March 28, 2013 - 8:34pm By MICHAEL GORMAN Truro Bureau
Transitional housing would make life easier after military, says proponent
TRURO — Greg Swiatkowski feels he's been left to fight his own battles.
He doesn't want others to feel that way.
Swiatkowski, who recently moved to the Annapolis Valley after living in Hilden, was discharged from the navy last June because he couldn't meet universality of service requirements.
Struggling with chronic back pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, having to leave the military made everything worse.
"I didn't want to become a civilian," he said. "The 10 years in the military was the most exhilarating time in my life. … It's hard work, but it's an elite club."
In 2002, at age 35, Swiatkowski, who speaks four languages, was inspired by the post 9-11 recruiting drive and enlisted, eventually working as a naval electronics technician with a specialty in sonar acoustic equipment.
He deployed twice, once to the Persian Gulf and then as part of a NATO standing force patrolling the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea.
But what he expected to be a long military career started getting shorter following a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis in 2008.
"You lay the groundwork for a promising career with a lot of hard work and then it's taken away from you," he said.
Swiatkowski found it difficult transitioning to civilian life, partly because he had no place to go.
Staying with a friend, he struggled to find a proper balance with his medication and found day-to-day tasks daunting.
He's quit drinking and smoking and sees a psychologist. He also attended sweat lodges at the Millbrook First Nation.
In the last year, he's worked hard with his case manager to get healthy, but still feels he'd had to do most of it alone.
And Swiatkowski said he knows of 20 to 40 people dealing with similar circumstances.
What he was really missing was the sense of companionship and support he had with the military.
A native of Poland, Swiatkowski doesn't have any family in Nova Scotia other than his two children who live with their mother. The lack of a support system was difficult.
"You feel completely lost," he said. "You go from a highly structured … environment to being on your own. When you add medical problems to the mix, it is very easy to get overwhelmed and just have nowhere to turn."
That's why Swiatkowski believes it's time to consider some kind of transitional housing where people leaving the military can go for a period of time before returning to civilian life.
Suggesting Shannon Park in Dartmouth could be a good location, Swiatkowski sees it as a place where people encountering similar challenges can work through them together as well as deal with the day-to-day details of life.
Jim Lowther of Veterans Emergency Transition Services believes such a project is worthwhile. In fact, his group is trying to raise funds and awareness to make it happen in major Canadian cities, he said.
Although much of the group's work focuses on homeless veterans, Lowther said there in an increased need from people simply looking for some added support.
"A lot of the guys with PTSD, they have major illnesses, disabilities, they just can't do it (alone)," he said.
The biggest concern he has heard is people not knowing where to go for or how to access services, Lowther said.
Veterans Affairs Canada is working to change that.
Lt.-Gen. Walter Semianiw said the department spends more than $3.2 billion a year on support services and much of that focuses on injured people.
Semianiw, the assistant deputy minister of policy, communication and commemoration, was brought into the department as part of an effort to get more people in uniform in high-ranking positions at Veterans Affairs.
While he said he'd never heard about Swiatkowsi's idea, that doesn't mean it wouldn't be useful. But as a needs-based department, the need must be demonstrated, said Semianiw.
In the meantime, there are services like the joint personnel support units and a more active presence in a soldier's life before he leaves the military.
"What was happening in the past (was) the Department of Veterans Affairs, they have seen you but they saw you way too late, just before you're leaving," said Semianiw.
Now, when it appears a member might not meet universality of service, he's evaluated for up to a year. Information about being discharged includes access to social workers, return to work programs, Veterans Affairs staff and a case manager is assigned.
Upon returning home, Semianiw said vocational rehab is provided. With a focus on preparing to return to work, it includes medical, psychological and social support. Earnings loss programs are available if that isn't possible.
He acknowledged that having a support network makes a major difference. "If you have family around you, you have friends around you, you get better quicker and you stay healthy longer."
Swiatkowski knows that, too. He believes something needs to be done for the people who don't have that support system when they get home.
"When you find yourself without that support it's difficult," he said. "I would like to see something constructive come out of my experience, something positive, even if I make it easier for one other guy."
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The Canadian Veterans Advocacy Team.