Former soldier opens up about PTSD, finding a way forward post-army life
Published Monday, August 28, 2017 5:26PM EDT
Ever since Matthew Bleach was a young boy, he dreamt of becoming a soldier.
In October 2006, Bleach enlisted with the Canadian Armed Forces as a medical technician; a frontline healthcare worker for the military.
"I went in it as a career," he said.
"I expected to have 25-30 year career."
In 2010, with a clean bill of health, he was deployed to Afghanistan for a six month tour.
Days before that tour wrapped up, he suffered a grand-mal seizure.
"The last thing I remember is finishing up my watch, sitting down to have breakfast and then the next thing I woke up, and was in hospital in Kandahar City on our airbase," Bleach recalled.
When Bleach returned to Canada, he was diagnosed with a one-off seizure. He was placed on employment restrictions and post deployment leave by the Canadian Armed Forces.
For nearly two years, he was stable and managed to fulfill his medic duties working in the clinic at CFB North Bay.
But then, things started to change.
"I wasn't eating. I wasn't sleeping. I was a very cranky person, very short-tempered," said Bleach.
"Not my usual self and eventually I asked and I got some help. I was given some time off and sent to see the social workers, (to) see a psychologist and down to Borden to see a psychiatrist. (I was) given some anti-depressants and that was pretty much the extent of it."
In the summer of 2012, Bleach relapsed while at work, and was diagnosed with epilepsy.
Then, more devastating news; he had post-traumatic stress disorder.
"That was basically the end of my career right there," he said.
Bleach was medically released under what the Department of National Defence calls a breach of 'Universality of Service'.
It means an employee must be fit for deployment anytime, anywhere.
"I took my final move and we moved here to Wahnapitae and my disability cheques started coming in and that was it," Bleach said.
It was a major life adjustment he and his family were not ready for.
"They always told us don't worry we'll take care of you. It's 75 percent of your salary. They forgot to tell us that they take 25 percent off for tax, so I went from taking home 67 percent after tax to taking home 55 percent," he explained.
Looking to improve his situation, Bleach contemplated going back to school, but there were roadblocks.
"The education benefits weren't designed for people like me, who already had post-secondary education."
Bleach is now a stay-at-home dad and spends time blogging on his website to raise awareness about veteran’s issues.
He's also training for the upcoming Invictus Games in September. The games are a competition for injured and ill veterans, created by Prince Harry.
It’s a chance for him to wear the maple leaf again.
"This Invictus journey has been a wonderful experience," Bleach said.
In the most recent federal election campaign, Justin Trudeau's Liberals appealed to aggrieved veterans with a promise to reinstate lifelong pensions and increase the value of compensation for an injury.
"We have a timeline and a framework that we're going to be rolling out toward the end of the year and I ask everyone to be patient because we want to get this right," said Kent Hehr, former Veterans Affairs minister .
"When we apply for benefits, it's 'deny, deny, deny, oh and then approved'. No two cases are the same, so there's a problem within Veterans Affairs and that's where things need to be changed," explained Bleach.
According to the Veterans Affairs minister things are changing. Hehr said strides are being made to help veterans transition to a post military life.
"I'm very proud that in our last budget we have gotten a career transition package that will us get our soldiers, sailors, and aviators an opportunity to go back to university after six years of service (to) allow them to get a university degree or also go get other education opportunities," Hehr said.
Last summer, Bleach along with other veterans and their families, attended a roundtable session in Sudbury.
They discussed concerns about the lack of local resources for veterans.
It was hosted by Sudbury MP Paul Lefebvre.
"There is a challenge," said Lefebvre.
"There is definitely a challenge for access to mental health services."
Complicating things for veterans in the north, there is no full service Veterans Affairs office in northeastern Ontario.
"It's not easy, but having access to veteran affairs offices that can respond to them and direct them at the right time in a short time period, again what I have heard from the veterans as well, is saying yes we may have access to services, but it’s a year from now," said Lefebvre.
"We need it now."
While politicians work on fixing the loopholes within Veterans Affairs, Bleach is back in the pool. He's focusing on getting ready for the Invictus Games; for what he calls a chance to inspire himself and his fellow comrades.
"It truly is a road to victory," he said.
"It's not just the medals or the podium. Better you, better me."