricken Downtown East Side neighbourhood identified 33 homeless veterans in the summer of 2010. All of them were men, mostly in their mid-30s.
In Calgary, Leonardo, who served as a Canadian peacekeeper in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, started out volunteering to feed the homeless at a soup kitchen near a downtown area called nicknamed "Crack Park," only to be unnerved by finding too many familiar faces at the other end of the ladle.
Leonardo claims to have identified more than 30 veterans on the streets in Calgary in the last few years.
"Homelessness for veterans is basically suicide," he said. "They’ve given up. They have dependencies on drugs, alcohol, gambling. Whether it’s death by cop, death by your own hand, death by homelessness, it’s all the same thing."
In many ways, Gribben is different. But she has slipped through the same cracks.
Gribben has spent most of the past year at the Salvation Army hostel, the last stop in a downward spiral that began not long after the daughter of a military family from Pictou County, N.S. joined the Canadian Forces at a recruitment office in Halifax, fresh out of high school.
"It’s just a strong tradition in our family to be in the military," said Gribben, whose father, mother and cousin all served. "That’s always something I wanted to do, go somewhere to be part of something bigger than myself."
Gribben soon discovered, however, she’d make a mistake. She passed training as a medic, but couldn’t adapt to the rigours of army life made more difficult, she said, by a commanding officer who was an "old dinosaur who didn’t like women in the military."
"There are some people who are good with the field environment," she admitted. "I’m not. There was a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress. That whole two years was hellish. I wanted to get out and get away from the crazy harassment. It was too much."
Gribben was floundering. Fellow recruits would watch over her, telling each other, "Someone check Kim."
"She wasn’t stupid," Cundal explained. "She’s just very scattered. She was smart enough to pass a six-month course on medical assistance, but she couldn’t set her alarm clock. We thought it was her being nervous or young. Maybe we should have known something was wrong."
Gribben did. She went to her superior and confessed: "I think I need help. Something is wrong but I don’t know what it is."
In 1992, she asked for and received her release. There was no psychological diagnosis or analysis provided before she left the Forces, which is now standard procedure. Gribben did not serve overseas.
By that time, however, she had met her future spouse at CFB Petawawa in the Ottawa Valley. The couple had three children and moved from bases in Goose Bay, N.L. to Cold Lake, Alta. to 17 Wing in Winnipeg in 2002. Gribben and her husband, who has since been relocated to CFB Borden in Ontario with the children, were divorced in 2005.
Gribben concedes she suffers from depression and anxiety. She cannot hold down a full-time job. She’s currently on long-term disability, but has no inkling about her future. "No man’s land," she said.
Still, Gribben’s former military family is still saying, "Someone check Kim." Although retired after a 10-year stint, Cundal, who still resides in Petawawa, contacted the Halifax-based Veterans Emergency Transition Services (VETS), based in Halifax, in an effort to get Gribben some assistance, financial or psychological.
VETS’s mission statement is straightforward: No veterans should be on the street, regardless of where or how long they served.
"What we say is, ’One veteran is too many,’ " said Jim Lowther, who served two tours in Bosnia in the 1990s and was a member of the Canadian Forces boarding party into Afghanistan. "We shouldn’t have our veterans who served their country be on the streets, period."
Lowther helped found VETS to assist veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and soon discovered PTSD was a direct link to most of those who ended up homeless.
At least, eventually.
"We were told here (by local authorities) there were no homeless veterans. Zero. None," Lowther said.
Undaunted, Lowther and a few fellow VETS members began to canvass Halifax shelters. Within a few months, they’d found a dozen homeless veterans. "You have to do more than put out flyers. You have to talk to people. And veterans . . . with us it’s easier to find each other. It takes one to know one, right?"
For example, Leonardo said he can spot a veteran simply by gait. "They will have that straight soldier walk," he noted. "They’ll never get rid of that. It’s been drilled into them."
Cundal, whose husband also served 24 years with the Canadian Forces before retiring, agreed soldiers have the innate ability to recognize their own.
"You have to look past the dirt and the long hair or the lack of uniform," she said. "They might be wearing rings (with insignia of their former unit). They might be wearing a patch that says, ’Not all wounds are visible.’ I could find 10 of them in an hour in downtown Ottawa."
Or like 18-year-old Matt Leppik, you find one of Canada’s lost soldiers in a bus shelter at the corner of River Avenue and Osborne Street one morning in the dead of a Winnipeg winter.
Just two weeks ago, Leppik walked into the shelter and noticed all the trash usually scattered inside was piled neatly in a corner. Then he noticed an older man — perhaps 55 or 60, with balding grey hair — slumped on a bench.
"Can you believe this?" the man said, taking off his tuque to reveal an open gash on his forehead. "I was bottled."
"Why?" Leppik asked.
"Because I’m homeless," the man replied.
Leppik was immediately struck by the older man’s demeanour.
"He spoke very clearly," Leppik recalled. "I could tell he was very educated. It threw me because he was sitting there in five layers of clothing and . . . not looking so hot."
The man was clearly irritated, though, and pulled away his several layers of jackets and sweaters to reveal an Airborne tattoo, featuring a Canadian flag, and proudly proclaimed, "I f.. ing earned this tattoo."
Leppik knew what he was looking at. By sheer coincidence, his father is a captain at 17 Wing, an air navigator with more than 30 years of service, including a tour in Afghanistan. He also knew the tattoo had seen a lot of kilometres.
"It was his permanent badge of honour," Leppik said.
But his temporary home was a bus shelter.
Said the teenager: "It was really upsetting seeing him (the veteran) in that state. It chokes me up just talking about it. He was full to the brim with pride. This is not how it’s supposed to be."
Leppik kept talking to the stranger and offered to get him a sandwich at a nearby sub shop. The wounded veteran was indignant. He didn’t want a free lunch. Yet Leppik let his bus to work at Earls restaurant go by. He would catch the next one.
The younger man discerned the man with the airborne tattoo was "a little delusional," talking about certain authorities that were out to get him. That his wife was staying at Osborne House because he couldn’t trust his temper.
Leppik eventually got on his bus to work, but can’t seem to shake the experience.
"There are genuine heroes out there who can’t help but be homeless," he said. "I wouldn’t want to live one day in that guy’s head. I could smell the PTSD coming off him. But he was trying to tough it out."
Leppik told his mother, Joan, about the incident. She tracked down Lowther and within days, members of the outreach program at 17 Wing had volunteered to hit the streets looking for the man Leppik had described.
So far, no luck.
Little wonder trying to find destitute or homeless veterans can be difficult, never mind coming up with possible solutions.
Noted Leonardo: "They’re not your typical homeless."
Many shun the crowded nature of overburdened shelters. Some couch-surf, with no fixed address. Others simply camp out using their survival skills.
The majority are addicts. Almost all of them suffer from one or another form of sociological or psychological disorders.
"There’s addictions involved here," said Michael Blais, president of the Canadian Veterans Advocacy organization. "Very serious depression. Bipolarism. One moment you’re fine, the next minute you’re not. And the consequence to the family life and their kids . . . and here we are.
"Where does it end? It ends on the street. Usually after something terrible has happened to your family life, where you’ve lost everything. That’s what we’re fighting for, to get to these people."
The fledgling CVA last year initiated a Pennies for Veterans campaign to help raise funds for the homeless.
"We can make a remarkable difference in these guys’ lives," Blais insisted. "But it gets down to the fact that there has to be that commitment there. For many years that commitment was absent. There was an acceptance of PTSD, but not a recognition of PTSD of how serious (it is) and how many veterans have been affected . . . by their tours . . .. and the genocidal terror many have witnessed. It’s not combat but it’s terrible to witness.
"How can you expect a 20-year-old Canadian who lives in God’s country where we don’t have hatred at that level to go through a village where people have done horrible things to each other, and to their women and their children?
"We need to tell them times have changed. There’s help now. You were abandoned but you’re not abandoned any longer. Maybe we can eliminate these demons in your life and bring you back."
Perhaps. Gribben can’t claim to have suffered from witnessing horrors in far-off conflicts. But she served, according to veterans like Cundal and Lowther. She counts.
She recently left the Salvation Army hostel to bunk with friends, paying her rent with long-term disability. But her future is no less uncertain.
"I’m not sure what (anyone) can do to help," she said with a shrug. "I hope they can help with something. It could be a lot worse but, man . . . it would seem hopeless from my angle. The last thing I wanted to do was be a long-distance mother."
Veterans like Lowther and Blais and Leonardo spend their days now trying to find soldiers who once wore the Canadian uniform. Ironically, in places like Afghanistan, it was the enemy that was invisible. Now it’s the ones they want to help who are so hard to see.
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